Photo by Brian Flaherty
Photo by Brian Flaherty
A bush plane flies above Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska.
In a virtually inaccessible part of Alaska, there’s a little lodge that takes travelers places very few have been before.
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There’s a certain kind of glacier.
It is photographed from below, always from below, with an almost pornographic eye. The glacier is statuesque, its icy blue contours and grandiose architectural detail on display. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the gleaming thing was built of crystal and gemstones, platinum and pearls. From the usual photographer’s vantage—on the shore of an otherworldly lake or the deck of a boat on a frigid bay—you see building-size chunks of frozen river peel away, leaving jagged crevices as they calve and crash into the water below. It’s spectacular and breath-stopping and beautiful in that way that’s a little too good to be true. But you go along with it. Because what kind of monster casts a skeptical eye on an imperiled beauty?
From their surface, though, glaciers—at least my glacier, the Chitina, where I was delivered onto crunchy, dirty ice on my first full day in Alaska’s Wrangell–St. Elias National Park—aren’t picturesque. They’re covered in ridges and mounds of upturned rock that are every bit as ugly as the man-made ruin of gravel mines. They plow through mountains, carving U-shaped valleys that run with muddy rivers of sediment and bizarre, marblelike pools in mineral hues of sapphire, aquamarine, and tarnished copper green. There’s incredible beauty here, to be sure, but it’s not the prettiness of a National Geographic centerfold. It’s something else. Something primal. It is creation and destruction.
The Wrangell–St. Elias is not only the largest national park you’ve never heard of, it’s the largest national park in the country. At 13 million acres, it’s incomprehensibly vast. According to the National Park Service, it’s the same size as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Switzerland combined. However, unlike most national parks, the Wrangell is virtually roadless. Both of its unpaved access roads are open only in summer, and each is just about 60 miles long. The result is millions of acres of public land inaccessible to even the hardiest backcountry adventurer.
The only way to reach the interior of the park is by air, and because helicopters are prohibited in the Wrangell wilderness, traveling by air means flying by bush plane. April through September, you can fly to Ultima Thule, an adventure lodge located 100 miles from the nearest maintained road. There, Paul and Donna Claus and their three adult children—all five of whom are pilots—and a staff of 20 host up to 14 guests per week, in nine cabins furnished with Tiffany-style lamps, wrought-iron stoves, fine linens, and house-branded toiletries. But the lodge’s most extravagant amenity is not its cedar hot tub or the delicious multicourse organic meals; it’s the fleet of ultralight, land-anywhere Piper Super Cub airplanes that the guests have at their disposal.
My midsummer visit was both my first time in Alaska and my first experience with accommodations whose nightly cost topped my monthly rent. And after a lifetime of associating the outdoors with varying degrees of discomfort—building character while shivering through the night on a half-inch, half-deflated Therm-a-Rest, sitting on a boulder eating rehydrated beef stroganoff from a pouch—I wasn’t sure how I felt about being ferried from mountaintop to mountaintop by my own personal pilot.
Leading up to the trip, a version of that Zen question about a tree falling in the forest began to play on repeat in my mind: If an out-of-shape thirtysomething writer spends four days in the Alaskan wilderness without breaking a sweat, or choking down a military-grade ready-to-eat meal, or injuring herself—does she experience the wilderness at all?
Donna, aka “Missus Claus,” and Paul built Ultima Thule on land Paul’s father homesteaded in the 1960s, before the Wrangell was parkland. Everything here, I’m told more than once, had to be brought by plane. Every board and nail, every electrical wire, every roll of toilet paper, every bottle of Spanish wine, even the hot tub—all of it flown in. The planes are responsible for the lodge’s existence, and they are its raison d’etre. Without them, Ultima Thule would feel like an extraordinarily pleasant prison, an Alcatraz of luxury cabins with startlingly green grassy lawns and immaculately tended flower beds—an attractive but disturbingly isolated place surrounded by impenetrable, threatening wilderness. But because of the planes, the Claus family homestead has become, in effect, a 13-million-acre private estate encompassing some of the most remote wildland on Earth. Its guests get to visit places rarely, if ever, seen by human eyes.
At 9:45 on a bright Monday morning, my first full day at Ultima Thule, I met my pilot, Steve Davidson, aka Steve-O, on the lodge’s dirt airstrip beside the brimming Chitina River. Having woken at midnight with my alarm clock—unsettled by what I thought was dawn light through the curtains, although it was actually dusk—I was struggling to find my temporal bearings. I’d managed to fall back to sleep, but couldn’t shake the disorientation, the sense that I was somewhere fundamentally unlike anywhere I’d ever been.
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Moments later, I was sitting directly behind Steve-O in a three-seat yellow Piper Super Cub with massive, doughnut-like tires that cost $2,500 apiece and can land on any reasonably flat surface, from alpine ridges to rough ice fields. Unlike the three flights that brought me from California to the lodge, this trip wasn’t about getting anywhere. Instead, Steve-O was taking me on what the Clauses call a flight safari. The flight was the destination.
Since I’d only ever flown on commercial airplanes, the premise of the outing felt counterintuitive. How much could I really see from the air? Snow-encrusted peaks and expansive ice fields and crumbling fjords, sure. Those geographic spectacles were practically designed for long-distance viewing. But birds or mountain goats or grizzly bears? Wouldn’t even the most impressive of them look like specks on the landscape?
Steve-O lifted us over the Chitina, one of the largest glacial rivers in the world outside of the poles. It was the color of a clay slurry, a milky gray-brown. Silt from upriver glaciers had formed arteries so intricate that they reminded me of a human heart. Its banks weren’t verdant. It wasn’t an aquatic highway. It wasn’t irrigating farmland, giving life to countless tillers and traders. It wasn’t some sweet-flowing thing. I couldn’t think of a song that had been written about, or named for, the Chitina. But it felt like a force as powerful as the Mississippi, the Nile, the Amazon. At certain points, its braids stretched five miles across, and it churned as if to demand attention, to prove itself one of the world’s great rivers. I was transfixed.
Across the river, we slid into a valley that, from a distance, had looked like a small, mossy gulch amid the expanse of looming peaks. But as we grew closer, I saw that it was wide and outrageously green and segmented by narrow, winding rivulets where trumpeter swans floated in a messy line. Even from the air, the size of each swan was astounding: Up to five feet in length, with eight-foot wingspans, the birds, like our little Piper, need 100 yards of runway to take flight. What had looked like moss was a lime-colored marshland. It was lusher and greener and more alive than I would have imagined Alaska, the frozen north, could ever be.
Steve-O spotted a bull moose knee-deep in water, its rack as threatening as a pitchfork. The bull stood his ground, unfazed by the buzzing overhead. Then, as I silently searched the landscape for more signs of life, Steve-O veered hard to the right, swooping toward the ground like a bird of prey.
“Did you see that?” he said into the intercom as he pointed to a scurrying blur of shaggy, red-brown fur. It was a grizzly, a “good-size” one. We looped lower and lower, Steve-O determined to give me the best possible view. But with the speed of a much smaller, nimbler animal—a field mouse escaping a hawk’s talons—the bear disappeared into nearby bushes before we could get close enough to make out its features.
Our encounter was thrilling, if not entirely satisfying. Some part of me, childish and stubborn, felt like the distance between me and the ground was somehow cheating. As if I weren’t really there at all. As if the altitude were not only a physical distance but a psychological one.
Wrangell–St. Elias was not like any wilderness I had known. The kind of wilderness I had previously experienced was tame enough that I could actually convince myself I was at home there. Here, there were bears and raging, frigid rivers, and glacial crevasses that could swallow me whole at one misstep. This was bigger, wilder. Less predictable. And being here upended the usual comfort I took in the outdoors, any false sense of confidence.
Ultimately, I came to understand the distance the way I understood the .44 Magnum that Steve-O wore strapped to his chest. (It was for “bad bears.” Not to be confused with “good bears”—most bears—he had told me.) In Alaska, respecting nature means taking it seriously. For me, it meant admitting that the danger of this place is the flip side of its beauty. Sometimes we need to keep our distance. If I were to see it at all, I would need to see it from above.
Having worked at Ultima Thule for years, Steve-O has an acute recognition of how his guests see Alaska, of what intrigues and excites them. He knows their obsession with grizzlies, their preoccupation with melting glaciers and a changing climate. It’s not surprising, then, that our first stop was the crunchy ice of the Chitina Glacier. Or that later, he would take me to hike—along a photographer and his pilot-guide—to the base of another glacier, the Bremner, named for a prospector who was the first non-native to live in that area of what is now the Wrangell wilderness.
Before landing, we circled again and again, gauging the direction of the wind off the ice. Having once harbored a fear of flying so extreme it produced claustrophobic panic attacks, I had worried that flying in these small, single-engine Super Cubs would cause a relapse. Instead, I fell for the peculiar way they moved through space. Steve-O, who has pale blue eyes, temples etched with sun lines, and an almost monastic calm, calls these planes “magic carpets.” To me, they felt like riding on the back of a dragonfly, skimming the earth’s surface, darting here and there, taking off and landing with the apparent ease of an agile insect. During the days I spent on flight safari at Ultima Thule, I was never once afraid.
At Bremner, the air tossed us gently—more similar to the sway of a boat in a modest sea than the whapping, dropping, frightening turbulence of a large jet. When Steve-O spotted his runway, he set us down on an impossibly short, beachlike gully of powdery sand. It wasn’t an airstrip; it was a sandbar. I never knew an airplane could land in such a place.
We hopped from the plane and walked over dunes and along ridges covered in an odd, rubbery surface embedded with stones as though they’d been preserved in tar. From this alien landscape, delicate blue flowers somehow grew. It was warm, in the mid-70s, and I peeled off layers of clothing as we hiked. We passed a small, round pool as clear and blue as the Caribbean. It was encircled in lake grass, and I bent to touch the water, expecting it to be chilly, but it was warm enough to swim.
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Had I not been accompanied by three men, I would have stripped down and jumped in. But instead I was struck again by the realization that not only was I not alone, I couldn’t have been. In the past, I’ve sought out wilderness when I was craving quiet—that haunting, unnerving quiet of being away from the background buzz of electricity, the onslaught of traffic and stress and screens that defines urban life. Previously, I’d gone deep into nature because I needed to find something resembling peace. But here, in a wilderness that was wilder and more remote than anywhere I’d ever been, there was civilization. There had to be. I couldn’t step off the porch of my cabin and wander, alone and destinationless, because this wilderness could kill me.
So we continued on. We climbed over boulders, leapt across a fast-flowing stream, and half fell down a hillside of loose rock. Finally, we stopped. Across the icy valley was Bremner Glacier. From above, I’m sure it wasn’t very different from the Chitina. But from this vantage, looking up, it was every bit the tall, blue-hued, picturesque beauty of our collective imagination. It was the glacier of my dreams.
On a large rock near the water’s edge, Steve-O delicately laid out a tablecloth the size of a large kitchen towel and unpacked lunch. It was an indulgent spread. There was an “adventure sandwich” of roasted turkey, fresh mango, and Havarti cheese, with roasted pineapple chutney, green onions and cilantro, habanero-mango aioli, lettuce foraged from the Clauses’ greenhouse garden, and a poppy seed bun baked that morning by Kellie, the lodge’s in-house pastry chef. There were fresh-baked cookies, kettle chips, tiny wax-wrapped rounds of cheese, house-made trail mix, hothouse-grown tomatoes, tangerines, and Kellie’s trail bars, each brushed with chocolate and stamped with the Ultima Thule logo. It wasn’t an ostentatious meal, this glorified picnic lunch. But it was a universe away from my typical experience of wilderness dining: At Ultima Thule, I didn’t even have to carry my own sandwich.
At the end of each day, I would return to my cabin, leave my muddy hiking boots on the front porch, change into street clothes, and head to the lodge for a glass of Spanish wine. Most afternoons, the kitchen crew prepared a dinner of organic vegetables and local game—bison from an Anchorage butcher, perhaps, or Copper River salmon.
After dinner, I would return to my cabin and sit alone at its cherrywood desk, sipping wine and looking through photographs from the day. I would use my share of our limited satellite internet bandwidth to Skype home, at once grateful that I could and wondering whether I would have benefited from being cut off entirely.
For me, being in the wildest of wilderness but never without the companionship of civilization was a culture shock. It was a disorientation as profound and unsettling as the lack of darkness during an Alaskan summer night. It’s ironic, but fitting, that the times I felt most at peace were not in “nature” but back at the lodge in the evenings, when I could sit alone in the wood-fired hot tub and stare up at the lingering dusk. I had come to this place wanting it to deliver the easy solitude and inner quiet that was increasingly absent from my day-to-day life at home.
But despite its many indulgences, Ultima Thule did not entertain my fantasy that wilderness is some kind of emotional cure-all. Instead, it asks outsiders to accept that the Wrangell is wild because it has escaped our demands. Coming to the Wrangell forces us to confront our fragility. And to appreciate that part of the beauty of a place this remote and raw is that it is not for us.
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