The grizzly bears, mountain salmon and rugged wilderness of Alaska give Jeff Wise new respect for nature.
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. Making 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 back-country trek in Denali National Park; a flight around the continent's highest mountain; and a power-down session at a luxury resort in the Chugach Mountains.
Fifty minutes later, we arrived at Redoubt Bay. Fly-in lodges are key to the Alaska experience. Usually quite modest in scale, they are above all remote, so that by the time you get there you have a huge wilderness to yourself. Redoubt Bay Lodge occupies a two-hectare lot amid the 70,000 hectares 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 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. The important thing is," Hamilton cautioned, "if you see one, don't run."
Our cabin was small but pleasant, with a cast-iron stove and a view over the lake. It did not seem particularly bear-proof. When it came time for 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."
Summer days are long in the subarctic and it was still light 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. For dinner we had salmon fillet pan-seared and finished with a balsamic glaze. It was exquisitely prepared and benefited from being the first of the countless salmon dishes we would eat during our trip.
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, aka grizzlies, loitered on the shore about 15 metres 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 this area was one of the few sites in the world where brown and black bears interacted regularly.
During the next few days, we spin-cast for sockeye salmon, visited a waterfall and took a jet boat up a shallow gravel-bed river, then drifted down, watching the bald eagles watch us from their spruce-tree roosts.
We caught another floatplane back to Anchorage on our way to Denali National Park, the crown jewel of Alaskan tourism. To get to Denali, we would have to face the 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 more than 2.4million hectares, with only a single, unpaved road. No private cars are allowed, so you have to travel by bus. Along its entire length there are only a handful of rustic lodges ours was at the end, seven hours in.
We spent the night at the Hotel Captain Cook, a wonderful relic of the pipeline-boom in the '70s. Then onward north, 7½ hours aboard the Alaska Railroad. We sat on one of the top-deck observation cars, where the glass roof and walls provided 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.
It 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. Though Alaska is full of wilderness, the sheer scale of it 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 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.
Back in Anchorage, we rented a car and drove 40 minutes south to the town of Girdwood, the Palm Springs of Anchorage, a resort-town getaway where the state's glamorous elite 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.
For dinner we rode up to the mountaintop Seven Glaciers restaurant, a formal dining room with the best views in the state. Our fellow gondola passengers, all in their Sunday best, seemed positively giddy as we levitated above the valley floor. As were we.
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."
Our table seemed to hang precipitously over the lush valley. In this refined setting, we felt both metaphorically and literally elevated above the drama and severity of Alaska. As I studied the menu, I felt like we were floating in a bubble.
And it was a bubble the protective embrace of civilisation, a reminder of the world to which we'd soon be returning. 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. 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 much.
Air Canada flies from Sydney to Anchorage, from $3084. Travelling between destinations in Alaska often means taking a ferry, train, or plane - or all three. Best time to travel is late June - early September.
Alaska Railroad, see alaskarailroad.com. Alaska state ferry for trips along the coast, see ferryalaska.com. Kantishna air services Camp Denali and other lodges, see katair.com. Rust's flying service goes to Redoubt Bay Lodge and other camps, see flyrusts.com.
Alyeska Resort, Girdwood, alyeskaresort.com, doubles from $250. Camp Denali, Denali National Park, campdenali.com, doubles from $4080, three-night stay. Hotel Captain Cook, Anchorage, captaincook.com, doubles from $365. Redoubt Bay Lodge, withinthewild.com, doubles from $1430.
Seven Glaciers, +19077542237; dinner for two $215.