Published: May 2009
By Jeff Wise
Pursuing the old-money adventure mystique on the unforgiving Alaska peninsula.
A saga of wet wool, scotch whisky, and kamikaze salmon
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.
WE SETTLE IN AS THE LIGHT FADES. Each shelter sleeps two and is built of aluminum ribs covered in tan heavy-duty synthetic canvas, with clear plastic flaps for doors and windows. Furnishings are spare: camp cots and sleeping bags for beds, a plastic bedside table, a plastic box to stow gear. On one side of the kitchen is a mudroom where a second woodstove dries out boots and sodden clothes. On the other side stands a wash area with a sink and a shower heated by propane. Several dozen yards away is an old-fashioned outhouse. Simple as they might seem, these arrangements rate as fantastically lavish when you consider that, under park rules, every bolt and scrap has to be packed away at the end of each season.
In the morning the weather is much improved. There is still no sunshine, but the rain has stopped, the fog has melted away, and the clouds have risen to 1,000 feet. The landscape reveals itself teasingly, bit by bit. Now we can see the top of the far ridgeline, a shark-tooth precipice of wind-scoured rock daubed with remnants of last year's snowfall. To the north, the base of the Chiginagak volcano appears, the vibrant blue of the glacier standing out against the thick white snow that blankets the active caldera.
At breakfast—flapjacks, scrambled eggs, bacon—I share a table with Kristin, Courtenay, and Brinton. The cousins banter cheerfully, loudly, unabashedly. The volume subsides only when they're dishing about another guest. The elder George, it seems, was grumbling yesterday in King Salmon about the delays in Sam's flying schedule.
"I don't like complainers," Courtenay hisses.
After the meal, J.W. announces that conditions are perfect for fishing. A school of 50,000 chum and pink salmon is hanging just offshore, waiting for the moment to start upstream. It's still too early for the salmon to run, but a few impatient ones—a thousand or so—have pushed forward into a holding pool below the camp and are so irritable they lunge at anything that comes near. The chums in particular are gorgeous, up to a yard long, vibrant with color and a scrawl of dark markings like graffiti on the side of a subway train. And they fight with all the crazed obsessiveness of beasts ready to climb up waterfalls.
"For the number of fish, and the volume and clarity of the water, I would have to say that this is the best salmon fishing on earth," J.W. proclaims.
I've been fishing before with outdoorsmen of the new school—the kind dressed head-to-toe in brand-new Orvis—who compulsively measure and weigh each catch. The old school will have none of this; they quietly reel in their fish, beam as they murmur words of appreciation to the flopping trophy, then silently let it go. When it comes to fishing, style is everything, and theirs is clear: It isn't right to brag, any more than it is to complain.
I, for one, can't help going gaga over landing a 33-inch chum salmon. As it heaves about on the sand, I reach down under its head to heft its weight, too excited to notice the wicked canines arcing out from under its lips. With a thrash of its head it slices my fingertip deeply. Bright red seeps out as I hurry up the beach, muttering expletives. A guide pastes me back together with three bandages.
Once my throbbing digit is safely swaddled, I look around guiltily, wondering if anyone has heard my unmanly mewling.
THE NEXT DAY, THE DIE-HARD FISHERMEN stay by the river, while the cousins and I hike over a ridge to the north, drop into an adjoining valley, and trek along a gravel riverbed to a 40-foot waterfall.
We hike in single file. Our guide, Nathan, leads carrying a pistol-grip shotgun. Brown bears are plentiful, and no one has any illusions about how suddenly they can attack. Or how large they can be: as we trudge across the tidal flats to the ridge, we pass tracks so big, you can fit a whole boot inside.
As we wander, so does the conversation. I learn that the cousins' family has long been involved in the leadership of Outward Bound, and each of them has had extensive experience living in the wild. As we force a way through a swampy patch of brush, Brinton tells us about a survival camp he attended over one high school vacation.
"It was set up by these two eccentric brothers who'd been survival experts in the military," Brinton says. "For the last week of camp, they sent us out into the wild without any food, just a pistol with no sight. We were supposed to hunt for our meals, but all we managed to kill was a squirrel. We ate that, but split six ways it didn't go too far. Finally, by the fourth day, we said, 'What the hell, we've only got three more days before we eat—why worry about it?' "
I ask him if he was angry he'd been sent to the camp.
"No," he says. "I volunteered."
We walk along a riverbank that dead-ends at the face of a cliff. To continue toward the coast we have to ford a stream, which looks deep and is certainly fast-moving. Nathan suggests that we link arms and slowly work our way across. Courtenay snorts at this sissified notion and splashes into the stream. I follow. Soon the water is thigh-deep, the swift current tugging at our feet. I wobble with each step, trying to find a footing on the slippery gravel.
Eight feet shy of the far bank, Courtenay goes down; in an instant she's being pulled backward by the current. I grab her waistband and hoist her to her feet. She flounders to shore, drenched in near-freezing water.
Two hours later we're safe and dry, back in camp, regaling the others with our adventure. One of the guides ducks his head into the tent to call us all outside. Down below, on the sand flats we'd just walked across, a hungry-looking juvenile bear saunters around, searching for something to eat.
JULY IN SOUTHERN ALASKA MEANS about 20 hours of light a day. Half of those hours are overcast, with the light coming down so diffusely that it's impossible to gauge the time; 8 a.m. could just as well be 4 p.m. In a while, you fall into the odd chronological disjointedness that one experiences after a few days in a casino: time doesn't seem to be passing at all, and then, wham, it's gone.
Each day, some of us fish, while others hike. Occasionally a few go down to the beach by the river's mouth for a fruitless attempt at surf casting, or take a boat to a nearby headland to hunt for fossils. Mostly I hike: across the ridgeline behind the camp, around a nearby hill, over the tidal flats, and up the river. The high country is best. Above 500 feet the willow and alder shrubs give way to open, springy tundra, a joy to bound across. In the high country we see moose, caribou, and even, fleetingly, a solitary lynx.
J.W. had booked Sam to fly us around the neighborhood in his helicopter on the second-to-last day. We were all hoping to take a joyride over the volcano's steaming caldera, but the weather is too foul when the day comes. Instead we ferry over to Yantarni, the next bay south, where we beachcomb for shells and try to imagine the spectacular vistas that J.W. assures us lie just beyond the cloud cover. To warm and amuse ourselves, we build a bonfire. Driftwood is plentiful but soggy, so we stack it around the little flame to dry it out, and then stack more, and more, and eventually the whole pile goes up in a conflagration hot enough to smelt tin. We stand back and stare at the flames.
After a week without TV or radio, one becomes accustomed to such quiet pleasures. By now we've figured out how to fill the idle hours by talking, reading, or just gazing off at the mountains. We've gotten in the habit of retiring after dinner to the ringtoss court that J.W. and the guides have laid out behind the wash tent. George Jr., to his surprise, displays astonishing aptitude.
Another source of entertainment is drinking. Scotch, it turns out, not only has a warming effect but also makes it possible to experience the drizzle with a kind of philosophical detachment. Beer also works. One evening, I take a couple of cans and head down to the mudflats with two of the guides, Tim and Nathan. We light a fire, drink, and set off seal bombs—nifty explosives that look like giant firecrackers. They flash when you throw them into the sea and send up a column of water with a muffled whump. "J.W. doesn't like us doing this," Tim says, as if his boss might somehow fail to notice the sound of the explosions echoing off the distant cliffs. Pretty soon we run out of bombs; then we run out of beer. It's time for bed.
The best thing about near-constant rain is that it eventually stops. If you are particularly lucky, this will happen on the last day of your visit.
Wanting our trip to end on a dramatic note, J.W. has Sam fly us north about 20 minutes to Agripina Bay. Over the craggy ridge we soar, gliding above a snow-patched tundra crisscrossed with caribou tracks; then we swoop down over a coast of rock buttresses standing by the electric-blue sea like ruined Irish fortresses. Everything is bathed in luxuriant sunlight, the lush valleys oozing with green, the bare rock mountains sparkling like jewels. Sunshine is nature's Prozac.
The serious fishermen are set down to work over a pool full of char on one end of the valley. The cousins and I alight at the other end to hike to a different pool. The way is easy, through a broad valley of knee-high grass and over a rocky saddle ridge. As we begin our descent, Nathan signals for us to stop, and we all crouch in the bushes: a hundred yards ahead, a young bull moose is foraging by the edge of the water. For half an hour we watch him chewing, strolling, chewing some more. Slowly we move forward, in single file, to make ourselves appear more mooselike, at least to a shortsighted ruminant. We're within 50 yards when the penny drops. The moose lopes away, and we wander down to the pool.
It's a marvel: here, in a hollow shielded on three sides by a curving hillside, an eight-inch-deep river abruptly bellies into a crystalline pool 20 or 30 feet deep. Dark shapes glide back and forth in the shadows like World War II torpedoes. There are thousands of fish in there, big char and chum salmon.
As I cast my fly in the water it starts to rain—a sprinkle at first, then hard. Courtenay, who has no interest in fishing, sits on the sandy bank in her yellow rain suit.
I wade deeper into the water and throw my streamer farther out. White against dark, it settles amid the reflections of the hills and sky. A shape materializes beyond it, gliding closer, a gray strip, almost touching, almost biting, then veering suddenly away and disappearing. Again and again I cast, summoning these ghostly shapes, but never set a hook.
Rain drips from the brim of my hat; my gloves are soaked. Even through the heavy rubber of my waders, the water is bitingly cold. Some people—probably most people—would never want to come to a place like this. It's too inaccessible, too harsh, too frank.
But for some, for the old school, this soggy, bug-infested wilderness is really a paradise, a place free and absolutely pure, a place untainted. It has what it has, and in abundance, but nothing else. That's perfection.
A char zooms in on my fly, follows it, then zooms away. Mumbling under my breath, I glance over at the bank. Courtenay is slumped on the shore in her rain suit, head propped on a backpack. An unsteady, rumbling noise emerges from beneath her hood. I listen and hear it again: a deep snort, followed by the faintest whistling sigh. In the chilly subarctic drizzle, Courtenay has fallen asleep. Asleep on the sand, in an Alaskan beach paradise.
J. W. Smith's Alaska wilderness safari costs $3,995, plus $300 for air charter from King Salmon. Reservations can be made through Rod & Gun Resources (206 Ranch House Rd., Kerrville, Tex.; 800/211-4753 or 830/792-6800, fax 830/792-6807; www.rodgunresources.com).
In August, when these trips are run, the Alaska Peninsula is generally wet, with temperatures in the fifties and sixties. There are intermittent periods of sunshine that occasionally lift readings into the seventies. Rod & Gun shelters are snug and dry, but unheated. Warm, moisture-resistant clothing—polyester fleece beneath a waterproof, breathable shell—is recommended. Rubber boots and a sturdy rain suit are a must.
Alaska Airlines runs nonstop air service several times a day into King Salmon from Anchorage. Reservations can be extremely hard to get in summer, so book as early as possible.