Alaska’s vast wilderness can seem a daunting prospect, but Paul Gogarty samples the best of the state in two National Parks just a short hop from Anchorage
As we clambered into the ten-man canoe, Mereth – our enthusiastic guide – looked up at the Pedersen Glacier, which was glowing like a lodestar on the far side of the eponymous lagoon: “It’s got that blue hue ’cos the ice is so dense it absorbs all the other colour bands,” we were told.
Settling quickly into our allotted places we were soon executing a gentle glide across the turquoise water. “See the harbour seal at ten o’clock and the two otters at two o’clock? Oh and there’s a bear at noon.”
Paddles froze in hands as all of us stared ahead, observing the rolling gangster-swagger of a 1.2m, 135kg black bear grazing the tidal grasses, 55m away. Galvanised by the water between us, we resumed paddling with greater urgency, intent on gaining a closer view. Our quarry, showing considerably less curiosity in us, sniffed at the air before scornfully turning on its heels to return to tree cover.
Behind us in the Pedersen Lagoon Wildlife Sanctuary was our lodge, one of the few places to stay (without camping) within the pristine 2,800 sq km wilderness of Kenai Fjords National Park. The only way in and out is a 65km boat trip from Seward, but for the next two days we were to be marooned by a fierce storm. In the protected calm of the lagoon, it was (despite the persistent rain) hard to imagine the 4m-high waves and 30-knot winds that were currently pounding the Alaskan Gulf.
The parallel-universe feeling persisted upon check-in at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, where assistant manager Phu Ngo informed us that there were no keys to our comfortable raised cabins: “Makes it a whole lot easier, if you unexpectedly meet a bear on the boardwalk, to pop into the nearest room in a hurry.”
Around 10pm on our first evening, as I sat in a rocker on our lodge porch, I stared out at the diluvian world of dripping, riotous vegetation seemingly pulsing around me. Above the numinous lagoon, the light was still holding despite the late hour. Suddenly a thunderclap reverberated between the peaks as a vast chunk of ice calved into the water. As the world settled back into place, the silence was further punctuated by the shrill cry of an eagle and then a grunting harbour seal hauling itself onto a rock.
The shapes appeared sculpted: a dark conical peak, a raggedy fringe of spruce, the long white tongue of the glacier forcing its way through the throat of the valley.
I felt like I’d been teleported back to the beginning of life.
Alaska is the size of France, Spain and Germany combined; if cut in half it would still remain the largest state in the US. Our fortnight-long trip would focus on the south-central belt, sweeping us south from Anchorage down the Kenai Peninsula and back east to the USA’s largest state park, Wrangell-St Elias. Every American journey should include a road trip and we had planned several, as well as the use of kayaks, canoes, water taxis, a ferry, a train and a Cessna light aircraft.
After a breakfast of reindeer sausages and omelettes, we were back in nature’s classroom, canoeing across the lagoon and tramping through alder scrub, willow and spruce to reach the exit point of the Pedersen Glacier. Here, vast calved blocks had created an ice gallery of phantasmagoric shapes.
“It takes 80-to-100 years for the gravel moraine left behind by the retreating glacier to become fertile enough for the spruce to grow after the alder and willow have led the way,” our guide Gus informed us. He also gave a “good but not infallible” tip on living off berries in the wilderness: “The berries that grow beneath the leaf are generally safe; the ones growing above will leave you severely messed up.”
A few hours later, we were eating soup prior to our ‘lumpy’ (one of the trip’s more memorable understatements) boat back to Seward, when a ripple of excitement passed through the room: another black bear had been spotted on the beach. We quickly filed out to the end of the boardwalk. About 30m away, at the water’s edge, a black bear was munching a foot-long salmon. When it had devoured every last morsel, it commenced a ponderous shuffle in our direction. It was at this moment we decided it prudent to withdraw to the lodge and our own lunch.
From Seward we followed the Sterling Highway towards Homer, an artsy-crafty town known as the halibut-fishing capital of the world. Its most famous resident, a prototype hippy, arrived in 1955 and promptly announced he would not wear shoes again – even in winter – before world peace was achieved. His own end came first: he died in 2000.
From Homer we took a 20-minute water-taxi across Kachemak Bay to our next base: Tutka Bay Lodge. Tucked on the south-west Kenai Peninsula, it’s a paradise of just six suites kitted out with a masseuse, a highly respected restaurant and a hot tub on a vast deck that doubles as a helipad. Think wilderness, chi-chi style.
The lodge is in a perfect location for exploring Kachemak Bay State Park. So we took another boat past the pastel-coloured timber homes of Halibut Cove, circled the squawking kittiwakes and black-throated loons on Gull Island, and then beached on Rusty Island. Following a trail through the rainforest to Grewingk Glacier, we happened upon a world where the Ice Age is still in progress, life creeping ever forwards as the glacier recedes.
Swapping to a kayak, we paddled through the Herring Islands beneath the beady eyes of juvenile bald eagles, as a pod of porpoises jack-knifed through the steel-grey water and an otter cruised past on its back as if it were sunbathing.
Ahead of us was a real-estate board stuck on a rock. The small island, we learned, was being sold for $500,000 by a family who only found out about its existence when the father died and they discovered in his will he’d won it in a poker game.
Alaska is the quintessence of America, served with outlandish largesse in a country that already supersizes everything. It was now time to start the journey to the largest of all US national parks: Wrangell-St Elias. Bordering Canada, it lacks the access of most parks, so remains one of the least visited, even though it covers 528,000 sq km, is bigger than Spain and able to swallow Yellowstone six times.
From Whittier, we embarked on a memorable six-hour cruise through the island-studded waters of Prince William Sound (‘The Sound’) to Valdez, and then took an equally unforgettable two-hour road trip up the Richardson Highway. By the time we reached the last outpost of Chitina, beards were considerably longer and there were cattle for sale as well as duck eggs and vegetables, the harshness of the glacial maritime replaced by small-scale farming.
To access the park’s interior and the lonely villages of McCarthy and Kennecott, there are just two choices. Number one: a shuttle minibus or hire-car drive on a 95km unmade road that is (according to a waitress at the Hotel Chitina), “peppered with old railway spikes that rip a tyre up real good.” (In reality, many make the journey in regular cars, with spares, and it only takes two hours). However, we decided on option two: a light aircraft ride, which would provide the perfect overview of the park, get us there in 30 minutes and render unnecessary one of the flightseeing tours from McCarthy.
Our flight in a single-prop Cessna 206 provided what has to be the finest mountain viewing in North America. Beneath us was the Chitina River Valley stretching eastwards, separating the heavyweight Chugach and Wrangell ranges. The Copper River serves as the western boundary and Canada’s Yukon the eastern.
Once into the inhospitable foothills of the Wrangell Mountains, it became as crystal clear as the melt water that this was no place for human beings. Only bear, wolf, moose, eagles, wolverine, coyote and Dall sheep survive here. We were flying across what felt like a continent with absolutely no human imprint.
Thus the hamlet of McCarthy came as something of a surprise. I expected rough-and-ready, but the Wild West of brothels, saloons and prospectors’ cabins had been transformed into pretty timber homes, a guest hotel and a top-end restaurant. A bar hosting a ‘Tall Stories’ night was rammed with the vibrant community of guides and alternative lifestylers who summer here.
Neighbouring McCarthy Lodge boasts a much-vaunted restaurant run by chef Joshua Slaughter. Not only does he double as a cage fighter (how could you not with a name like that?), he serves up a somewhat surreal 19-dish tasting menu. Delicate but hysterical courses grace the menu, with names such as ‘kitchen sink’ (served in a stainless-steel sink strainer with Blumenthal-style foam as the Fairy Liquid). It costs $125 but lasts for three hours. Or you can eat more cheaply in the saloon itself.
After an in-depth chat with Lars Mortennsen, curator of the local museum and moonlighting gold prospector, we set off on a hike of our own. A 15-minute shuttlebus drive took us to Kennecott (also spelt Kennicott by locals), a former copper mining town with the feel of an Indian hill station; backpackers milled about with trekking guides, taking tea.
Once kitted out with crampons and gloves, we strolled with our guide Jesse past a rust-coloured 14-storey wooden copper mill, which was retired in 1938 after helping to build America’s railroads, electrify its cities and supply munitions in the Second World War. Jesse claimed it was the tallest wooden building in the world. Now lacking the clamour of industry, it rises from the hillside with the serene calm of a Tibetan temple.
As we continued out of town, passing a graveyard of abandoned machinery from the old prospecting days, fellow hiker Ralph from California told us that this was the 49th US national park he’d visited and that he had just nine more to go.
When asked how Wrangell-St Elias rated, Ralph unhesitatingly replied: “It’s right up there. I love the volcanoes in Hawaii but this is right up there.”
It was a gloriously sunny day – the finest we’d had throughout our stay in Alaska. We followed a trail that slowly rose towards two white glaciers, swimming their way down from Mount Blackburn, the USA’s second-tallest volcano and its fifth-highest mountain. To our left was a vast dune-like moraine of rock- and soil-covered ice slipping its way through the valley. To our right was Castle Mountain peeking above the tree line. In the scrub either side of us were all manner of wild berries: raspberries, bunchberries, bearberries and blueberries.
Humans are not the only species with a taste for berries of course. Rounding a bend, we came upon a 200kg black bear picnicking by Jumbo Creek. Jesse immediately signalled a stop and ordered us to shuffle together so that we gave the illusion of massive size. When the bear, just 20m away, didn’t withdraw but continued grazing, Jesse voiced concern that it was becoming too used to humans. “Habituated bears are the most dangerous so I may have to come back later to scare it,” he said. “It’s to protect it: if it gets too easy with people it’ll get shot.”
A katabatic wind dropped the temperature as we set out, gingerly at first, onto the Root Glacier. Over the coming hours we learned about the glacier’s evolution and geology, explored its ice caves and even used Jesse’s raspberry straws (“always my favourite candy”) to suck up melt water.
On our return, Jesse breasted a ridge and startled the same bear, grazing on berries just 5m away. This time, fortunately, it did retreat. We watched it ambling off, gradually swallowed by the vastness of the park. Then it was our turn to leave too, and we gathered our bags, hopped back in the Cessna, and began the journey back to civilisation.
Paul Gogarty is a consultant, TV presenter, and former chief travel writer for The Daily Telegraph.
The author travelled with Bridge & Wickers on a tailormade Kenia Peninsula and Wrangell-St Elias trip.