There was a time, before polypropylene and gore-tex, before X Games and Sandy Hill Pittman, when wilderness adventure was an esoteric pastime reserved for the few. A certain kind of social elite—the old-money kind—took delight in donning wool overshirts and half-rubber boots fashioned by Leon Leonwood Bean and stomping into the backcountry, shotgun or fishing rod in hand, to do battle with the elements. Or rather, not to do battle so much as gamely joust, as on a squash court.
The world of old-school adventure still exists. But it's not easy to find, and it's still not open to everyone. To tap into this social stratum you need to have the right contacts, a certain amount of cash, and a lot of patience.
You also have to put up with a good deal of discomfort. At the moment, I'm sitting in the back of a two-seat Piper Super Cub as it roars along the rugged Alaskan coast, banking to avoid the fog-shrouded cliffs. I'm heading for the frayed end of civilization's grid, a place of persistent drizzle, of insidious damp, of endless mud, and of temperatures better suited to keeping vegetables crisp than keeping tourists happy.
Twenty feet below us, waves are churning into white water. We're so low that I have to remind myself we're not in some insanely fast speedboat, but a single-engine plane.
It's been an hour since we started heading south from King Salmon, a town of 350 on the northern end of the Alaska Peninsula. Most of the flight has been over tundra, a table-flat land dotted with cymbal-shaped lakes and threaded with serpentine streams. When we reached the flanks of the Aleutian Range, a wall of rock draped in storm clouds, pilot Sam Egli began working his way in and out of the valleys, looking for a clear way through. Finally he made it over a pass, and dropped into a sunlit glen.
Now, dead ahead, past the shoreline, another wall of clouds is rearing up. Down, down, down, Sam plunges, aiming for clear air just above the bay. His head whips back and forth, eyes straining for glimpses of rocks that will either guide us to safety or rip us to bits. A gust jolts us out of our seats, slams us back down. Again. And again. I focus on the whiteness where the horizon ought to be and concentrate on not getting sick.
The turbulence fades; so does the fog. And once more I can see the cliffs we're skirting. We race on, dodging seagulls, and then Sam climbs and banks into a bay where the receding tide has laid bare a broad patch of sand. Down we float, bump on silt, come to a halt. The door pops open and I clamber out on wavering knees.
A burly man strides up to shake my hand. "Welcome," he says, in a ripe Southern drawl. "I'm J. W. Smith." He takes my bags and leads me up a set of damp rocks buried stepwise in the muddy hillside. At the top we find an encampment of canvas shelters hidden in the undergrowth of alder bushes. J.W. sits me down in the kitchen tent next to a woodstove and hands me a glass of single-malt scotch.
I've made it. I feel like Heinrich Harrer reaching Tibet, or Matteo Ricci entering the Forbidden City. I've joined an exclusive club just by being here. This is more than a special, very remote land. This is a world apart, a place of strange and unique customs. This is the real deal. This is the great outdoors, old-school. This is adventure camp for millionaires.
J. W. SMITH WASN'T BORN INTO WEALTH, but he has an innate gift for getting along with rich people. A Tennessee native, he moved to Alaska 30 years ago looking for adventure and wound up working for the state's Department of Fish & Game. He went undercover for a time, busting poaching rings all over Alaska. When he figured he'd had enough of government work, he opened a hunting-and-fishing lodge with some partners. That operation gradually evolved into Rod & Gun Resources, an outfitter with a concession to operate inside the 4.3 million-acre Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge. Wealthy clients recommended J.W. to their friends, and before long, J.W. had a hefty chunk of the Forbes 400 flying into his camp.
"The richer they are, the less they complain," says J.W., now 57. "If it's cold, if it rains all week, if their tent doesn't have every amenity they're used to back home—they don't say a word. But if the water's too high for the fishing to be good, and they know that I knew and didn't tell them—why, then they give me high holy hell."
This is certainly no place for complainers. One hundred wild miles separate us from the nearest pay phone and refrigerator. This is the outdoors of the rugged and demanding kind.
But it is a paradise all the same. When the rain stops in an hour or so, and the cloud ceiling lifts, a valley of riotous green materializes out of the mist. Across the way, a tower of volcanic cinder juts up from the tidal flats; farther on, a sloping ridge carries the crest of a 100-foot cliff down toward the ocean. There are no houses, no roads, not so much as a trail, except for those carved over the ages by moose, or caribou, or lynx, or bear. Only the tallest peaks have names, and though the bay is called Nakalilok, the river that feeds it remains anonymous.
The elite once came here for blood sport, to hunt the wildlife and fish the trout and salmon from the streams. But times are changing, even among members of the old school, and J.W. doesn't offer hunting anymore. "Animals are worth more alive than dead, aesthetically and financially," he says. Guests still come to fish, but not as single-mindedly as before. This week's package, for instance, is billed as a "wilderness safari," combining fishing with hiking and helicopter rides over the countryside.
As I relax by the fire, Sam roars off again. He returns four hours later with three more guests: Tom, a retired brigadier general, and two Georges, father and son. The elder is the former president of a prestigious New England university. The junior is principal of a charter high school in Boston. All three are intelligent, educated, and reserved yet affable. By 11 p.m. we're sitting around the woodstove playing cribbage, certain that Sam won't make it over the mountains again tonight.
Then we hear the buzz of a plane. Amazed, we walk outside to watch it circle and land. Four guests stumble out: Mike, a Seattle investment banker; his daughter, Courtenay; his son, Brinton; and his niece, Kristin. The kids are all blond, in their twenties, and robustly healthy-looking.
"Was it a bad ride?" I ask as they emerge into the clearing.
"Oh, no!" says Courtenay, her face as clean and angular as a new bar of Ivory soap. "We had some beautiful scenery." She spits on the ground and pushes past me into the kitchen tent.