Carving your own slice of wilderness
Standing on the bank of an arctic river, you gaze down into water so clear you can see char ghosting at the bottom of a 10-foot pool. The river pours downstream, cutting its way through a valley hewn of rock and tundra—a hard, beautiful place cast in surreal light. Your inflatable raft lies skidded up on the gravel, and a pot of water steams over a fire. You’ll make a few casts for dinner and spend the night here, not far from fresh-edged tracks of wolf and grizzly. There’s no one but you in this valley; nor in the next, or the one beyond. It’s been six days since your bush plane drop-off, and another half dozen until the river swirls past an off-grid village. You’ll take your time as you go, making side hikes, pausing often to watch and listen, to feel yourself filling with the land’s silence. When you pull up to the village, the sight of others of your kind will be jarring, the angular forms of buildings strange. From there you’ll catch the mail plane back to a bush hub, then a jet to Anchorage, then another Outside, each stage of the return a reminder of just how far you’ve traveled—beyond any distance measured in miles.
If this scene stirs your soul but seems out of reach, I’d say think again. Whatever outdoor skills you may have honed elsewhere translate directly to the Great Land. Sure, the scale of everything here is a bit daunting, and childhood’s bear in the closet lurks. But here’s the reality: If you’ve canoed a rocky river in Wisconsin, backpacked a chunk of the Catskills, or just been a diehard day hiker, you have the experience you need to find and take on similar (if not a bit more challenging) chunks of wild Alaska. After all, gravity, weather, wildlife, and water work the same here as they do anywhere else. Everything just feels edgier and bigger here, but that’s a good thing.
If anyone’s a living testament to that go-for-it ethos, that’d be me. Very little of my own upbringing prepared me for uncounted thousands of miles traveling in bush Alaska. The son of a career diplomat, I grew up in distinctly un-wild locales: Sicily, Austria, Thailand, and Washington, D.C. Brief, memorable, every-few-years visits to my grandparents’ place—a cluster of log cabins on a small Michigan lake—shaped my imagination, fired up an inborn fascination with all things wild, and gave me the chance to develop a few basic outdoor chops. But I didn’t camp out for the first time until my teens—four or five several-day backpacking trips on beaten trails. My family’s move to Maine during my college years gave me a chance to hone what skills I had and work on new ones: fast-water canoeing; handling chain saws, axes, and guns. All that may sound like impressive prep, but fact is, by the time I arrived in Alaska in May 1979 I’d camped out fewer than three dozen times, taken a double handful of river paddles, and had fired a gun at a live animal exactly once. By traditional Alaskan standards, I was a cheechako—a raw-as-it-comes newcomer teetering on the edge of screwing up.
Nonetheless, off I went on a fly-in, ultra-remote 750-mile canoe trip along the spine of the western Brooks Range, featuring a brutal 100 miles lining a canoe and gear up the Ambler River, then portaging everything over a mountain pass to the Noatak. Except for the top-end canoe (my college graduation present), we had barely adequate food and gear to support our inexperience. If you accused me or my friend Peter of biting off far more than we should have been able to swallow, our creaky older selves would sagely nod.
But nonetheless we made it, one day to the next for six weeks; and if I could pull off that crazy trip and others over those first rookie years, anyone with a skosh of outdoor experience can pull off a reasonable Alaskan wilderness jaunt, tailored to your abilities and comfort zone. And if you can, and have any simmering urge, you should go. I’d argue that there’s no better (perhaps no other) way to understand wild Alaska than a self-planned, boots-on-the-ground journey through a slice of it. And if not now, when?
So, where to start? The first step is to take honest stock of your skills and particular interests (bird watching? Fly fishing?), and then your budget—money and time—to help you focus. If you’re thrift-oriented, you’re not out of luck. You (and maybe a friend or two to split the cost) could drive from Wherever USA to Alaska, car camping and accessing trails as you explore the state’s limited but nonetheless vast road system. Any reliable set of wheels will work. Alaskan roads, too, are just roads. Do some online, guidebook, and/or map research; The MILEPOST® (same publisher as Alaska magazine), local information, and contour maps are my go-tos. There are endless road-accessible hiking possibilities to suit all skill levels, from sedate strolls to technical climbing. You can use established trails to get up into scenic, easy-traveling ridges, then perhaps go off on your own if you want to go into full-fledged wild mode. Some towns—Anchorage and Juneau come to mind—have fabulous, myriad, highly accessible trails. Take advantage of, but don’t limit yourself to state, local, and national parks and forest paths. See an inviting, doable roadside scramble? Go for it. No matter where you roam, just make sure you can find your way back. Getting lost is incredibly easy to do, even on a relatively short hike in perfect conditions; and ranks among the top real dangers you face, along with hypothermia and falls.
Or you could shape the road trip thing into a sea kayaking or freshwater paddling adventure. Carry your own boat or do some online research on local rental and drop-off/pick up options. Another possibility is renting one or more of many remote cabins scattered about the state, some administered by the state of Alaska or the U.S. Forest Service. These wilderness staycation sites generally require reservations far in advance; the rates are reasonable and many stand in postcard locations, some hike-in or road accessible; others by boat or small charter aircraft.
Speaking of danger, what about wildlife—especially that suddenly more than metaphorical bear? Well, most of Alaska is bear country and chances of an encounter vary according to location and season. But with ultra-rare exceptions, our hairy cousins do their best to steer clear of us and remain unseen. I’ve met more bears, both black and brown/grizzly, than I can count, and have never had to fire a gun or unleash a burst of pepper spray. Read up on bear safety and be careful, not fearful. You’re statistically far more at risk driving the Seward Highway than walking up a valley stuffed with grizzlies.
At the max end of things, a fly-in trip far off grid is well worth the splurge of an air charter. You can pay for guided, all-inclusive journeys if you don’t feel quite experienced or adventurous enough; but doing it yourself isn’t that complicated. Investigate gear rentals and flying services, and search for potential trips that fit your bill. As for that danger thing, the plane ride itself (quite safe) tops the list. My hands-down favorite Alaskan adventure is a paddling trip. Rivers offer the easiest passage through trackless country, and they float your gear, so you don’t have to carry it. There’s something magical about following the course of a river winding its way through the wild, reminding us of our own small journey through gravity and time. And connecting with that lies at the heart of knowing not just Alaska, but ourselves.
Nick’s new, all-ages color photo storybook, Romeo the Friendly Wolf, is available at nickjans.com.