Traveling in Alaska was once like running a trap line--out there were horizons both cruel and bountiful, with both the trapper's and the traveler's survival turning on knowing where to rest and on whom to rely. Sadly, few of Alaska's million summer tourists require that aptitude these days.
Their bus driver will tell them all they need to know.
But for those earnest souls willing to veer from the tour-bus and cruise-line circuit, the key to navigating Alaska's wilderness is still knowing where to rest and on whom to rely. In my 21 years in Alaska, I've stayed at dozens of the more than 100 wilderness lodges that dot the largely roadless Alaska bush. Here are four of my favorites, chosen for their family atmosphere, their isolation and their diverse locations, beginning in the rough peaks of the Brooks Range and ending about 1,000 miles south, in the fertile waters of the Alexander Archipelago.
Peace of Selby
Peace of Selby is a two-story, spruce-log chalet on Selby Lake, where grayling and lake trout are caught each evening and bear and wolf prowl, seemingly oblivious to the gentrified real estate they're invading.
This gracious hermitage is deep in the mountains of northern Alaska, about 100 miles west of the town of Bettles and 300 miles northwest of Fairbanks. Each morning, co-owner Dee Mortvedt walks about 600 feet from her own sod-roofed cabin to the 1,000-square-foot guest chalet (one family or group of five are typically booked at a time) to make breakfast in the downstairs kitchen and suggest that the rising visitors might catch a lake trout or two for dinner. Her husband Art, a seasoned Arctic master guide, leads those same visitors on custom journeys ranging from day hikes up nearby Don't Pee on Me Hill (a translation of the Eskimo name) to week-long floats on the Range's diamond-clear rivers. Visitors return to ample, simply prepared meals and a sprawling upstairs loft furnished with a queen-sized bed with down comforter and two single beds. Chocolates are left within reach for a late-night snack should a guest's sleep be interrupted by moose bathing in the midnight sun or the incessant cries of loon just outside the loft's panoramic windows.
What distinguishes Peace of Selby, however, is not its architecture nor its cuisine--there are fine cottages for hire in every American mountain range--but the chalet's setting in the midst of a wilderness whose inaccessibility keeps most travelers away.
Brooks Range is the great east-west spine that separates forested Alaska from the Arctic. Its peaks have chiseled profiles that seem designed to dissuade any traveler from crossing. The mountains and the chalet lie within the 8-million-acre Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve which, a National Park Service brochure warns, "has no facilities, roads or trails." A mere 4,000 visitors pass through the park each year, mostly along dozens of rivers, half of which flow south, through birch and white spruce, and half north, through rolling hills of Arctic tundra and wildflowers. These visitors come to raft, climb mountains and catch sight of some of the hundreds of thousands of Western Arctic caribou migrating through the park.
Most of them are part of group expeditions, mainly arduous backpacking and river trips launched from Bettles. At Peace of Selby, by contrast, families who long ago carried their last backpacks can first acclimate to the Range during a day or two of elegant solitude before venturing into the wild. Then, Art will lead them on an expedition tailored to their own desires and limitations.
His only stipulation is that they choose routes that are free of other tourists. "I just don't like floating the Noatak (a river about 100 miles north of the lodge) anymore," he says. "It's getting too crowded." "Too crowded," in Brooks Range talk, means the slim chance of encountering someone else over the course of a seven-day float.
Or a visitor might pass up rafting or fishing and just do nothing at all. "The last guest I had," says Art, "was a Catholic priest from Rhode Island. And he loved to just sit on the porch swing, watching the clouds go by."
Denali West Lodge
Denali National Park and Preserve is one of the most frenetic arms of Alaska's tourist octopus, attracting about 490,000 visitors every summer. But deep in a lonely birch forest, a 20-minute bush-plane flight from the western end of the park's only road, Jack and Sherri Hayden have created a serene environment in stark contrast to the slide shows and bus tours.
Denali West's guests are collected at an old gravel air strip and taken by one of the lodge's 20-foot, ocean-going steel boats across a lake rich with pike. From here, Mt. McKinley can be seen about 50 miles to the southeast, gleaming pink in the late-day sun. After a 20-minute ride, the boat lands at a hand-hewn dock and guests are driven (or walk, if so inclined) a quarter-mile through the woods, past tethered sled dogs barking for attention and last year's oil drums. And there in the trees sits the birch-log lodge, surrounded by huge cabbages bulging from the nearly constant summer sun.
In the main lodge house, Sherri serves up family-style platters of game, fish and other country fare--all cooked on a regal wood stove that was flown in one winter and brought across the frozen lake by dog sled. Her recipes, including dishes made from her garden's vegetables and edible flowers and desserts made from wild blueberries and lingonberries, have appeared in three Alaska cookbooks.
Four 400-square-foot log guest cabins--two with sod roofs--are tucked into the birch forest nearby. The fifth, a 800-square-foot, two-story cabin, features a covered porch that provides a fine venue for watching the evening sun shimmer off the white birch trees. (For most of the summer, the sun sets long after midnight, and then only briefly.) The cabins are warmed with wood stoves, lighted by propane lanterns and furnished with birch beds. Each cabin has its own outhouse (which are customary in the bush), and there's a popular wood-stove sauna attached to the shower.
Guests' day-trip options in this untrodden section of the park are considerable, with Jack's plane and a small fleet of 19- and 20-foot open boats and canoes at their disposal. One possibility is a fly-out to Scotty Lake, at the base of Mt. Foraker, for a day or two of ambling through tundra and blueberry bushes and viewing grizzly bear and caribou. Canoers routinely surprise moose along the creeks just west of the lodge. Sheefish (a tarpon-like game fish) run in the Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge about a 20-minute plane flight away. "It's a magnificent refuge, and nobody goes there," Jack says.
The home fires burn warm here. Guests eat with the Haydens and their children Scott, 14, and Katie, 5. And Shorty, the family cat, steals into the guest cabins to warm travelers' tired feet.
The Farm Lodge
Lake Clark, an alpine jewel that lies 170 roadless miles west of Anchorage, sits deep in a national park of the same name that is bigger than Connecticut. Here begins Alaska's vast southwestern wilderness: a maze of lakes, rivers and high mountains where 10-pound rainbow trout dodge 800-pound brown bear fishing for supper and caribou graze the ridges of protected parklands. One of the most common birds in these parts is the DeHavilland Beaver, Alaska's preeminent bush plane and a principal means of transportation within the park.
Three active volcanoes guard the entrance to Lake Clark, but the most formidable barrier has been the stubborn misconception that this region is the private reserve of fly fishermen. The good folks of Port Alsworth--the park's only nod to "civilization"--are trying to change that.
Founded in 1944 by bush-plane pioneer Babe Alsworth, Port Alsworth is a tidy collection of a half-dozen lodges on the eastern shore of Lake Clark. This is a base for float-plane travel throughout Lake Clark and Katmai national parks and Wood River/Tikchik State Park. It's the region's center stage, and the ringmaster is Babe's son, Glen.
Glen Alsworth owns the Farm Lodge, a bucolic country inn surrounded by a fleet of bush planes owned by Alsworth's Lake Clark Air. The planes are available to carry the Farm's guests anywhere their recreational fancies might desire.
At the Farm itself, up to 18 guests stay in four lakeside cedar cabins and one room in the main house. Each cabin is carpeted and accommodates four people in two bunk beds (one also has a double bed). Two cabins have kitchenettes with microwave ovens, and every cabin has a full bathroom with tiled shower and a covered front porch overlooking the lake.
Guests take meals with Glen, his wife Patty and their children, Glen Jr., 17, Sonnet, 15, and Chandelle, 10, in the contemporary main house. The family-style affairs of fried chicken and fresh lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, turnips, carrots and peas from the Farm's garden are eaten in the dining room amid family pictures and memorabilia. After dinner, guests settle into rockers on the Farm's sprawling lake-view deck next to beds of snapdragons, carnations, dahlias and pansies.
The inn draws an eclectic clientele: One day last summer a gaggle of teen-agers from Provideniya, Russia, sunbathed on the lawn, while a group of Colorado kids ran a gear check for their river float and an Alaska family plotted a flight to watch brown bear feeding on salmon.
The Farm attracts visitors with such sundry interests because it sits at the crossroads of a limitless recreational universe. A half-hour's flight away are grass flats near a river; last June, 16 brown bears hunting for fresh salmon were sighted at one time. Within the same mountain range meander rivers as placid as they are pristine. In this region, virtually any backcountry endeavor is but a water-landing away.
And thanks to the Alsworths, one needn't know how to roll-cast a dry fly to enjoy this land of bears, rivers and volcanoes.
Gustavus Inn at Glacier Bay
David Lesh, 43, is fileting a sablefish for the evening's supper. He flipped his first sourdough pancake for the Gustavus Inn's early-departing halibut fishermen at 5:30 a.m., and his day won't end until 8:30 at night, when Lesh and his wife Jo Ann's 26 guests have ladled the last of the ginger sauce on the silk-fleshed filets and put away the final slice of grasshopper pie.
Their 12-year-old twins, Jeff and Dan, have the best of this sunny afternoon. For them, it's just another Tom Sawyer summer in Alaska's little slice of Iowa, fishing a soccer ball out of the Sitka roses, riding bikes on dusty roads through neighboring farms, catching trout in the Salmon River. This hamlet of 350 gentlemen farmers, fishermen and unrepentant flower children is a fine place to be a young boy.
Each evening, tour buses bounce through this incongruous stretch of flat land in a region of fiords. The Alaska Airlines jet has landed from its daily, 18-minute flight from Juneau, 80 miles to the east. The jet's name-tagged passengers are being driven to Glacier Bay National Park's popular lodge at Bartlett Cove. Not one will experience Gustavus' enveloping quiet, just 12 miles away.
The buses started running here in the 1960s, when the park lodge was built. Dave's parents, Jack and Sally Lesh, had seen it coming: The tourist armies who would arrive to gaze in awe at the park's tidewater glaciers. Their country house--its garden of broccoli and peas swelling from rich glacier soil, its poppies dancing in the ocean breeze--would attract discerning travelers who wanted fresh salmon and crab each night and craved a country peace as cozy as the quilts on their beds.
There are 13 rooms at the inn, all within the walls of the original homestead. Each is decorated country style, with comforters on double beds, Jack Lesh's handmade alder-twig furniture, paintings by members of the town's considerable art colony and vases of fresh local wildflowers. Most rooms have private baths.
Fueled by Dave's pancakes with tart homemade spruce-tip syrup and rhubarb sauce, the inn's guests spend their days exploring. Some hire private fishing charters to take them to some of the richest halibut grounds on earth; some go on day hikes or kayak in the park's gentle coves; some take day cruises to watch giant ice shards fall away from glaciers or sign up for three-day voyages up Glacier Bay on a 40-foot motor yacht.
But a few stay behind, content to chase childhood memories, real and imagined, in this little world of fishing holes and bicycles.
Seven years ago, Bill Caddell, a 50-year old retiree from Selma, Calif., stayed two days at the inn. He called back two years later, pleading for the privilege of tending the summer garden for room and board. He's been back picking weeds and tending flowers for two months each year ever since.
Perhaps Caddell has found the window to his own childhood in storybook Gustavus.
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The Inn Basics
Peace of Selby: Alaska and Delta offer connecting flights from Los Angeles to Fairbanks; fares start at about $600 round trip. Peace of Selby will arrange a charter from Fairbanks to the chalet for about $800 each way; the plane holds three people. Most custom expeditions with Peace of Selby co-owner Art Mortvedt require additional charter air arrangements, and travelers should assume another $1,000-$1,500 (for the group) to cover those costs.
Chalet rates are $275 per person per day or $1,650 per person per week for up to seven people, including meals and local guide services. The chalet is open June 15-Sept. 15.
Information: Peace of Selby, Box 86, Manley Hot Springs, AK 99756; telephone (907) 672-3206 or contact Sweetwater Travel, 119 N. Gushman Street, No. 103, Fairbanks, AK 99701; tel. (907) 451-8100.
Denali West Lodge: Fly to Fairbanks from Los Angeles; there is regular commercial service between Fairbanks and Lake Minchumina on Tanana Air Service, which the lodge will book at $250 per person, round trip.
From the lodge, fly-out trips for fishing, hiking, canoeing and "flightseeing" cost $150 per person (two-person minimum).
Rates are $975 per person for a four-day, three-night stay, including meals, guide and use of the lodge's boats. The lodge is open June-October.
Information: Denali West Lodge, P.O. Box 40, Lake Minchumina, AK 99757; tel. (907) 674-3112.
The Farm Lodge: Alaska, Delta and Mark Air offer direct service from Los Angeles to Anchorage starting at about $500; United offers connecting service through Seattle. Air fare from Anchorage to Port Alsworth on Lake Clark Air is $275 round trip; tel. (800) 662-7661.
Bookings at the Farm are made through Lake Clark Air; rates are $75 per person, per night with breakfast and $150 per person, per night with full meals. The Farm is open year-round. The Farm's air charters are $180-$500 per hour of flying time, depending on the size of the plane.
Information: The Farm Lodge, P.O. Box 1, Port Alsworth, AK 99653; tel. (907) 781-2281.
Gustavus Inn: Alaska and Delta fly to Juneau from Los Angeles; fares start at $522 round trip.
From Juneau, fly to Gustavus via Alaska or one of a half-dozen smaller carriers such as Glacier Bay Airways for about $120 per person, round trip.
The inn charges $130 per person per night, which includes all meals as well as transfers to and from the Gustavus Airport, the Gustavus dock for fishing charters and Glacier Bay National Park headquarters for its nature walk. Open May-September.
Information: From October-April, contact the inn at 7920 Outlook, Prairie Village, KS 66208; tel. (913) 649-5220. From May-September, the address is P.O. Box 60, Gustavus, AK 99826; tel. (907) 697-2254, fax: (907) 697-2255.
For more information: Contact the Alaska Wilderness Recreation Tourism Assn. (P.O. Box 1353, Valdez, AK 99686; tel. 907-835-4300, fax 907-835-5679). The association has 250 members, including 69 remote lodges throughout the state (Peace of Selby and the Gustavus Inn, among them) and will mail a directory for $2.