When I got into that little plane in a remote corner of Alaska, I didn't know that the guy next to me had raced a Rothmans Porsche 962 at Le Mans, won in IMSA GTP in the Dyson 962 above, and competed in both Can-Am and CART. Also, he was my pilot.
The man was Drake Olson. Look him up at FlyDrake out of Haines, Alaska. Ask anyone around and they know him. You might be around Haines when a small blue Cessna 206 zooms overhead and the local next to you says "There goes Drake." Or you might be riding through town when a beige '80s Jetta roars by and the local repeats "There goes Drake."
He doesn't cut a particularly imposing figure — a small guy on his way to becoming a old man, bright eyes behind his grey hair. There's that particular attitude you see in transplants up in Alaska. He's always laid back, always relaxed, but when there's something dangerous at hand he's completely focused, serious, and direct.
Locals, he tells me when we're in the air, don't often use his services. They live in town but they almost never go up with him over the peaks and glaciers around Glacier Bay. Visitors, tourists, ski bums. They're the ones who charter his flights. He takes them up into the mountains and lands them right on the tops of glaciers, leaves them, and comes back in a number of days. Throughout the whole fight, he chats with my friend's friend, a glacier guide working nearby, about where he leaves the most adventurous skiers. The crags and faces Drake points to as 'the best spots' are unbelievable.
I still think I saw him wrong, his finger aiming at what looks like a vertical white drop leading into bottomless pits of despair, high up at the top of some glacial bowl.
It wasn't until weeks later that I googled the guy and saw his record sheet: one race in CART in '83 at Road America, one race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans partnered with the great Vern Schuppan in a Rothmans Porsche 962, three wins in IMSA GTP back in '85 with Dyson Racing in their now-historic white/yellow/red 962. Pole positions and fastest laps in a factory AAR Toyota 88c, one of Dan Gurney's legendary Group C cars, four years later.
None of these were easy cars to drive. They were all characterized by massively turbocharged engines and tricky, high-g ground effects aerodynamics. Here's Olson at Le Mans in '86 when the earliest iteration of Porsche's PDK transmission sends him spinning.
I'm not going to say I wasn't surprised to find out the man drove some of my dream cars in some of the most competitive years for endurance racing, but I won't say I didn't believe it. The guy had that air of an old racing driver: calm, focused, well-versed in really dirty jokes.
And the man can fly. We were cresting the Davidson glacier god knows how high up and we hit snow. It's September, the very last warm, t-shirt weather days of 2013 down at the base of the fjord. But up here we're in a huge bowl of mountain peaks, right in the clouds. 'The wind here is a real bitch,' he says and the Cessna starts to feel very small.
I think my friend, who was working down at the base of the Davidson as a guide for the summer, said it best. You know how when you're in a commercial jet, and there's turbulence, and you feel like you drop a few feet in your seat? Flying up there in a five-passenger plane and that turbulence feels like it drops you twenty. The plane tilts and weaves, and Drake points us up. I feel my stomach rise into my throat before we level out again, and the violence of the wind settles. I'm not sure if I see a grin on Drake's face, I must have imagined it.
We were only flight seeing, a hundred bucks a person for an hour in the air, so we start to head back. It's hard to process what I'd seen. Some of the most picturesque glaciers in Alaska, receding and crumbling as the years go by. Huge valleys made of ice, covered in what look like static brown rivers. Drake points to a wide open clearing in one. Says he landed there once for a hike. Says it wasn't easy. Says the ground is nothing but a thin layer of gravel over sheet ice, and it's like waking on marbles for miles.
He turns the plane on its side, the horizon leans over at what seems like 45 degrees, and we bank back out over the fjord. There's a waterfall spilling out of a glacier glued onto the side of a mountain to our left and the landing strip at Haines comes into view on the right. We touch down and my stomach starts to make its way back below my lungs.
We pay him and shake hands, but we can't quite leave just yet. My friends and I are still glowing, high on adrenaline, still trying to process how unbelievably gorgeous it is among the mountain tops. For us, it's something absolutely extraordinary. For him, a prototype racer turned Alaskan glacier pilot, it's just another day doing what he loves.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove, Porsche (Porsche 962 in topshot, the car in which Olson won at Lime Rock in '85)