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The Real Alaska
Alaska's Kenai Peninsula has been aptly described as a "recreation paradise." It seemingly offers an endless array of outdoor activities. River rafting, sea kayaking, hiking, camping, fishing, and wildlife viewing are a few items on the list. Located in south-central Alaska, it is one of the state's most readily accessible areas.
Alaska is such a vast land that one could literally explore for years and never cover it all. Even to lightly touch on exploration, a traveler could spend months. Unfortunately, most people don't have the time to do so. One visiting Alaska wants to experience as adventure as possible in the time available.
"Great Alaska Adventure Lodge," operating out of Sterling, accommodates that desire. The heart of the operation is the lodge situated on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Moose and Kenai rivers. Although the literature refers to it as "three-star," I found the lodge cabins to be rather plain. There is a hot tub for guests' use and the gourmet meals are top notch. A wake-up cup of coffee is brought to guests' cabin door each morning. Those who come for the fishing can practically fish from their cabin doors.
The Kenai is one of Alaska's best salmon fishing rivers and there were several large king salmon caught while I was there, including one weighing 51 pounds. The record for a lodge guest catch is 93 pounds. Guests must purchase a fishing license but all tackle and transportation is provided. Depending upon what kind of fishing (salmon, halibut, or trout) one wants to do, that transportation may include: bush planes; float planes; ocean cruisers; powerboats; or drift boats. Even after a day out in the bush, many guests fish the Kenai that evening.
There are many day-trip "safari" type outings originating at the lodge, for those not interested in fishing. A board in the main lodge tracks guests' scheduled activities for the day. If one is scheduled for the earliest early morning fishing trip, expect to see a morning wake-up coffee brought to your cabin door at 04:30.
One outing I joined was a morning hike up Bear Mountain. Located within the Kenai National Wildlife refuge, the hike offers some beautiful views of Skilak Lake and the surrounding mountains. The day we went, rain was just starting to move into the area. The lake was playing hide and seek through low lying passing clouds. The lupine-lined trail provided an invigorating hike.
Another "safari" was sea kayaking in Kachemak Bay, near Homer. We made a loop off Kachemak Bay, up Peterson Bay, a short portage across to China Poot Bay, and back out into Kachemak Bay, completing a circle. I had left my telephoto camera lenses back at the lodge that day, only to regret it. A pair of bald eagles landed in dead pine and began squawking back and forth.
Kachemak Bay has one of the highest level tide changes in the world. As we crossed into China Poot Bay, the tide was starting to come in. The tide doesn't just slowly roll in, it rushes. We were paddling against the tide and it was every bit as difficult as paddling upstream in a whitewater river. At times we were paddling as furiously as possible and barely making progress. Alaska's long hours of daylight didn't hinder sleep that night.
The next safari was a six-hour sightseeing boat tour into Kenai Fjords National Park. Our guide drove us to Seward to board a sight-seeing boat. The austere, glacier-covered, angular land--still partially held captive to the ice age--is one of the most incredibly beautiful areas on earth. The fjords themselves are glaciated valleys that have been flooded by the sea.
We observed an abundance of wildlife: orca and humpback whales; sea otters; stellar sea lions; puffins and untold numbers of other bird species. As we cruised past the Chiswell Islands, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, thousands of birds darkened the sky. The rocky crags of these isolated islands provide excellent nesting sites for a multitude of bird species.
As our boat approached the calving Holgate Glacier, the noise was astounding: deep booming, piercing cracks, muffled rumbling--frozen thunder. We watched massive splinters of ice chip off and crash into the fjord, sending up sprays of water and rocking our boat. Waiting for more calving, some of the sightseers became impatient, wanting to speed up the process.
"If you sound your horn, won't that cause the glacier to calve more," someone asked the boat's captain.
"If noise caused calving, the glaciers would self-destruct," the captain announced.
Calving glaciers generate an amazing amount of sound just doing what glaciers do. Outside noise has no effect upon the process. At times, noise from the calving glaciers can be heard over 20 miles away. The glaciers in the fjords are fed by the Harding Ice Field, which receives 35-65 feet of snow per year and is a remnant of a giant ice sheet that covered south-central Alaska 15,000 years ago. The new snow compacts the old into ice. Gravitational pull causes the glacial ice to flow out from the ice field in all directions.
The best of "Great Alaska" was saved for last: Bear Viewing Camp. It seems that every visitor to Alaska wants to see bears. "Great Alaska" found a piece of private land bordering Lake Clark National Park on which to establish a camp. The national park is larger than the state of Connecticut and has no road access, so the few visitors arrive mostly by plane.
The bear camp viewing area is located on a small spit of land jutting out into Chinitna Bay on the fringe of a huge alluvial wash-formed meadow, at the base of nearly vertical mountains. The campsite is seaside, nestled behind a line of pine trees separating it from the meadow. Iliamna Volcano smolders in the near distance. Getting there involves a bush plane flight out of Kenai Airport, across Cook Inlet, and a beach landing. Aluminum-framed Quonset hut style tents each sleep two guests. The tent floors are wood, covered with an astroturf-like covering. Sleeping is in sleeping bags on cots. Flying in, we sighted four huge bears in the meadow behind camp. There is a large concentration of bears in the area using the meadow as a feeding ground and, in the words of one park ranger, "a nursery."
These are not semi-domesticated bears in a park where bears and people nearly walk over one another. They are completely wild, and given the remote location, unaccustomed to humans. The brochure says they are brown bears, but a wildlife biologist on staff identified referred to them as grizzlies. "Grizzlies" are actually within the brown bear species. The bears here are huge, whatever you call them. I measured the track one bear left on the soft mud near camp. I wear a size 11 boot and the track's breadth was the length of my boot. The length was much longer with the claw-prints adding an additional six inches.
Almost as impressive as the bears was the leader of the bear camp crew, the Reverend Captain Scotty "Bushmaster" Boyd--that's the way he signs his name. Scotty may be five foot six inches tall, but he is all muscle, or as his camp-mate Steve Griffin said, "gristle and bone." If Scotty isn't one of the greatest outdoorsmen I've ever met, he sure affected the look.
Scotty wears a cowboy hat and long drovers' coat. Under the coat he wears a denim vest and grizzly bear claw necklace; strapped to his side, a long .357 six-shooter; in his hands, a lever-action .357 rifle.
"I don't want to be mixin' and matchin' ammo--especially when I'm in a hurry" Scotty said, explaining why his pistol and rifle were both of the same caliber.
Scotty is the person "Great Alaska" uses to set up and start operations on their wilderness camps. He knows bears. It was he who would lead us out on our observation journeys.
Scotty said his philosophy of bear viewing is, "No interaction. It is best to watch the bears and never let them know you are there."
Scotty would lead us out, downwind and under cover of the pines, or with the pines at our backs hiding our outline from the bears' view. We watched the bears grazing and interacting with one another without disturbing them . We were able to observe wild bears in their natural habitat doing what bears do. Since the salmon run had not yet started, the bears were grazing on the meadow grasses, much like cattle or buffalo.
One sow we saw had three cubs, a fairly rare occurrence according to the wildlife biologist. Another huge male, whom we gave the nickname "Samson," was estimated to stand over 12 feet tall. The other bears always gave him a wide berth, avoiding eye contact. It was clear "Samson" owned the meadow. At our closest approach we were still over a hundred yards away--which is plenty close enough. Late one evening we counted 17 bears in the meadow, outnumbering camp staff and guests by more than two to one.
Bear camp is my most memorable Alaskan experience--out in total wilderness, observing marvelous beasts in their own element, along Scotty's "Alaskan Riviera."
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Text and Photos [c] Thomas R. Fletcher