Wrangell-St Elias, Alaska
Family adventure to Alaska to see bears & marine life
10 days in Alaska's wilderness areas of Katmai, Wrangell-St Elias & Kenai Fjords
Too many to mention! Read our trip review below for a taste...
ROB JANISCH | AUGUST 2020
From the minute the family group touched down at King Salmon Airport and were shuttled onto a fleet of float planes, they realised they were in for some serious adventure. Thanks to it being on the USA's back-porch, the California-based family were able to get there relatively easily (it's about a 4-hr flight from the Bay Area & Chicago). What no-one expected was just how wild this frontier state is...
In the space of 10 short days we criss-crossed the southern regions of the state, the use of fixed wing & helicopters allowing us to cover more ground, an absolute necessity in a state this big with wilderness areas as vast as Alaska's. Starting on the Alaskan Peninsular in the south, we explored Katmai National Park, flying over the Valley of a Thousand Smokes before touching down in the Naknek for a spot of fly-fishing. The rainbow trout here get over 30 inches, and there is nothing quite like the feeling of wading up to your waist in a crystal clear glacial-melt river at sunset (an event that lasts over 2-hours at this time of year), cold beer in hand, fly rod in the other, and a grizzly bear decides to swim by not 10 feet from where you are standing! Whilst in Katmai, we rafted another of the numerous waterways, before trying our hands at salmon fishing - all 5 species come through these parts at various times of the year. August was sockeye season... and there were a lot of sockeye around, making the rivers look blood red. This of course made the bears happy, and on one morning we flew over to the Pacific coast, landed our little Cessna on a deserted beach at lowtide, and proceeded to wander up to dozens of giant, cuddly brown bears all salmon-fishing in the ocean shallows & creeks filling up with the tide. Social distancing was observed with these magnificent beasts, of course, this is about as wild a population of brown bears as you will find. Not the lazy gentle old boys we took in at the renowned Brooks Falls the following day. Still, for a study on brown bear behaviour, and just to witness the spectacle of hundreds of salmon attempting to jump up over the 12-ft falls, Brooks is a must-see. The trout in the lower river are also some of the biggest and feistiest around! We were there during the Covid pandemic on this occasion and so had the entire place to ourselves - which was something unheard of.
Our next stop was up to the north-east, against the border of Canada. The Wrangell - St Elias National Park and surrounding conservation areas, together with the neighbouring park across in Canada, forms the largest federally protected wilderness area in the world. Big doesn't even describe it. And apart from a few hunters backpacking the wilderness, there is only really one small lodge in the whole park - the incredibly impressive, family-run Ultima Thule Lodge with just 6 luxe eco-cabins. So just 12 people present at any one time to explore this wilderness area the size of Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park & Switzerland combined! Getting around a place this vast would be tricky if it weren't for Paul, Steve, Lonie, Gary & Logan piloting their trusty Super Cubs, fitted with oversized wheels to be able to land anywhere. And land anywhere they do. A lot. They call it adventuring. I call it a shitload of fun. After breakfast each group (split into 2's) heads out in all directions in the Cubs to explore the wilds of this vast area. Wolf, moose, black bear, wolverine, wood bison, Dall's sheep, mountain goat & lynx are some of the bigger species you can hope to see from the air & the ground on one of the many hike stops. After a leisurely picnic (complete with cookies baked by granny Claus back at the lodge earlier that morning), we try our hands at pack rafting across a clear-blue glacial lake. Talking glaciers... I fly with Paul Claus - Alaska's king of bush pilots - as he takes us over the biggest glacial ice-fields on the continent. The scenery is simply breath-taking, The flying is first class. The place is like Wonderland, and the Claus family & their team are the glue that hold it all together. This is wilderness travel like no other.
Our next stop is on the coast, tucked away in a fjord at the southern end of the Kenai Fjords National Park, and across the Kachemak Bay from the sleepy hollow of Homer. Tutka Bay is a great mix of adventure base, and culinary school... and with the pantry of wild edible delights that the bay produces, Kristen & her team ensure that the food is of an incredibly high standard. From a morning out halibut fishing in the bay, to climbing a waterfall that drops directly into the fjord. From landing on an ancient glacier with a helicopter, to orca-spotting as they fish the rich waters of the Cook Inlet. No two days at Tutka are the same. What is consistent is the quality of the food that lands up on the table at the end of the day, and the beauty of the surrounding landscape. This is stunning Lord of the Rings country, complete with black bears feeding on the wild blueberries in the garden. Post-dinner sunsets from the deck, over a game of corn-hole with a cold Alaskan gin in hand are nothing short of spectacular. Moments like this remind me of the healing & nourishing aspects of wilderness travel (although let's be honest, adding a level of style to the wilderness experience does add a certain je ne sais quoi...)