We are very pleased to have this guest blog by Neil
Osborn highlighting his recent Alaskan adventures with his wife Holly Smith.
July 26, 2013
I took the so-called moderate Willow Creek walk from Kantishna Road House today. Three miles and 1,000 feet rise in elevation they said – and it was all of that and more. Nearly four hours of trekking behind the guide up to one steep peak, then down and up to a second. Then down and up to a third, with the guide yelling “Hey bear!” at intervals, particularly near clumps of alders, to warn off any grizzly who might be browsing. No-one wanted to see if the guide’s bear spray would be effective in a pinch.
The guide had cheerfully told us that the first Denali Park bear death had occurred last year. Apparently the man had moved too close to the bear, seeking a better photo. “At least that’s what it seemed from the pictures on his camera, which was all that was left of him.” This did not reassure me, until I reflected that maybe the man faked his death and went off to live in a remote dry cabin to escape his troubles in the real world. Many fugitives love the utter remoteness and sketchy infrastructure of Alaska — even if it means living in a shack without water, 50 miles from any road.
Aside from the thickets of scrubby alders, the tallest vegetation on the open hillside were occasional five- or six-foot spruce trees, huddled very tightly together in groups of 15 or so — a dog would have had difficulty getting between them. Those trees that group together survive the howling winds of winter, we were told. Singletons do not.
In the muddy bits of the upward path – lots of those – there were puddles. Some of these had oil slicks on them — seepage, the guide suggested, from the gold mining operations that continued until they were banned in the Kantishna region in 1986.
Great satisfaction at completing the upward scramble, squelching through boggy patches and occasionally resorting to all four paws to get up rocky bits. Heart pumping, but not outstripped by the 30- and 40-year-olds who were my companions.
The other reward was the view. To the right, the march of the snow-covered Alaska mountains. Below, the course of Moose Creek, a glacier stream running across a broad gravel floodplain. And to the left a view down the Moose Creek Valley to the North West, with the plains of North Western Alaska laid out beyond the Kantishna Hills. In sunshine, which we had, utterly spectacular.
Then came the interesting bit. “Let’s go off-trail,” said the guide, so we headed off down from the peak across open tundra, spreading out so no patch of vegetation would be crushed by more than one footfall. Tundra looked like grassland from the bus that we rode through Denali Park yesterday. So I wondered why the grizzly bears we saw were rootling around in this grass with such concentrated intent. Turns out tundra is a thick bed of a kaleidoscope of little plants that can live in sub-Arctic conditions — mosses, grasses, lichens and ankle-high berry bushes. There were thousands upon thousands of berries on the hillside, hence the bears’ interest. Blueberries predominated – the walking party ate many as we descended – but also cranberries, a type of raspberry called nagoon berry, and others. Nice for the grizzlies, who survive on berries – very many berries – unlike their rich coastal cousin brown bears, who have fish for dinner every day of the summer salmon run. The coastal bears are twice the size of the grizzlies.
The tundra was very very spongy – like walking across a very large and deep mattress, of the sort a princess might require. That was a kindness to my knees, which were very glad to see the van to go back to base at the bottom of the very long slope.
We later learned that the de Havilland Otter float plane was built in 1954. It was supposed to arrive for Holly and me on the lake by the Redoubt Bay Lodge at 7 am today, but was delayed because of morning fog. This meant reading and drinking coffee in the lounge. I could have done that all day, since memories of yesterday’s two flights were fresh in my mind.
The first was from Kantishna to Talkeetna, an hour’s jog in a-single engined Cessna over flat country, down past the snow-covered Alaska Mountains, or so I thought. Except it wasn’t past the mountains, it was over the mountains. This emerged as the plane pointed straight at the range and began to climb, in a very slow and frail manner, towards them.
The mountains approached more quickly than we gained height — and we were not headed for one of the gaps in the peaks, we were heading for Denali (Mt. McKinley to non-Alaskans), picture-book massive in our path, the tallest peak in North America. The pilot (first year flying this route, he told us later) sensed our small disquiet and said we were not flying right over the 20,000- ft. of Denali. But we went very, very close, winding up the valley of the glacier flowing down from Denali. “See the central moraine of rock debris in the glacier,” said the pilot. “Don’t hit the mountain, you’re far too close,” we thought. And then we were in a kind of mountain amphitheatre, snow covered rock faces all around and above us. Trapped, boxed in, nowhere to go.
The little moth we were strapped in laboured up and up — but surely not up enough to get over the ridge next to Denali. At the last moment, the pilot banked left, where there appeared a very slightly lower ridge. We were just….only just, high enough and we were on the other side.
And so, a little shaky, we were down in Talkeetna. The usual Alaska service circus came next – the airport people didn’t quite know who we were, nor which plane up with which we were supposed to link, nor where that plane might be going.
All sorted eventually, we arrived at a lake and our first float plane. The driver was reassuringly late middle aged and we flew over no peaks. Over the headphones we wore he played the theme tune from “Bonaza” and that irritating hit from the 1950’s, “Volare” But it did seem we scraped the hillside trees as we banked steeply into Otter Bay, by the side of which stands Redoubt Bay Lodge.
Not the Hyatt, this. The lights go out at 11 pm, for eco-reasons, mosquito nets over the beds. A miner’s lamp to strap on your head since there is only electricity in our bathroom, not in the bedroom. (We have the deluxe cabin – the others have outhouses instead of indoor plumbing.) But the food is good and the people in the other two cabins congenial. And the pontoon trip that afternoon yesterday was highly entertaining – a bald eagle, a black bear, then two more bears running across the marsh. And then a Momma black bear with three cubs almost close enough to the boat to touch. Not much bird life, which is strangely sparse in Alaska. But there was thick marsh floating on parts of the lake — we moored and squelched around barefoot on it, a most odd sensation.
After all that I was very much enjoying reading the next morning, contemplating a second coffee, when we were hustled onto a boat. The fog had lifted enough on the other side of the lake for a float plane to set down, we were told, sinking my heart a little.
The fog had not lifted, but the 1954 rattletrap plane did splash in. We squeezed and clambered in and it took off again, tiny, dilapidated, deafening. It flew maybe 100 ft above the ground (but below the fog) for half an hour to the Chuitna River. Very narrow river and bendy. But somehow the plane touches down on a handkerchief of river and then turns round a corner at speed (to avoid burying nose into bank) and comes to a halt. I think landing a 747 in Pall Mall would have been easier.
Off the plane – only for the nimble, not approved by Health and Safety – down an inadequate ladder, balance on the float, jump to a plank, balance, jump to the bank. Onto a metal flat-bottomed boat we go, with guide Evan at the helm, and roar off down the river.
Salmon fishing in Alaska turns out to be much easier than in Iceland. No clambering in rocky streams, casting a fly as far as you can and then stripping, waiting, casting, stripping, waiting for hours. Instead salmon egg bait is used. From bank or boat, you flick the weighted line into the traffic of salmon moving upstream. Holly hit one, then another, then I did three in a row, then Holly a final fish, completing our three-each Alaska legal quota for the day. Generally they fought much less than their Icelandic cousins. That said, one fish nearly injured Holly — I had him hooked 50 yards away, but he leapt out of the water and shook out the hook. The line, spring loaded, twanged back toward the boat, and hit Holly. Hook, salmon eggs and weight missed her, just, because she had alertly seen what was happening and ducked. Wear your protective spectacles when fishing, children.
The best bit was watching Evan clean and fillet our six fish on the sandbank – very slick. Bones, carcass and innards are thrown to the local seagulls, who mustered only polite interest, having eaten dozens of fishy meals already that day.
Float plane back to base – but by now we know the pilot will brush the trees as he takes off from a diminutive stretch of river. We old hands are used to that. The salmon fillets, ferried home inside the left float, are donated to the lodge.
August 3 2013
The bugs did not bite us, as we had been warned they would. The rain did not arrive, except for today, by which time we had already hiked and kayaked and spotted wildlife to satiation. The clothes we bought, at a steep discount, on Kensington High Street were perfectly suited for purpose. We avoided sunburn, broken ankles, despite a thousand tree roots waiting to trip. And on this most fortunate of vacations we saw;
— six grizzlies in Denali
— black bears in Redoubt Bay. A momma black bear with three cubs, a single bear rootling around by the lakeshore within handshake distance and two bears gamboling across the marsh
— caribou, moose, Arctic squirrels and golden eagles in Denali
— bald eagles in Reboubt Bay and Tutka Bay, including two fighting (mating?) in mid air, flying upside down, talons out, with eagle spectators all around.
— a trumpeter swan, flying around us as we kayaked at Redoubt Bay.
— marmots. One who sneaked up behind us whole we lunched on a hike from Kantishna Roadhouse. Another marmot advanced to chew a fellow-walker’s shoelaces, utterly unafraid of us.
— sea otters at Tutka
— rivers crowded with salmon at Tutka and on the Chuitna River
— friendly Stellar’s Jays at Tutka
— Aray, Vivian and Clyde’s spaniel/English setter dog. (Formerly Oreo, before being rescued.)
— Roy, Martin Buser’s best sled pulling doggie, now approaching retirement and working as a greeter-dog.
— baby sled dogs on the way to Martin’s place at the Itidarod Museum.
— some slightly strange Alaskan guides. As Vicki-who-would-like- a-husband at Tutka said, for single ladies in Alaska, “the odds are good, but the goods are odd”. The guides who are particularly interested in the bears — Steve at Redoubt and Bob at Tutka — fit this description most closely.
— Russian Old Believer women in 18th century — 17th? –headscarfs and costume in Homer.