Great Escapes: Alaska

Go where Alaska meets the Yukon—and a remote lodge offers no end of adventure.

By Michael Hardy May 31, 2015 Published in the June 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

At 13 million acres,  Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the country.

Image: Shutterstock

“If I wanted to, I could set off an avalanche right now.”

Steve Davidson, a veteran bush pilot with a suntanned face and a laconic demeanor, sat next to me on a plastic tarp, eating a roast beef sandwich. We were alone in a snow-covered valley—actually a frozen lake blanketed in several feet of newly fallen snow—somewhere in the vast hinterland of Alaska’s 13-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, which borders Canada’s Yukon. The bush plane we’d just flown in on, a bright yellow Super Cub three-seater, was parked nearby. Rising up from the valley on three sides were jagged, white-capped cliffs. 

“See that gulley in the shadow?” said Davidson, pointing to the ridgeline of a nearby bluff. “If I made a ski cut about an eighth of the way into that gulley, I could make the whole thing avalanche. One of the things Pi used to say was, ‘If I wanted to start an avalanche, where would I have to go?’ Because if you figure that out, you know where not to go.”

Pi was Peter Inglis, who, like Davidson, had been a long-time guide for Ultima Thule, the remote $1,700-a-night wilderness lodge where I was spending the weekend. (Ultima Thule was a term used on ancient Greek maps to designate regions beyond the known world.) About a week before I arrived, Inglis had been skiing in another part of the park when he fell through a snow cornice and plunged several thousand feet to his death. It was a freak accident, everyone told me; Inglis was a vastly experienced skier who had traversed much more dangerous areas in the past. 

But his recent death was a reminder that, despite its creature comforts—well-appointed cabins, gourmet dining, wood-fired sauna and hot tub—the world beyond the lodge remains a dangerous place. Every year, scores of Alaskans are killed or injured when they fall off mountain ledges, crash their planes, suffer hypothermia, are attacked by grizzly bears—or, yes, get buried by avalanches. (On a bookshelf in my cabin I found a collection of true-life Alaskan survival stories entitled Cheating Death, filled with stories of downed planes and capsized boats, along with a particularly harrowing moose attack.) 

Despite their grief, everyone at Ultima Thule seemed to accept Inglis’s death as an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of living where they do. Most of the older lodge employees I spoke with had lost other friends to similar accidents. “He knew the risks,” said Paul Claus, who founded the lodge with his wife in 1982 on land owned by his family, and who helped recover Inglis’s body. “At least he died doing what he loved.” 

None of those risks seem to deter the many guests who come to Ultima Thule from all over the world—the lodge is already booked through summer, and regularly plays host to CEOs, wealthy professionals and celebrities. And after spending two nights there, it isn’t hard to see why. Although Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the US, it’s also one of the least-visited, as it’s virtually inaccessible without a plane. The closest settlement, McCarthy, a former boomtown founded after copper was discovered there at the turn of the 20th century, sits at the end of a 60-mile-long unpaved road and boasts a population of approximately 30 year-round residents. 

Ultima Thule Lodge: accessible only by bush plane

On an overcast Thursday morning in April I left Anchorage in a rented GMC Terrain and headed northeast on the Glenn Highway, which winds through the foothills of the Chugach Mountains. The five-hour drive from Anchorage to Chitina, where an Ultima Thule bush plane would pick me up, is surely one of the world’s most beautiful. At mile 101 you can pull off the road and hike down to the Matanuska Glacier, a massive expanse of slow-moving, permanently frozen water that has been carving its way through the Matanuska-Susitna Valley for thousands of years. Formidable as it is, the glacier isn’t immune to global warming, having lost approximately 84 million tons of ice since 2002. 

At a private airstrip in Chitina I boarded a red and yellow De Havilland STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) bush plane piloted by Claus, a soft-spoken 56-year-old with a dry sense of humor whom Outside magazine once dubbed the “king of the bush pilots.” (Ultima Thule owns a fleet of five bush planes of various sizes.) Although visibility was poor during the 45-minute flight to the lodge, the ride offered spectacular vistas of fog-shrouded mountains and twisting, iced-over rivers. Except for the gravel road to McCarthy, which we could see snaking along the base of the mountains to our north, there was no sign of human habitation, just pristine winter wilderness for miles in every direction. The rivers were starting to thaw—it was early April—and I could see narrow rivulets of water beginning to spread their tendrils through the ice. 

Because Claus judged Ultima Thule’s main runway too muddy, he extended the plane’s ski landing gear and set the plane down softly on the frozen Chitina River; when I climbed out, it was about 40 degrees and snowing lightly. A lodge employee picked us up in a Kubota RTV and drove us the rest of the way to the Ultima compound, which consists of about a dozen log buildings clustered on a hillside overlooking the river and the Wrangell-St. Elias mountain range beyond. By most standards, the six cabins were spartan—no TVs, no Wi-Fi except in the main lodge—but they’re more lavish than you’d expect from a place that sits 100 miles from the nearest road, gets its electricity from a generator and its water from a well. Because the lodge is inaccessible except by plane, every stick of furniture has to be flown in. “Everything you see here came in the same way you did,” Claus told me. 

After enjoying a snack of cheese, salmon dip and chocolate that had been set out for me, I headed over to the spacious main lodge for a dinner of savory moose meatloaf and mixed veggies cooked by Claus’s 80-year-old mother Eleanor, whom everyone calls Granny. Most of the dishes served at Ultima Thule feature local ingredients—there’s an on-site greenhouse—and meat or fish that has been hunted locally. Over dinner, Claus told stories about some of the lodge’s famous guests, including legendary Houston doctor Red Duke and a few movie stars. “There are no paparazzi out here,” he said with a grin. “They love it.” 

An escape with a view

There are no fixed itineraries at Ultima Thule either—each day the guides check the weather and then make individual plans for each guest. The price is all-inclusive, covering meals, unlimited flying time in one of the lodge’s planes and customized guided expeditions. One day, guests might be flown around 18,000-foot Mount St. Elias, the second-highest mountain in North America after Mount McKinley, before landing on a glacier to eat a prepared lunch. The next, they might take a cross-country ski trip or raft down the Chitina. One couple complained that Ultima Thule wasn’t rustic enough, so Claus flew them across the river, set up a tent for them, flew away and didn’t return until the following morning.

“We get a lot of Type A business people who are used to a strict schedule, so it sometimes takes them a few days to adjust,” Claus told me. Guests often want to know what they’ll be doing the next day, a question he can’t answer, since all plans are contingent on the weather. The typical guest arrives on Sunday, stays four nights, and leaves on Thursday, he said. And although some, like me, drive to Chitina from Anchorage, most elect to charter a plane. 

The Claus family has been living in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park since before it was a park, indeed before it was even part of the US. In 1958, a year before Alaska won statehood, Claus’s father John, a former Anchorage schoolteacher, flew his Piper Cub to a remote spot near the Chitina River and staked a claim to a five-acre patch of land under the Alaskan Homestead Act. With the help of two Eskimos and a few axes, he built a log cabin and proceeded to raise a family. When the national park was created in 1980, the Claus family was grandfathered in; they later exchanged their original five acres for a larger plot of land on the opposite side of the five-mile-wide river. 

The lodge was founded in 1982 by Paul Claus—John’s son—and his wife Donna; three generations of the family are involved in its operation. Although Ultima Thule is now world-famous, thanks to glowing write-ups in the New York Times and National Geographic Traveler, the Clauses have resisted the impulse to expand. There’s the land problem, of course—the family can’t get any more of it, since they’re marooned in the middle of a protected national park. But they’re also keen on preserving the cozy, intimate atmosphere of the lodge. “At the end of their stay, the guests feel like they’re family,” my bush pilot Steve Davidson told me at one point during our day-long adventure. 

At breakfast that morning, I had made the common mistake of asking Claus what I would be doing that day. “I really can’t tell you that,” he said, wincing slightly. “The definition of wilderness is unpredictability—not knowing what’s going to happen next.” What about the forecast for the day? I wondered, knowing that Claus, like all bush pilots, paid close attention to snow and wind conditions. He sighed, and then turned to me with a grin. 

“100 percent chance of weather,” he said. 

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