In the bear's living room

In some of Alaska's finest wilderness lodges, Stephen Phelan learns the etiquette of mixing with grizzlies.

Alaska is so far from everywhere else it is still possible to doubt its existence. Of the half-million who live in the 49th state, many are in some way on the run from what they call "the lower 48". The majority have settled in Alaska's cities and towns but even the biggest of these appear as provisional points of electric light in immense galaxies of trees, rock, ice and blue water.

Juneau, the state capital, cannot even be accessed by road. But boats and planes - and floatplanes, an essential Alaskan combination of the two - can spirit you far beyond to wilderness lodges, tiny stations of hospitality where the supply lines of civilisation extend to gourmet cooking and down duvets.

Winterlake Lodge

Though this lodge is less than an hour by floatplane from Anchorage - Alaska's biggest city - it stands at the edge of a fathomless wilderness.

The flight is a cinematic adventure or a woeful ordeal, depending on your stomach for old, propeller-driven aircraft. After touching down on Winter Lake, we tuck into a lunch of risotto with local red salmon at the lodge. Kirsten Dixon, who owns and runs the place with her husband, Carl, has just returned from a culinary course in Italy. Her trained staff offer massage and yoga sessions, and Wi-Fi comes as standard. "We want people to unhook from the world but some things seem to be a necessity now," Dixon says. This lodge has a long history, she explains, "which in Alaska means a few decades". Until 1994, it was the site of a hunting camp, home to a trapper named Gene and his mail-order bride. The compact and exclusive settlement of "boutique" log cabins that now stands in its place erases all memory of their isolated and precarious existence.

A day and night at Winterlake Lodge costs $US1330 ($1530) a person, including meals and floatplane transfer. See withinthewild.com.

Favorite Bay Lodge, Angoon

The Chatham Strait, around Admiralty Island, is a thoroughfare for humpback and killer whales. And from the window of an Alaska Seaplanes aircraft, I watch one of those long shadows breach clear out of the water.

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We land on Favorite Bay and waiting on the dock for us is Gil Lucero, a former champion bull-rider and movie stuntman. He came here in the 1970s, on a bear hunt with the cowboy actor Slim Pickens, and became a handyman when owner-entrepreneur Dana Durand arrived to build his dream lodge 10 years ago.

Under stag-antler chandeliers and surrounded by Tlingit tribal totems, French chef Pierre Coutou is waiting inside with a silver tray of hot chocolate-chip cookies.

Our activities for the day are archetypically Alaskan and manly: fishing, kayaking, hauling heavy crab pots and hiking warily through deep woods. These are described later, over a seafood dinner - including our crabs - as a "bear's living room" by the lodge's butler, Roger Wark.

The comforts within these cedar walls are made dissonant by thoughts of the primeval world outside and an awareness of the poverty just a few minutes down the trail in the town of Angoon, once the seat of Tlingit power and culture but now afflicted by all the social problems of the US's indigenous communities.

The community has long since adopted Lucero as one of their own, which has in turn helped to make the lodge a welcome new feature on their old land. Lucero, for his part, now claims the benefit of native wisdom. "Young man, flying down the road," he tells me, staring intensely into my eyes, "got to find a place to land".

A three-night all-inclusive package costs from $US3600 a person. See favoritebay.com.

Brooks Lodge, Katmai National Park

Here in Katmai, where the "Grizzly Man", Timothy Treadwell, was eaten alive in 2003, brown bears are the main attraction and a legitimate hazard. Guests at Brooks Lodge, within the southern boundary of the park, are obliged to attend "bear school" to learn the etiquette required of humans who happen across grizzlies.

Most of the rules are counter-intuitive. For example: don't run. A bear can cover 46 metres in three seconds. Make constant noise while walking so the bears can hear you coming. They do not like surprises. This creates an interesting tension on our short hike to Brooks Falls, where grizzlies are known to congregate, catching salmon as they leap upstream and fighting over the best fishing spots. "Hey bears!" we are told to shout as we go, which is supposed to warn them away but sounds more like an invitation.

This corresponds neatly with the strange feeling of atavism in these woods: as a tourist, you want to see a grizzly; as a weaker animal, you dread it.

As it happens, we don't, although there are signs and markers everywhere - most obviously the gigantic claw prints in the rough sand at the waterline of the falls.

After a basic but decent dinner and hot chocolate around the communal fireplace, we sleep soundly in dorm-style cabins. This is, more or less, the Alaska that travellers dream about.

In the morning, there are fresh scratches on the outer wall and bite marks on the porch. "Oh yeah," says the lodge manager, Jim Albert, "it's something to do with the weather sealant we use. The bears like the taste of it."

Brooks Lodge air and lodging packages cost from $US931 a night in a twin-share cabin. See katmailand.com.

Afognak Wilderness Lodge, Seal Bay, Kodiak

Roy Randall built this homestead with his bare hands on the site where he stopped to skin a seal in the 1960s with his hunting buddy and Hollywood star, Roy Rogers. He and his family - wife Shannon and sons Luke and Josh - run an operation that will ensure their survival after doomsday, with generators, a sawmill, a fish-processing plant and a fully stocked armoury.

The Randalls' self-reliance is rewarded by the glories of their location, amid the small islands of Seal Bay that form a kind of northern Galapagos. Within minutes on a single, rare, sunny day, Luke manoeuvres our boat to see a rock occupied by roaring sea lions, a humpback whale and her calf spouting and a deserted log cabin, where passing hunters still leave friendly notes for the owner.

And here, on the beach at Perenosa Bay, three Kodiak brown bears - the biggest in the world - stand in sunbeams close to midnight. To those who have never seen one before, grizzly bears are mythical beasts. Watching them with your own eyes in the wild, they become more so, not less.

All-inclusive tariffs from $US750 a person a day. See afognaklodge.com. For more information, see travel-alaska.com.

Stephen Phelan travelled courtesy of the Alaska Division of Tourism.

Delta flies to Anchorage from Sydney for about $1790 via LA and Salt Lake City (about 21 hours' flying time, excluding stops); Melbourne passengers fly Virgin Blue to Sydney to connect. Qantas has a fare from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2420 via LA and Seattle. (Fares are low season, including tax.) Before departure, Australians must apply for US travel authorisation on the secure website www.esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

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