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Trekking Alaska’s Wilderness

200905-a-alaska-adventures

Photo: Brown W Cannon III

The pilot eyed the clouds as he taxied to the end of Lake Hood, the seaplane base that runs alongside Anchorage’s international airport. We were hoping to get to Redoubt Bay Lodge, a tiny hideaway on the edge of a vast wilderness of rock and ice called the Chigmit Mountains, but above us, the low overcast was thickening. It was one of those Alaska moments: Should we push it or hold off?If we hesitated, we might be stuck in Anchorage until the weather cleared, and there was no telling how long that would be.

The clouds floated past, yellow and ragged. Overhead, a weak patch of blue appeared. The pilot gunned the engine, and the plane sat up on its haunches, then jumped into the air. We shouldered through the wispy clouds and up into the sky. The horizon was lined with snow-draped volcanoes.

My wife, Sandra, and I were off on a journey that was to be the first leg of a 10-day summer trip to some of the state’s most iconic destinations. Laying our plans, we’d ticked off all the features of the classic Alaskan itinerary: the fly-in lodge; grizzly-bear and other wildlife sightings; fishing for salmon; a scenic railway journey; a backcountry trek in Denali National Park; a flight around the continent’s highest mountain; and then, to finish it all off, a power-down session at a luxury resort in the Chugach Mountains. In 10 days, we couldn’t see all of Alaska, or even a modest fraction (it’s more than twice the size of Texas). But we’d get a taste of what it has to offer, a roster of experiences the likes of which you can’t find anywhere else in the country. It would be a brief, intense immersion in the alternate universe that is America’s 49th state.

We drifted down the river, watching the bald eagles watch us from their spruce-tree roosts. Fifty minutes later, we were flying over a bright blue lake hemmed in by an amphitheater of rugged emerald hills. In the farther distance, the fingers of innumerable glaciers descended the flanks of steep black mountains. The floatplane swooped down, settled onto the lake, and taxied toward a small dock. As we drew close we could make out a cluster of log buildings in the surrounding forest. We had arrived at Redoubt Bay.

Fly-in lodges are key to the Alaska experience. Usually quite modest in scale, never done up with excess luxury, they are above all remote, so that by the time you get there you have a huge wilderness to yourself. Many of Alaska’s best lodges started out as homesteading claims back in the 50’s and 60’s, when the government was giving land to anyone who would build on it and live there. Redoubt Bay Lodge occupies a five-acre lot adrift amid the 170,000 acres designated as the Redoubt Bay Critical Habitat Area, a state-managed preserve that, thanks in part to massive runs of salmon, is thick with bears.

Bear-watching was what we’d come for. Our guide, an endearingly ursine young man named Drew Hamilton, led us from the floatplane dock up along a path through the dense undergrowth to our cabin. “You’re located right on a major bear path,” he said as we arrived at the front steps. “If you see one, stand your ground. Say, ‘Hey, bear!’ and wave your hands.”

Sandra looked uneasy.

“The important thing is,” Hamilton cautioned, “if you see one, don’t run.”

The cabin was small but pleasant, with a cast-iron stove and a view out over the lake. It did not seem particularly bear-proof. When it came time to go to dinner, I cracked the door open and craned my neck out. “It’s like being in a zoo,” Sandra said. “Except we’re in the cages, and the animals are roaming around.”

Not for the first or last time, we were forced to confront Alaska’s well-known potential for lethality. The state has been typecast as a land of fatal misadventures in such movies and books as Grizzly Man, The Edge, and Into the Wild, and in truth, the rep’s not exactly groundless. The state’s tourism bureau has struggled to project a sunnier image. They shelved one of their slogans, Alaska B4UDie, a few years back, no doubt realizing it had slightly morbid overtones.

Summer days are long in the subarctic, and it was still light out when we returned to the main lodge and settled down to dinner. Kirsten Dixon, who owns the property with her husband, Carl, is something of a culinary celebrity in Alaska, and she has made great strides in elevating the level of wilderness cooking. While exotic ingredients have to be flown in, there’s an incredible bounty of fresh ones right at hand, ranging from salmon and halibut to berries and fiddlehead ferns, which Dixon regularly forages herself. For dinner we had salmon fillet pan-seared at high heat and finished with a balsamic glaze. It was exquisitely prepared, and also benefited from being the first of the countless salmon dishes we would eat during our trip.

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