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During a tranquil moment at Lake Hood, the world’s largest seaplane base, a Piper PA-14 skims a watery runway (Adam Wright / FlightDeckImages)

Water World

Where airplanes have floats, and everybody flies.

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Anchorage is a city of airports. Approaching it from Alaska’s Cook Inlet, you come first to Ted Stevens Anchorage International, a great scissor of long runways and a steady stream of in- and outbound heavies. Its name memorializes the state’s longtime U.S. senator who died in a 2010 seaplane crash in southwest Alaska, and who helped make this mid-size city on the southern rim of the American Arctic one of the world’s busiest air-cargo operations. Cargo and passenger aircraft make more than 90,000 landings here a year.

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A bit farther on lies Merrill Field, a general aviation hub that opened in 1930, was Anchorage’s first airport, and is still municipally owned and operated. More than 1,200 tie-down spaces line the taxiways, and the field is home to nearly 900 aircraft.

Farther north, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson hosts a flock of F-22 Raptors, which come and go, small as bees in the distance.

But what many regard as the aeronautical jewel in this air-minded city’s crown lives on a pair of shallow, lung-shaped lakes—smaller Spenard to the east, Hood to the west—scooped out by ancient glaciers as they crept toward the sea. In 1939 the two lakes were united by a dredged channel, and a 2,200-foot east-west gravel runway was laid south of Lake Spenard. That strip was replaced some 30 years later by a north-south gravel runway still in use today. (Gravel is kinder than concrete to tundra tires.)

The facility’s true destiny lay with seaplanes. During the 1950s, the seaplane capacity was enlarged and five watery fingers were carved from the north side of the connecting channel. A control tower, a rarity among seaplane operations, regulated Lake Hood traffic from 1954 to 1977, when it was folded into the Anchorage International complex, and Lake Hood’s traffic came under the control of International’s tower.

According to Clark Wolverton, interim operations manager at the Anchorage tower, the airport has one controller answering Lake Hood calls, and several others for all the other arrivals and departures. Unlike the old days, when most seaplanes had about four dials on their panels, aircraft using Lake Hood must have a radio to talk to the tower and should have a transponder, although many still do not.

“It usually works pretty well,” says Wolverton. “You have professional pilots, military, and less seasoned pilots out of Lake Hood. You learn to talk to your audience.”

On Friday afternoons in summer, Lake Hood swarms with outbound aircraft, both floated and wheeled, heading for cabins and ponds and gravel spits in the Alaskan bush. The heavies lumber in from both halves of the globe, one after the other. Merrill becomes a hive within a hive, while the odd Raptor sails down Knik Arm across the Lake Hood departure route, bound for Elmendorf. The tower talk on a Friday afternoon in summer makes one think of jugglers with a dozen eggs in the air.

Like International, Lake Hood is owned and operated by the state, not the city, with much of the maintenance work provided by the larger airport. Taxiway Victor , blocked by a radio-activated sliding wire gate, lets aircraft taxi between the two. According to John Stocker, Lake Hood’s interim airport manager (before retired Air Force fighter pilot Tim Coons came aboard last October), aircraft without radios sometimes follow a radio-equipped comrade, slipping through the open gate behind him.

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