“We just pick a mountain or river, then go and play,” says Ty Potgieter, co- manager of Winterlake Lodge, pointing across the lake into the vast Alaskan wilderness where rolling mountains blur into infinity. And with a shiny red Robinson R-44 helicopter sitting on the grass, a resident pilot at the ready and 24 hours of summer daylight, why not?
As we whir over the lake, a bull moose stands knee-deep munching water lilies. Within a few minutes, the alpine tundra merges into the ice fields of Hayes Glacier. Lofty peaks that look like sculptured meringue surround us and jagged crevasses cut through the layers of compressed ice below. “Do you want to taste pure water?” asks Ty as we touch down on the glacier.
Aquamarine is often used to describe water but to see is to believe. The intense colour of a series of glacial pools contrasts with the white ground sparkling like billions of diamonds trapped in prisms of ice. The crunch of our boots breaks the silence as we walk around a pool that would be the envy of any five-star hotel. I lie on my stomach and drink, savouring the freshness of water with a 1,000 year history.
Walking on a glacier is just one of the indulgences upscale Alaskan backcountry lodges offer guests. Exclusive experiences like dog mushing, bear viewing, fishing for wild salmon, whale watching, river rafting, naturalist-led hikes and kayaking expeditions enable savvy travellers to interact with the pristine landscape. And with hand-hewn log cabins, massages, yoga, hot tubs and gourmet meals, there is no compromise on pampering.
A one hour floatplane flight from Anchorage, Winterlake Lodge is part of the Within The Wild group owned and operated by the Dixon family. Renowned chef Kirsten Dixon, together with her husband Carl, two daughters and their partners, specialises in remote eco-luxe lodges. Each of the five one- to three-bedroom cabins evokes the Alaskan dream. Large windows in knotted wooden walls frame the pretty lake. An intricate patchwork quilt covers the handmade bed, flowers from the garden sit on the bathroom vanity and a rocking chair on the deck completes the picture. “We work hard to give guests an experience they won’t forget,” says Kirsten.
At Tutka Bay Lodge, another of the Dixon’s eco-luxe lodges, (a 25-minute water taxi ride away from the city of Homer or 90 minutes via floatplane from Anchorage), I learn how to cook Alaskan style. A hidden cove of Kachemak Bay is an unusual place for a world class cooking school. When the Dixon’s purchased the lodge in 2009 they recognised the potential of the Widgeon II, a rusty old steel hulled ex WWII troop carrying boat moored on the property. An elegant renovation features a centerpiece of a magnificent driftwood chandelier hanging above a handcrafted wooden table. Kirsten and her daughter Mandy (also an award-winning chef) run small group cooking classes here during the summer.
With an emphasis on local produce we make everything from scratch and help gather the ingredients. We take a short boat trip to select oysters from the floating oyster farm, pick berries from the woods and vegetables from the garden. The black cod we steam comes straight from the water in front of the lodge. This is the same bay that exports the cod for Nobu Matsuhisa’s signature dish – black cod with miso, to his restaurants throughout the world. We eat ours with handmade ramen noodles sitting around the banquet table on the banks of Kachemak Bay.
“Have you seen a bear yet?” is the most asked traveller question. Bear viewing is big business in Alaska and, like anything involving wildlife, sightings can be as unpredictable as the weather. We fly via light plane to Silver Salmon Creek where the chance of seeing bears during the summer season is virtually guaranteed.
Like the Within The Wild lodges, Alaska Homestead Lodge at Silver Salmon Creek is a family operation. Alaskan born James Isaak and his Californian wife Shelia are the only year round residents in this remote corner of Lake Clark National Park. For the last 13 years they have shared the original homestead of the area, as well as their knowledge and passion for Alaska, with small groups of bear and fishing enthusiasts.
Within moments of arriving at the main lodge, a pretty whitewashed log cabin with a green roof, two bears run past chasing each other. Blessed with a salmon creek and large meadows dotted with wildflowers and berries, this area is a brown bear hot spot. Where there is food, there are bears. And with the cosy bedrooms overlooking the meadow and Cook Inlet, the bedside bear viewing is unique. But going out with a guide is the ultimate experience.
After a rundown on “bear awareness” we ride in a tray on the back of an ATV with our guide Aaron, armed with the cautionary bear spray and flare. As it’s too early in the season for salmon, the bears are munching the grasses in the meadow. One morning we not only see 14 bears including three cubs, we walk among them.
Aaron reads bear behaviour like a book. We walk, giving the bears time and space. Only once does our trusty guide have his hand on the bear spray. Luckily a quick “shoo bear” is enough when a curious female lumbers towards us. Standing near 300 kilos of sheer body mass is humbling. I hear the chomp of every mouthful and watch as the wind ruffles the thick fur of a sow feeding as her two cubs roll around fighting. Another bear flops in the creek to cool off, then stands and rubs herself on a tree trunk. A single female sits in front of us, and lays down resting her head on her paws like a dog. Although completely wild, the bears are habitualised to humans and don’t feel threatened. Considered one of the best places to safely see bears from ground level, Silver Salmon Creek is a popular choice with photographers.
Whether it be photographing bear cubs, casting a line, hiking through an old growth rainforest or watching a whale breach, in the words of Kirsten Dixon, “Alaskans realise they have something different to offer the world.”
Wildlife of Alaska | Jocelyn Pride