Trekking Alaska’s Wilderness
Published: June 2009
By Jeff Wise
Oversize mountains, remote fly-in lodges, spectacular wildlife, glaciers, floatplane rides, hiking, fishing, and an endless supply of fresh salmon: T+L goes into the wild for the ultimate Alaskan adventure.
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.
For all the talk of bears, we hadn’t actually seen one yet. The next day Sandra and I paddled across the lake with Hamilton to Wolverine Cove, a spot where a rushing creek emptied into a shallow, cobble-bottomed inlet. As I sat very still in my kayak, a vast school of sockeye salmon swirled underneath me, the fish’s backs roiling the water so thickly that I practically could have walked over them. Three brown bears, a.k.a. grizzlies, loitered on the shore about 50 feet away—an adult female with two adolescent offspring. A smaller black bear appeared on the hillside above them and stood observing cautiously. Hamilton told us that this is one of the few areas in the world where brown and black bears interact regularly.
SLAP! A two-foot-long salmon jumped clear of the water a few feet away. The juvenile brown bears waded out into the cove, prowling with their snouts in the water, plunging and splashing after the fleet-finned salmon. Their efforts brought them close enough that their splashes rocked my kayak. But they had no luck with the fish. “They’re just having fun,” Hamilton said. “When the salmon start running out of the lake and up into the stream, they’ll be much easier for the bears to catch.”
Over the next few days, we spin-cast for sockeye salmon, visited a waterfall, and took a jet boat up a shallow gravel-bedded river, then drifted down, watching the bald eagles watch us from their spruce-tree roosts. The last afternoon of our stay, I was sitting on the deck of the main lodge, examining the far shore for bears. I thought I spotted one in a bed of reeds, a black dot amid the beige. Just then, there was a clatter and shouting behind me. Two of the lodge’s cooks were banging pans to shoo a bear off the kitchen porch. I turned to see a black streak scurry up the path toward our cabin and then dart off through the undergrowth.
We caught another floatplane back to Anchorage on our way to Denali National Park, the crown jewel of Alaskan tourism. We passed over a pod of a hundred beluga whales cruising the coast of the Cook Inlet, their backs making long white ovals as they surfaced, then disappearing in the silty water.
To get to Denali, we would have to face a cruel reality of Alaskan travel: logistics. In a huge state with few roads, getting from A to B can require perseverance. The park itself is larger than Massachusetts, with only a single, unpaved road. No private cars are allowed, so you have to travel by bus. Along its entire length there are no services at all, only a handful of rustic lodges—ours was at the end, seven hours in. “Seven hours on a bus”: the five most heartbreaking words in the English language for a traveler.
We spent the night at the Hotel Captain Cook, a wonderful relic of the pipeline-boom 70’s—I half expected George Hamilton to leap out from behind the wood paneling. Then onward north, 7 1/2 hours aboard the Alaska Railroad. We sat on one of the top-deck observation cars, where the glass roof and walls gave unobstructed views as we made our way over narrow gorges and swift-rushing streams, past steep valleys framed by craggy mountains.
The next morning we boarded the converted school bus that would take us into the park. Soon enough, as we drove along the gravel road we saw spread before us a broad tundra valley with the Alaska Range rising from the far side and, many miles in the distance, the grand white slab of Mount McKinley (also known as Denali) itself. The passengers erupted in cheers. Because of the generally unpredictable weather in these parts, and the mountain’s great distance from the park entrance, many visitors never actually lay eyes on the Tallest Mountain in North America. So we could cross that worry off our list.
The High One—as its name translates from Athabascan—was soon hidden again behind intervening mountains as we wound up and down through a series of river valleys, climbing above the treeline to pass through areas of tundra with sweeping unobstructed views, then back down into spruce forest. Along the way we spotted a couple of grizzly bears, Dall sheep, countless caribou, snowshoe hares, and a lone wolf. Though Alaska is full of wilderness, the sheer scale of it here was awesome. Denali is the Alaska of Alaska—Alaska Squared, you could say.
At Camp Denali, we stayed in a one-room log cabin that stood by itself on a hillside, close enough to the main lodge for comfort and far enough for privacy. It had gingham curtains, a big wooden bed, and gas-powered lamps. And there, through the window above the writing desk, shone Mount McKinley, as clear and bright as the moon. Through a pair of binoculars, I watched the clouds whipping around the cornices and ice cliffs of the summit. Climbers consider Denali one of the most dangerous mountains in the world, combining extreme altitude with a near-Arctic latitude. For us it would simply be an infrequently recurring treat, like whale sightings on a long cruise.
One morning at breakfast we groggily nodded hello to the chipper couple across the table from us, Henry and Kathy Huntington, from the small town of Eagle River, outside Anchorage. He was giving a series of lectures at the lodge about the tribes of the far north, where he travels frequently to record the local folkways.
That night, after a day spent vigorously hiking to the top of a nearby 1,800-foot-high ridge, Sandra and I attended Henry’s slide show about the Inuit of the North Slope. He said he was often astonished at the sangfroid with which the Inuit dwell in their environment. “One time,” he said, “they invited me to a picnic lunch out on an ice floe, where they passed the time fishing and chatting and eating. And I kept thinking, this floe could break off at any time, and we’ll be in deep trouble. But they didn’t mind at all. They figured if it happened, they’d deal with it. They’ve been living on the ice for thousands of years.”
It’s not just the Inuit—all Alaskans seem to have a fearless confidence about the natural world, embarking on 1,000-mile snowmobile races and surfing in the frigid waters of Turnagain Arm. They fly small planes in unheard-of numbers—1 in 60 is a pilot—and think nothing of landing them on beaches and sandbars.
Indeed, bush flying is essential to the Alaskan character. There are whole neighborhoods in which every backyard has a little dock with a floatplane tied up to it.
Here in Denali, the quintessential bush-flying experience is buzzing around the mountain and, weather permitting, landing on one of the glaciers that flows down its flanks. The day of our flight dawned, alas, overcast and rainy. We loaded up. I got in front, with Sandra and three other passengers in the back. Once we were all buckled in, the tail seemed to be hanging low, so the pilot, Aine Roberts, got out and shifted a backpack from the tail compartment to the front seat. Much better.
Roberts took off and turned the plane toward Denali, in hopes that the clouds might open up and give us a route to sunnier altitudes. Instead, the weather got worse, and soon we were humming along in a steady drizzle. Visibility was bad and getting worse. I’d heard from an experienced bush pilot (he’d survived five crashes) that the cardinal rule of bush flying is never to lose sight of the terrain below you. This seemed particularly important when flying up a steep, jagged canyon, as we happened to be doing.
“The challenge out here is the weather,” Roberts told me over the intercom. “It’s always changing, and changing fast.”
She banked steeply and pulled a 180. We passed through an even heavier rain shower, then emerged over a green valley and into sunshine. Denali was off the table, but I didn’t care. I was happy to be flying low over magnificent valleys and peaks, including one rounded hilltop where a dozen Dall sheep milled as we passed overhead.
Back in anchorage, we rented a car and drove 40 minutes south to the town of Girdwood. Now that we’d survived Denali, it was time to relax.
Girdwood is the Palm Springs of Anchorage, the resort-town getaway where the state’s glamorous elite—including former Alaska senator Ted Stevens, notoriously—have built mansion-size log cabins. The town is also notable as the home of the Alyeska Resort, the only hotel in the state to which the word luxurious can plausibly be applied. Built at great expense by Japan’s Seibu conglomerate shortly before that country’s real estate economy collapsed in the 1990’s, it remains a monument to East-meets-West postmodern luxe. A gondola runs from the back of the hotel up to the resort’s own 2,500-foot-high ski mountain.
Sandra headed off for a massage while I took a long soak in the tub, then we reconvened to ride up to the mountaintop Seven Glaciers restaurant, a formal dining room with the best views in the state. It’s famous in Alaska as a place to celebrate an anniversary or pop the question, and our fellow gondola passengers, all in their Sunday best, seemed positively giddy as we levitated above the valley floor. As were we. The sky was clearing. Sunshine spilled across snow in the gullies and bowls. We came to a stop at the top, and the conductor called out: “Be careful when leaving the tram—remember, you’re on top of a mountain, in Alaska.”
We stepped out onto the snow to take in the vista, avoided a fatal plunge, and made our way into the dining room. Our table seemed to hang precipitously over the lush valley, the fjordlike Turnagain Arm shimmering distantly in the late-summer light. In this refined setting, we felt both metaphorically and literally elevated above the drama and severity of Alaska. As I studied the menu, trying to choose between the mesquite-grilled elk loin and the mesquite-grilled-and-smoked Alaskan salmon, I felt like we were floating in a bubble.
And it was a bubble—the protective embrace of civilization, a reminder of the world to which we’d soon be returning. For the moment it felt odd. Something unexpected had happened to us over the course of our journey: we’d been exposed to a new perspective, the Alaskan view of reality. Up here, wilderness is still a formidable force, one that’s not under human control. You have to give up the idea that you are the top predator, that you are in charge of things. If you don’t learn to treat the natural world with respect, you will be in real danger. But if you do, you’ll see the world for what it is: a place where people are small and don’t matter all that much. Living in our houses and riding in cars and planes in the Lower 48, we don’t often glimpse that truth. Here, you see it all the time.
The feeling would fade, I knew. But for now, as the setting sun touched the tips of the mountains, we were still in that Alaska mentality, that 49th state of mind.
When to Go
The best time to travel is late June through early September, when it’s relatively warm with abundant daylight.
Getting There and Around
Anchorage is the most sensible starting point; from there, traveling between destinations often means taking a ferry, train, or plane—or all three. Depending on the trip, it may make sense to work with one of the following outfitters.
Trips and Tour Operators
Abercrombie & Kent On A&K’s Alaska Family Holiday, fly over Mount McKinley, travel on Alaska Railroad’s GoldStar service, and meet a champion dogsledding team. 800/554-7094; abercrombiekent.com; multiple dates; eight days from $6,995 per person.
Mountain Travel Sobek The outfitter’s 40th-anniversary excursion includes guided tours with wildlife experts from Audubon Alaska around Teshekpuk, the largest lake in the western Arctic. 888/831-7526; mtsobek.com; multiple dates; 12 days from $4,595 per person.
Great Value Off the Beaten Path Animal life—sea lions, otters, whales, and brown bears—takes center stage on a southeastern Alaska trip that includes visits to the Chilkat Eagle Preserve and Glacier Bay National Park. 800/445-2995; offthebeatenpath.com; multiple dates; seven days from $3,695 per person.
Tauck World Discovery White-water rafting, Denali National Park, and cruising through the Kenai Fjords make up the itinerary on Tauck’s Grand Alaska vacation. 800/468-2825; tauck.com; multiple dates; 15 days from $5,640 per person.
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
Seven Glaciers At the top of Alyeska’s aerial tramway; 907/754-2237; dinner for two $150.