Bear­ing up in Alaska

Ad­ven­tur­ous en­coun­ters at a re­mote lodge

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - DIANA KAPP

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

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