Just Back: Sandy's Alaska Trip Report
Winging It in Alaska
Outside GO's president Sandy Cunningham reports back from the Last Frontier about her incredible flying safari.
By: SANDY CUNNINGHAM
FLYING HIGH in Alaska
"I have to head out real quick to drop a guy up on a mountain." Such a matter-of-fact statement, said as dusk was fast approaching, may seem bizarre, but it was made by one of the world’s greatest bush pilots. A small fleet of seriously cool Piper Cub bush planes is Paul Claus’s only mode of transportation into and out of the largest and one of the least-visited national parks in North America.
For more than 40 years Paul Claus and his family have called the vast untamed Wrangell–St. Elias wilderness home—and at the Ultima Thule lodge they’ve been offering an unprecedented level of remote bush-luxe in hands-down one of the most spectacular wilderness experiences on earth. If you do not like small planes and bush flying, this is not the trip for you!
When my husband, an experienced African bush pilot and wildlife guide, found out I had been invited on this trip, he begged and pleaded to take my place. “Never!” I said, considering he had just returned from an epic heli-skiing trip in Iceland. This one was at the top of my bucket list and I was hell-bent on heading north.
Birds of a Feather ....
With slight trepidation after a warning from one of our fellow travelers about an imminent snowstorm and the unlikelihood we would even make it to the lodge, we ventured southeast toward the tiny hamlet of Chitina (south-central Alaska). It was a rainy day but we explored nonstop along the way. We made it to Chitina by 3 p.m., and waiting for us next to a huge red and yellow De Havilland STOL plane was the man himself, Paul Claus. I was a little nervous meeting him, as I had heard and read many stories of his exploits on land, sea, and air. One of the great Alaska legends, Paul at 58 is boyish, warily friendly with bright blue eyes and a shock of gray-blond hair. He has been flying since he was 13 years old, and rumor has it he doesn't suffer fools gladly. Cheekily, I asked to ride co-pilot and he said yes. Thrilled, I vowed to sit quietly and not ask inane questions. Just before takeoff I murmured something about my husband being a bush pilot in Africa; knowing we lived in Santa Fe, Paul asked if he still flew. I said occasionally, and one of his friends used to be a bush pilot and climbing guide in Alaska (also of legendary proportions). Paul's eyes twinkled, really twinkled, and he asked if that was Bob Jacobs. I almost fell out of the plane.
In 1960 Paul's father, John, secured a cabin site in the Wrangell Mountains, around 100 miles from the last paved road and about 50 air miles from McCarthy, an isolated abandoned copper-mining town. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter designated 11 million acres of federal lands in Alaska as National Monuments. Wrangell-St. Elias National Monument was one of them. At this time any permanent buildings within the park became illegal—but the Claus land and cabin were grandfathered in, giving them one of the largest and most magnificent backyards with practically no neighbors, aside from moose, bears, and sheep!
Your Own National Park
Wrangell–St Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest national park in North America, a mighty 13.2-million acre wilderness. It boasts the world’s highest coastal mountain range, massive glaciers both advancing and retreating between vast chalky river valleys, and towering peaks. It is also one of the least visited national parks, with fewer than 90,000 visitors per year. (Compare that to Yosemite, with over 4 million visitors annually and a modest 748,036 acres.) The season is short, and there is also a total lack of infrastructure into the park—no roads, no scenic highways, no hotels, motels, or even campsites. The many who don’t fly into Wrangell–St Elias get to see only a tiny fraction of the park. If you want to stay within the park, you either have to pack a rifle and a very pricey hunting license and camp, or stay at Ultima Thule.
"Long before recorded history, the human experience was conceived in and born of wilderness. In the deepest recesses of our hearts resonates a longing to reach out and once again grasp those primal areas. It is reassuring to know that the experience is available in those places of truly majestic wilderness—places like Wrangell–St. Elias." —George F. Mobley
Paul may be the most storied family member, but then there's Donna, a legend in her own right, a championship skier who headed to Alaska as a young woman and realized early on that if she wanted to do anything in the wilderness she needed to learn how to fly. She met Paul in the late ’70s; they wed in 1982 and moved out into the wilderness and began developing their rustic family camp into a world-class wilderness lodge. Don't be fooled by Donna's brisk manner—below the surface is Mama Bear, warm, funny, and the most ridiculously great chef. Considering the distances involved for flying in supplies, the self-reliance of the Ultima Thule family is impressive. Living off the land is not a choice but a way of life. Fish are caught in the rivers and oceans; moose, deer, and elk are supplied from hunters; and a massive greenhouse supplies all the fresh salad and veggies. Local berries are picked and then plumped into heaping pies and jams. Fresh breads and pancakes come from an age-old sourdough starter. There is a never-ending aroma of pure heaven wafting in the lodge, and at dinnertime it’s a magnet for all the camp staff as they gather for the end of the day.
Daughter Ellie runs the show, effortlessly and with a mischievous sense of humor. An avid outdoorswoman, Ellie, along with her siblings, was homeschooled and grew up in this remote wilderness paradise. With no shortage of adventures, Ellie at age 13 chose to train for and enter the Iditarod, and she still holds the title of Youngest Finisher in the history of the race. She also has her pilot’s license and has logged a couple hundred hours in the Super Cubs, but she prefers to let the rest of her flying family, including her Blackhawk pilot husband, chauffeur her around. (I get that!) Warm and funny, Ellie is the person everyone gravitates to when Paul quietly departs.
Ellie’s younger brother Jay is following in his grandfather’s and father's footsteps and forging his own way into the wilderness, recently completing his own small wilderness lodge not far from his parents’ (“not far” meaning a 20-minute plane ride). A rustic outpost with a contemporary flair, it’s perfectly placed on the shores of a pristine mountain lake busting with rainbow trout. Jay is not only a talented craftsman but also an avid outdoorsman and athlete—he picked this spot so he could backcountry ski from his own front door.
This is much more than just another wilderness lodge. This is one of those rare gems, an absolute must-do bucket list destination. All the members of the family are legends in their own right, and come hell or high water I was going to get there. Luckily Ellie invited me up!
Adventures by Air
Apart from flying in and out of the lodge, I never got to go up with Paul, since he was flying a world-famous photographer around. Instead my flight-mate Jennine and I had a pilot named Loni, who spends half of his life in Alaska and the other half in Kenya. He was an amazing pilot with a wry kind of blink-and-you-miss it sense of humor. Endlessly patient with our hapless and uncoordinated mounts and dismounts of the plane, Loni was not only a gentleman but also the best darn bush pilot and wildlife guide. He would pick out a camouflaged moose from thousands of feet up in the air and then swoop down to give us a closer look. Jennine and I would squeal like a pair of five-year-olds, partly from the joy of seeing the wildlife like this and partly because it was a lot like a roller coaster ride—except with much better views.
"Each day was a different adventure. There was no itinerary and everything was always, always weather dependent. We would start off with a quick briefing at the airstrip, pile in for a short takeoff, and in no time we would be coursing through the vast mountain peaks and valleys and over the chalky Chitina River, climbing up huge mountain faces as Dall sheep scattered in the peaks."
We floated over lumbering grizzlies the size of Volkswagen buses and landed on the water alongside a swimming moose. We touched down on mountaintops and glaciers, getting out to hike and explore and picnic in areas few can ever access. The pilots all had an uncanny ability to land on tiny remote mountaintops or on glacial fields speckled with treacherously pretty moulins, which can be hundreds of yards deep. We would course through glacial icebergs, skimming the icy waters; it felt like we were in an insane video game.
We would land for a picnic lunch surrounded by beautifully plump ptarmigans. Eagles and hawks soared overhead. This is a twitcher’s paradise—with over 20,000 square miles of boreal spruce forest, muskegs, lakes, rivers, ocean shorelines, alder and willow thickets, alpine meadows, ice fields, and glacial barrens, Wrangell–St. Elias provides rich habitat for many birds.
Fall proved to be a spectacle of epic proportions. Wrangell–St. Elias is home to many species of mammals and contains one of the largest concentrations of Dall sheep in North America. We saw moose near willow bogs and lakes and a small herd of transplanted bison. We flew beside mountain goats precariously perched on sheer rock walls, and we saw grizzlies—a lot of them. We never saw the wolves or the mountain lions but the stories of them abound.
Dinnertime was always a chance to hear stories, the ones about the awful clients with the terribly behaved children, and about the time a young woman was staying on while the family headed to Anchorage for something or other. She awoke to a huge grizzly breaking down her door. This was the same grizzly they believe had been responsible for breaking into this one particular cabin several times, and when he did he emptied it out, literally. He would throw everything outside the cabin, so the family would arrive home to chairs, tables, sofas, and mattresses strewn across the lawn. The young lady staying there that night at the time grabbed her shotgun and blasted several times. The bear staggered outside covered in buckshot and later perished. After that there were no reports of any further burglaries.
At the End of the Day
Sometimes before or after dinner we would sit outside around the fire or bask in the Swedish hot tub beneath a full harvest moon. It was never quiet—there was so much to learn, to ask, to explore, that the conversation was never-ending. On our last night I retired early—well, earlier than my travel companions—and was awoken by a ruckus coming from the main lodge. A local hunter who was back from a hunt with his clients was letting off a bit of steam at the end of the night, his boorishly loud voice cutting into the tranquility of the evening. Where was that grizzly burglar when you needed him?
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