Bearing up in Alaska
Adventurous encounters at a remote lodge
In our wanderings over the years, from Japan to Italy, we have arrived travel-worn at lodges to be handed a flute of freshly-squeezed juice or a frosty bottle of water. At a mountain hideaway in India, the proprietor received us by pressing a red-powder dot on to our foreheads.
At Tebay Lodge, nestled deep in Alaska’s WrangellSt Elias National Park and Preserve, about two hours from Anchorage by amphibious propeller-driven plane, the welcoming gesture is an introduction to the air horn.
“You will find an air horn in every room. Don’t go anywhere without it,” Jay Claus booms to my family of five — myself, my husband, my two teens and a tween.
“Blow it and I’ll know there is a bear in camp. I’ll come running with my gun,” he says matter-of-factly. “Even to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Especially then.”
Tebay Lodge, which opened last year on the banks of sapphire-blue Tebay Lake, sits in a major bear thoroughfare, midway to the animals’ all-you-can-eat buffet that is the summer spawning ground of the Copper River salmon just up the lake.
Jay, a 28-year-old native, built his lodge by hand, first clearing a gravel runway so he could get there, then felling and debarking trees and shaping them into sturdy pillars and posts. It sleeps only about 10 guests and in summer you need to rent the property in full, which is what we do, meaning that we have Jay, another guide and the lodge chef, who also happens to be Jay’s girlfriend, to ourselves. Over our week-long stay, Jay rarely makes a move without his guns. I learn to gauge grizzly danger by noting the trigger readiness of his calloused hands.
Nearing the end of our third day’s outing, I see Jay’s fingers clench in high alert. Returning from a trek up to a mountain pass, we are still a kilometre or so from our boat, our transport back to home base. Though we’ve spent a half-day climbing up to the pass, our descent has whizzed by in 90 minutes, as we glissade down the snowfields in our hiking boots, slip-sliding along like penguins.
In my many guided hikes on snow, I have never been allowed, let alone encouraged, to glissade — “too dangerous, you can lose control!” the guides have warned.
But Jay’s core philosophy decrees that wilderness jaunts are meant to be a little wild. “When was the last time you experienced any unpredictability?” he queries my 16-year-old son, without waiting for a response before spouting his view that outdoor experiences have become overly controlled, almost hermetically sealed.
Once the snowfields, then scree, give way to meadows lush with wild iris and columbine in a deep valley, we spy the pond ringed with dense vegetation where we began our hike. Our motorboat is moored in Lake Tebay, on the other side of the pond, but before we can reach it, Jay stops cold. “Bear,” he mutters. He has spotted it across the valley heading toward the water, in our direction. “We’re going to meet,” he says. “There’s no other way out.”
“Ho bear. Helloooo,” Jay calls out, as we cower behind him. “We’re just passing through. We’re not planning to invade your territory.” “Hooooo bear,” my husband echoes meekly. Seconds later, 9m away, the bushes shake and a smallish black bear streaks through the foliage, then bounds away. On seeing its small stature, we sigh with relief, but Jay immediately disabuses us of our naivety. “These little guys are actually meaner,” he says.
Two days earlier we’d encountered a much larger bear. We had just pushed off shore in the boat when we saw a gargantuan grizzly the colour of cinnamon toast standing on his back feet at the water’s edge in Smokey Bear stance. “He’s scared of us,” Jay reassured us. “These bears don’t stand like that unless they’re threatened.”
Jay’s grandfather staked a land claim to 2ha on the nearby Chitina River in the 1950s under the Homestead Act, and Jay’s father raised his family 160km from the nearest road. Jay’s forebears were among the first humans to inhabit their valley deep in a 5.3 million hectare backyard, which, in 1980, became the Wrangell-St Elias National Park (now America’s largest). In the 1960s the family opened chic Ultima Thule Lodge, now hosting Hollywood starlets and tech titans for flight safaris.
In 2014, looking for independence, Jay struck out to develop Tebay. Friends flew in to assist with roof alignment, the installation of solar panels and counters (using flat stones found nearby) and the building of a wood-fired sauna. Jay also refurbished an old trapper’s cabin, where my husband and I bunk. It is quite deluxe, with a cowhide rug, a fur throw draped on the big bed and a mosquito net hung like a princess canopy, yet still feels plenty rugged.
Our final day begins with great anticipation: All week Jay has talked up a day of water play on Tebay Lake, which seems preposterous — the water is cold and we’ve awoken to a sky full of mean clouds after two bright days. But because we have lugged along wetsuits, and we have come to trust Jay’s definition of fun, we are game.
A few of us hike halfway around the lake to a meeting spot while the others boat over with fishing gear, paddleboards, kayaks and Little, a retriever. Every toy is in use within minutes, my 14-year-old daughter paddling with her dog pal around the inlet while her younger sister lies across my kayak squealing with delight, never mind that the air is chilly in a way that would have sent us racing inside at any other lakeshore. “Get a picture,” my son screams from a lakeside cliff, ready to jump in. I miss the shot, which is fine because he leaps seven more times.
Midday, Jay lights a driftwood bonfire on shore. We huddle close, our wetsuits still on. Lunch arrives via boat delivery. As we bite into warm empanadas and sip hot tea, we watch rainbow trout leap out of the water.
On our return to the lodge we race to the sauna, peel off our clothes and sprawl across the built-in benches. As the warmth from the wood fire envelops us, its logs chopped from trees on the property, I can’t help but appreciate the power of hardscrabble ingenuity, and the very human instinct to make something from nothing.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL