By Sabina Allemann
I stood on the edge of the tundra overlooking beautiful Turquoise Lake.
In the distance, an inviting spot to camp on the river delta beckoned to us. It wasn’t far away and soon, I thought, I’d be happily dropping my heavy pack. My legs would appreciate it after another long day of hiking. Matt, our guide, pointed out a steep slope covered with alder brush thicket between the campsite and us. I could see no way through it and there was no way around.
With a military background, Matt pulled no punches in his communication style. The .44 Magnum strapped to his right hip conveyed another sense of authority to his leadership. He had been clear to point out that the gun was a last resort in bear territory, but I noted it never left his side.
“So, team, the plan is to become one with the alders. We’re just going to gravity feed downhill and roll with it. I’ll lead — you follow. It’s not possible to be elegant about this, I call it ‘shwacking’. Just swim down through the bush and try not to fall. OK?”
My husband, Andrew, looked over at me with raised eyebrows as he packed away his camera to protect it, “Hmmm, this doesn’t sound like fun,” he muttered. Matt turned and strode off. Luckily, he picked up a bear track that thankfully eased our way. We enthusiastically joined him; calling out “Hey bear” repeatedly in order to scare away any that might be nearby. Welcome to hiking off trail in Alaska.
Over the years, my husband and I have travelled extensively through the western US, but Alaska always stood out as a ‘must do’ location to explore. When Andrew decided to travel to Glacier Bay National Park near Juneau to photograph wildlife, we had the perfect catalyst to plan for a longer trip to the largest state in the Union.
A hiking trip was uppermost in our thoughts, but deciding where was the larger challenge. The sheer vastness of the Alaskan landscape is daunting, much of it is trackless wilderness accessed only by air and of course there are the brown bears (or grizzlies) to contend with. Andrew had a contact at Alaska Alpine Adventures and it turned out they were in need of images from Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. So with that, Andrew got on board as the photographer and I signed up as a client for their ‘Turquoise Glacier High Route’ trip.
Organised group travel isn’t something I’m used to, but I knew this would be a fun way to learn about being safe in the Alaskan wilderness. Our posse of 10 included our aforementioned guide Matt, his assistant Kathryn and six clients from Minnesota, Oregon, Utah and India (via California). All had experience in multiday backpacking and we were well aware that heavy packs would be par for the course on this trip.
At the orientation meeting in Anchorage, I was handed a large, bearproof barrel containing a full day’s worth of gourmet food for the group. All up, with snacks included, I now had a knee-busting 1 2 kilograms to add to my pack, which was already pretty full with personal gear. I was worried about cold, rain sodden days on the trail and hadn’t skimped on extra clothing to change into when needed.
The start and finish of our journey was the small community of Port Alsworth. Lying just a short, spectacular flight from Anchorage, this lovely spot nestles beside Lake Clark and was founded as a Christian mission settlement by Babe and Mary Alsworth in 1950. The Alaska Native Athabascan name for Lake Clark is Quizhjeh Vena, translated roughly as, ‘many peoples gather lake’. These original inhabitants considered this lake as ‘the nucleus, the starting point’ and so too it was for our adventure.
Prior to the trip, I’d begun reading One Man’s Wilderness, a fascinating account of the latter life of Richard Proenekke, a pretty resourceful chap who built a log cabin in 1968 on the shores of Upper Twin Lake, which would be the end point of our hike. Over the next 30 years he meticulously documented the wildlife activity and intimate changes of the landscape as the seasons rolled by around his remote wilderness home. Now managed by the US National Park Service, the historic cabin stands out as one of the best Alaskan bush log cabins built by hand in the past 100 years and I was excited that I would be able to see the it in person.
However, there was a lot of legwork to be done before that took place I realised as I looked out the window on the exhilarating floatplane flight from Port Alsworth to our starting point on the shore of Lake Telaquana. Blue lakes dotted a huge expanse of green tundra buttressed in the distance by lofty peaks. As the crow flies, the cabin was about 100 kilometres due south and we had eight days to get there.
After a rundown from Matt about safety in bear country, we filled water bottles from a nearby stream and shouldered our packs. A steep, tree-covered slope made for a slow and steady ascent. Our aim was simple, try to get above the tree line for the first night’s camp. With two hours of grunt work, we achieved just that.
Unfortunately, above tree line doesn’t mean above mosquito line in Alaska. A calm and warm night made conditions perfect for bugs, but thankfully I was pre-warned and well prepared with a head net that I put to good use against the annoying marauders. Alaska Alpine Adventures has developed a reputation for providing eclectic and calorie-dense trekking food.
With items on the menu like chilaquiles (eggs, chicken, mango salsa, refried beans, cheese and tortilla chips) for breakfast and Shanghai noodles for dinner, meal times were always going to be much anticipated and the reindeer rotini that first night didn’t disappoint.
An important event at our first dinner was drawing a name to decide whose bear container would be one meal lighter each day. The lucky — and relieved — person chosen would then draw another name for the following meal and so on. There was hushed anticipation as a piece of paper on which the name was written was plucked from a bag and carefully unfolded with gravitas. I didn’t get lucky that first night…
…The adventure continues in issue 159. Subscribe today to receive your copy.