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Trekking Alaska’s Wilderness


Photo: Brown W Cannon III

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.


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