Welcome to America’s Largest Untamed Wilderness
In the spectacular Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, you need a special kind of access. Sophy Roberts gets a tour from the family of bush pilots behind Ultima Thule Lodge.
Ben Gray picked me up in Anchorage in a little red Cessna 185 airplane wearing flipflops and a checkered shirt, looking like he had just popped out to pick up a loaf of bread. “You’re gonna love this place,” he said as we took to the air above the city. We just cruise around, looking for places where no one else has ever stood. You’ll see how it works when we hit the big country.”
As we banked away from Anchorage, it was clear I was in the hands of a man who knew his craft. I had expected nothing less: Gray, 33, is the son-in-law of Paul Claus, a man with a reputation as one of the most fearless bush pilots in the country. Claus has flown light aircraft all the way from Alaska to the eastern coast of Greenland, and used them to explore some of the most remote territory on earth. Ken Kochey
I was visiting in the Alaskan summer, which runs from May to September, and staying at Ultima Thule Lodge, the Claus family’s homestead in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This is the base that Claus, Gray, and four other pilots use for flying safaris in the park, which, at 13.2 million acres, is the largest protected reserve in the United States. In their fleet of bush planes, they find places to take guests hiking, glacier trekking, rafting, fishing, and wilderness camping. Highlights include Lake Tebay, an expanse of peacock-blue water encircled by snow-covered mountains where Gray’s brother-in-law Jay Claus, 27, has just finished building an eight person lodge for Ultima Thule guests. It brings the national park’s tally of accommodation to 18 lodges, in an area nearly one-and-a-half times the size of Switzerland.
Setting off from Anchorage with Gray, I watched the city drift away, its neat rows of bungalows replaced by glaciers rising up in the backs of valleys like the silver staircases of giants. A few minutes later, Gray swooped lower to show me a cliff he used to paraglide off as a child. “I got my first plane when I was 14 and was out there exploring until the light went down.” He paused. “It’s free here. I guess that’s why this part of the world appeals to misfits and runaways.” Ken Kochey
The story of how the Claus family came to live in this remote part of Alaska—Ultima Thule is 100 miles from the nearest paved road—goes back to John Claus, Paul’s father. Shortly after marrying Paul’s mother, Eleanor, in 1958, John brought her to Alaska from Washington State. They became some of the last beneficiaries of the Homestead Act extension, under which the federal government granted land to U.S. citizens if they settled in the 49th state. John and Eleanor—he a teacher, she a nurse—chose a remote corner of Wrangell-St. Elias, about as far off the beaten track as they could get, where they could land a little bush plane on the banks of the Chitina River. “My husband found the site when he was out on McColl Ridge guiding hunters,” Eleanor, who was widowed in 2012, told me. “We made our first cabin with the help of Eskimo friends.” At first John Claus made ends meet by teaching in Anchorage during school terms and, in the open season, helping trophy hunters track down Dall sheep. After Paul married Donna in 1982, the family turned the homestead into a high-end lodge—one that accommodates a maximum of 12 people in five comfortable log cabins.
On the property, all three generations of the Claus family work alongside one another. Every afternoon at around 3 p.m., Eleanor bakes the cookies. Donna is the main chef; she grows nearly all her own vegetables, which are as plentiful as the halibut, moose, and wild berries that define Alaskan cuisine. Paul is the storyteller who holds the dining room in his thrall each evening. Guests eat together at two long tables in a room filled with photography books and local art. Paul and Donna have two daughters: Logan, and Ellie, who is married to Gray. Both share their mother’s easygoing spirit and, between them, effortlessly manage guests’ daily needs and flying schedules. “We’re just three generations of semi-normal people working together in a part of the world very few would want to stick out. But it’s all we have ever known. It’s home,” Logan said. Ken Kochey
On my second day at Ultima Thule, I flew with Paul Claus himself. We took off with two fishing rods strapped to the wing struts of our Piper PA-18 Super Cub—one of the most popular aircraft in backcountry Alaska, as it’s lightweight, but has fat tires that allow it to land on rough ground, sand, snow, and ice. Claus wore a butter-yellow dry suit, and I noticed a couple of snorkels and masks in the back of the plane. As Donna had sent us off with our picnics that morning, she had said: “Ultima Thule is for the person who wants to experience Alaska, from the smallest tundra flower to the biggest landscape. Something for everyone out there.” With an eye on the snorkels, I wanted to ask Paul just what that “something” was going to consist of in this land of vast glaciers and 16,000-foot-high peaks. But somehow, swept up in the family’s matter-of-fact eccentricity, I decided to roll with the possibilities instead.
The route took us through a web of narrow valleys, one of which opened up into a bowl of velvet green. Just as it felt like our wingtips might graze the grass, Claus made a turn. A lone caribou looked up at our machine as if we were the first intruders ever to disturb its quiet. Maybe we were. Every day, said Claus, he could fly a route through the park that he hadn’t flown before. Every week he made new landings. Very rarely did he encounter another human being.
On the mountain’s bony ridge we saw balls of white—Dall sheep, the size of Shetland ponies—before slipping over the brow and into the vastness beyond. That was when it struck me how much this landscape felt like the Scottish wilderness of my upbringing: the West Coast Highlands where my family and I went fishing each summer. Yet the scale was altogether different. From the vantage point of the Super Cub, I realized how small my childhood world had really been. These Alaskan valleys weren’t the narrow glens of Skye, but trenches in a restless earth formed by mega-glaciers, one relic of which, the Bagley Ice Field, is still 127 miles long. Crags looked like Tolkien citadels dialed up a thousand percent. Cliffs revealed layers of sedimentary rock and limestone thrown up by the Pacific Rift. Into the distance rolled endless purple hills, their blush of color derived from fireweed, which thrives on burned ground. One wildfire we crossed covered a 70,000-acre swath. It’s not a match that ignites the landscape, Gray told me later, but a lightning strike: Alaska sees some of the fiercest storms in the world. Even the sky—on one side bright cobalt, on the other a bruised smudge of impending rain—seemed wider
than the horizons of my youth. Ken Kochey
It was against this increasingly inky backdrop that we followed the loops and curls of the river toward Lake Tebay. “Look out for salmon,” Claus said. “We’re gonna be snorkeling down there. Wherever the bears are feeding, the salmon will be spawning.” When we dipped even lower to make our landing, I could see the shadows of the fish as they hung in pewter pools, their shapes extinguished by a gust of ripples where the breeze caught on the water.
When Paul Claus and I landed on the shores of Lake Tebay, we found Jay sitting in the sun on a veranda of the new lodge, surrounded by wood shavings. He was wearing a wet suit and eating breakfast with three friends: Jules Hannah, 33, who is a ski guide in Antarctica during the Alaskan winter; Chris Smith, 31, and Eli Potter, 38. Smith and Potter are mountain guides based in McCarthy, the old mining town at the end of McCarthy Road (one of only two dirt roads that cross into the park). The friends were helping Jay finish up the lakeshore cabin.
We spent the day on the lake—wakeboarding, paddleboarding, climbing rocks to jump into the glacial waters. We picnicked on rocks as the snorkelers among us drifted through the pools to swim with salmon. “I’ve tried other things, but if I’m honest, I’m a little ruined by this place,” Smith said, pulling himself out of his dry suit. “I’ve spent ten years working in the park,” Potter said. “Until recently, I’d never been to Tebay. This place alone is multiple lifetimes of exploring.” “That’s the magic of Wrangell,” Hannah said. “You don’t want to try and repeat this day. It will never be the same.”
Nor is repetition possible in the hands of a family defined by the sense of adventure that brought them here. This is what makes the Ultima Thule experience so seductive: it is almost anti-tourism, at least of the managed version so many of us have come to expect. There are no set itineraries. The Super Cubs mean very little planning is required—as long as one is accompanied by a member of the Claus family, who can set up a tent on a mountaintop and bring along a dog to keep the bears at bay.
It was freedom in a giant’s land. The alpine lake reminded me of Switzerland, except the mountains rose higher. The mossy valley reminded me of Scottish bogs, except the landscape was greener, deeper, and rubbed shoulders with glaciers pockmarked with turquoise dots, each as large as the iris of a Cyclops’s eye.