Travel: The Great Alaskan Safari
A 4x4 camping adventure in America's last frontier
Imagine a land of 20,000-foot mountain peaks and more than 10,000 glaciers, a place where wild animals roam freely, as they have for eons. Visualize traveling through a landscape so vast it's virtually free of human beings.
You don't know what "into the wild" means until you've camped in the backwoods of Alaska. For this trip, we drove a 2004 Ford F-250 Crew Cab equipped with a self-contained Fleetwood camper. The Great White North includes 150 million acres of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and other wilderness preserves--ample territory for four-wheel-drive exploration. America's Last Frontier contains 38 mountain ranges, 3000 rivers, and three million lakes, all in climatic zones ranging from temperate rainforest to arid tundra. Imagination turns to reality when you step off of the plane in Anchorage, outfit the camper, and head off into the bush.
We drove south to the Kenai Peninsula. Views of the Turnagain Arm rival any on the planet. As we approached the turnoff to Portage Glacier, we really didn't know what to expect. After all, we decided to come to Alaska from our home base in Kona, Hawaii, to take a break from the tropical heat and embark on a camping adventure. We drove to Black Bear Campground and settled in for the evening.
The following morning, we hiked 30 minutes to the face of the massive glacier. Five minutes into the hike, we noticed a sow grizzly and her cub on the side of the trail. We passed them carefully, leaving our pepper spray unused, and returned to camp after the half-day excursion.
Leaving Portage Glacier, we headed south on the Seward Highway toward our unplanned destination at Miller's Landing, a campground two miles south of the seaside fishing village of Seward. We met a local innkeeper, Trudy Lively, who greeted us warmly and helped us plan our itinerary for the next day. Trudy told us that she lives in Honolulu in the winter and comes to Seward in the summers to hang out with the halibut fishermen and listen to their tales of unlimited catch. We learned that Trudy is typical of people in Alaska; most of them are there looking for adventure.
Two days at Seward left us speechless. We viewed several species of marine and land animals and never imagined that wildlife viewing could be so incredible. Reflecting back on our day over a breakfast of biscuits and gravy with reindeer sausage, we realized that the safari had just begun. Afterward, we loaded up the camper and headed to the world's most amazing salmon fishing grounds, the Kenai River.
The river was loaded with spawning red salmon--as well as fishermen and huge RVs. To avoid the crowds, we decided to head to Homer instead. We hoped we would make the silver-salmon run on our return trip to Denali, after the crowds had left for the Lower 48.
We settled into the Homer Spit Campground, where the "Eagle Lady" has spent the last 30 years taking care of the local bald eagle population, encouraging the birds to roost on her antiquated maze of dilapidated trailers. The views from the campground were stupendous, encompassing huge glaciers and the mountain ranges of Kachemak Bay State Park. The sunsets seen from the spit rivaled any over our lanai in Kona.
The following morning, we booked a flight on Bald Mountain Air. The float-plane adventure took us 150 miles from Homer, across the Cook Inlet to Katmai National Park. Maneuvering the De Havilland Beaver into Geographic Harbor, our guide and pilot Gary Porter pointed out 18 grizzly bears in the creek below. The plane glided to a perfect landing and motored to the buoy next to the skiff. We climbed aboard the aluminum boat and beached it when we reached shore. From the beach, we hiked a quarter-mile to the edge of the creek, sat on the bank, and watched grizzly bears devour salmon from 30 feet away, determining that these intimidating carnivores weren't at all fazed by our invasion of their privacy--but the circumstances may have been different without the presence of all those salmon.
Leaving Homer, we headed north to Talkeetna. This tiny village, one of the best examples of traditional culture in Alaska, is the stopping-off point for many world-class mountaineers attempting to summit Denali (Mt. McKinley), North America's highest peak at 20,320 feet.
In Talkeetna, we chartered a flight at Doug Geeting Aviation and flew to the 8000-foot elevation point of the east side of the mountain. Denali towered 12,000 feet above our insignificant aircraft. Our Cessna got us there and back safely, but I'll admit I'd had doubts, especially after asking our pilot how long he'd been flying through Denali's Great Gorge. The pilot said that this was his first season flying tourists and mountain-climbers to Denali. I noticed that the Cessna 185 had only one yoke (none for the front passenger), and when I inquired what would happen if he had a coronary, he merely said we'd be SOL. I envisioned what it would be like getting him out of his harness, opening his door, kicking him out of the airplane, and taking over the controls. Luckily, that didn't happen, and we glided safely to the remote runway in Talkeetna.
From Talkeetna, we drove north on the Parks Highway to the Denali Highway turnoff at Cantwell. When the 135-mile route was opened in 1957, it was called Alaska Route 8 and was the only road to Denali National Park, now only accessible from the Parks Highway. Most of it runs along the foothills of the Alaska Range to the north and through glacial valleys where you can see stretches of alpine tundra, enormous glaciers, and braided rivers. Along this breathtaking stretch of gravel road, we encountered grizzlies, caribou, and moose frolicking in their natural habitats. This stretch was the most secluded, spectacular, and remote part of our trip that could be reached by motor vehicle.
At the eastern end of the Denali Highway, just before Paxon, we stopped at the Tangle River Inn. Nadine Johnson, the proprietor of 30 years, convinced me to accompany her in singing karaoke long into the night.
The next morning, we rented a canoe from Nadine and navigated through the magnificent waters of the Upper Tangle River canoe route, enjoying the abundant wildlife along the way. This is one of the most remarkable canoe routes anywhere in the world and offers magnificent scenery within a pristine wilderness environment.
As we drove down the Richardson Highway toward Glennallen on our way to Anchorage, we made one final stop at the Matanuska Glacier. We parked the truck, put on our crampons, and headed onto the ice field for one last adventure.
Reflecting back on the trip from home, we never imagined Alaska could have so much to offer. The amount of wildlife along the way was a big surprise, and our adventures were incredible. America's Last Frontier is truly a land of unlimited exploration for any four-wheel-drive adventurer willing to rough it in the bush.