Alaska safari shows you the wild side

by Tom Uhlenbrock

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

27 July 2007

Hikers are silhouetted on a ridge looking out on Mount McKinley in Alaska - North America's highest mountain. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT) 

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska—The shaggy blond grizzly stopped grazing on grasses and sat back on her haunches. Two black cubs saw the opportunity and ended their wrestling match, each racing to nurse in her arms. The massive head of the big bear seemed to be staring at the clouds, a look of motherly contentment in her eyes.

The three were halfway up a hillside and, in a van stopped on the gravel road below, four frustrated photographers watched the scene unfold just out of range of their telephoto lenses. They, too, had to be content staring through binoculars at the unsnapped picture of family bliss.

We were on an Alaskan safari arranged by Kirk Hoessle, who comes naturally by his love of wildlife. Along for the ride was Charlie Hoessle, Kirk’s dad and my friend, who retired in 2002 after 40 years with the St. Louis Zoo, the last 20 as director. Kirk Hoessle runs Alaska Wildland Adventures, which in 2005 was named the top eco-tourism operator in the world by Conde Nast Traveler magazine.

His company owns two lodges on the Kenai Peninsula in south-central Alaska, and is working on a third. From Kenai Riverside Lodge, we floated 17 miles down the turquoise Kenai River, then motored six miles across Skilak Lake to Kenai Backcountry Lodge, which is on five acres of private land within a million acres of wilderness.

The pot of gold near the end of the eight-day trip was Denali National Park, where we took the rare opportunity to drive the 95 miles through the interior, which most visitors view from tour buses. After two days of hiking and sightseeing, which included a flight through the clouds of massive Mount McKinley, we flew back to Anchorage and, unfortunately, civilization.

Lanky and 51, Kirk Hoessle first went to Alaska at the age of 20 to work as a crew leader for a youth conservation corps. “I was plopped down into the middle of wilderness with 10 kids who knew more about Alaska than I did,” he said.

A black bear dines on roadside dandelions in Alaska. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

A black bear dines on roadside dandelions in Alaska. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

He’s been there every year since. He went full time in 1989, and has developed a formula that makes venturing into the wilds easy. His lodges offer comfy cabins, good food and activities geared toward each visitor’s capabilities. Guided groups are limited to 16 or fewer, and trips range from three days and two nights at Kenai Backcountry Lodge, which cost $1,025 a person, to the 10-day “grand journey,” which is $4,895 and includes a boat tour of the Kenai Fjords, a raft trip to the backcountry lodge and three days in Denali.

“After Sept. 11, we found that people wanted shorter, quicker trips,” Hoessle said. “We streamlined our trips, and made some self-guided. It was another way to build a quality experience and keep down the cost.”

Alaska became one of the top destinations for U.S. travelers on nature-based vacations after the terrorist attack, with most of the million or more annual visitors arriving on the eight cruise ship lines that serve the state. They enjoyed their sightseeing from a ship’s railing, and did shore excursions to cities such as Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, where cruisers often outnumbered the residents.

“There’s no comparison to what we do and the mass tourism approach, where you go where thousands have gone before,” Hoessle said. “Thousands may have gone where we go, but you never see them. On the good side, 25 percent of cruisers will come back because they didn’t get enough of Alaska. Hopefully, we’ll get some of those people.”

The fourth member along for our adventure was Kevin Minto, the guru of guides for Hoessle’s company. A self-taught naturalist, with a major in botany and a minor in edible plants, Minto knows more Latin names than the pope and, like the grizzly mother, grazes on trailside plants as he hikes. A guest once was readying her camera for a close-up of a prickly rose when Minto walked by and ate it.

“Now that was an accident,” he insisted.

The tent-cabins at Kenai Backcountry Lodge in Alaska are roomy with two beds and propane lights and heaters. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

The tent-cabins at Kenai Backcountry Lodge in Alaska
are roomy with two beds and propane lights and heaters.
(Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

Our first night was at Kenai Riverside Lodge in Cooper Landing, the home base for Alaska Wildland Adventures. The lodge consists of 17 cabins, recently remodeled to add bathrooms, on the banks of the upper Kenai River. About a quarter of the lodge’s guests come for day trips fishing for salmon and rainbow trout, but we wanted action, and the four of us took off the next morning on a yellow pontoon raft with Minto manning the oars.

I abandoned ship as we approached Kenai Canyon and headed out on a trail that overlooked the gorge to get a photo of our raft passing through. As I waited on a rocky perch, a black head crossed the swift water downstream—a large black bear that shook like a Labrador when it reached the other side. If I would have continued hiking on the trail, instead of waiting for the photo, the bear and I would have had a close encounter.

After floating 17 miles, we donned rubber rain gear for the six-mile motoring across Skilak Lake, which can toss chilly waves into your lap. A wood picnic table and chairs on an otherwise empty pebble-lined beach announced we had arrived at Kenai Backcountry Lodge. It was built in 1931 as a hunting lodge, and is open June through mid-September.

Hoessle bought the lodge in 1993 and has added a modern kitchen and roomy tent-cabins spread out in the woods, connected by pathways and boardwalks. There also are two vintage log cabins, and two new cabins, which have bathrooms. Everyone else uses a shower house, which has modern amenities, such as flush toilets and hot showers.

Part of the flow of a spring that runs through the property has been diverted into PVC pipe and used to spin a turbine that creates electricity to charge batteries that provide power to the lodge and shower house. To avoid disturbing the landscape, water and sewage pipes were either laid under the gravel paths or under vegetation carefully peeled back.

The lodge is reached by boat or by vehicle driven across the frozen lake in winter. No heavy machinery was used in construction. A local high school wrestling team was hired to dig the septic system by hand as a conditioning project.

Minto led Ben, a young guide-in-training, and me on a hike three miles up beyond the tree line to the alpine tundra on a mountaintop. While I admired the carpet of spring wildflowers, the two others climbed a snow field and glissaded down, sliding on their butts without benefit of sleds.

A pontoon raft heads through the canyons on the upper Kenai River in Alaska. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

A pontoon raft heads through the canyons on the
upper Kenai River in Alaska.
(Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

Back in camp, the Hoessle boys invited me to join them in the sauna, then coaxed me into following them into the lake for a very brief swim. Later, over dinner in the lodge, Kirk showed me a photo of a thermometer he dipped into the water. It registered 38 degrees.

Every human action is designed to avoid drawing wildlife into camp. “We chased bears with chain saws several times on this property,” Hoessle said. The bears got the message; the only animal I saw in camp was a ground squirrel.

Most of the guides carry flares, air horns and pepper spray as bear deterrents. Minto has those, plus a large green umbrella.

“It’s my latest and greatest bear defense technology,” he said. “Make myself big and confuse the heck out of them, like a frilled lizard. I’ve been carrying it for two years, but haven’t had a chance to try it.”

The “Weather or Knot” is a 40-foot, 23-passenger aluminum catamaran that cruises Resurrection Bay out of Seward, showing passengers the killer whales, bald eagles, Stellar sea lions and other creatures that inhabit the wildlife-rich area around Kenai Fjords National Park. It has a special hydraulic ramp on front to unload passengers for a stroll on the beach.

The boat is Kirk Hoessle’s latest purchase, and would be used to make the two-hour ride to his proposed Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. He has signed a long-term lease with an Alutiiq native group to use 10 acres of tribal lands for a lodge and 16 cabins with bathrooms, spread out on a protected lagoon perfect for kayaking and surrounded by a private 2,500-acre wildlife sanctuary.

“Here’s the wonderful thing out there,” he said. “During high tide, you can paddle right up to the face of Pedersen Glacier with a guide. We also intend to have a trail going through the alder forest back to the glacier. There are black bear, harbor seal, river otter, sea otter—and oystercatchers nesting nearby.”

Again, low-impact construction methods will be used, with work expected to start this fall and be completed for the summer season of 2009. “The idea is to make it look like it’s always been there, with the cabins just set in among the boardwalks and gravel paths,” Hoessle said.

After a tour of Resurrection Bay aboard the “Weather or Knot,” we visited the Alaska SeaLife Center, an aquarium of native fish and animals in the small town of Seward. We had seen endangered Stellar sea lions gathered on the rocky ledges of the bay, and found that researchers at the aquarium have a remote camera positioned on a herd 35 miles away. During our visit, an announcement directed us to the video screen, where we watched a cow give birth, live and in color.

A flight with the Kantishna Air Taxi provides a close-up view of Mount McKinley in Alaska. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

A flight with the Kantishna Air Taxi provides a close-up view of Mount McKinley in Alaska. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

The road to Denali National Park leads through the tiny town of Talkeetna, which is famous for its:

  • Bush pilots.
  • Annual Moose Dropping Festival.
  • Reputed connection to TV’s “Northern Exposure.”
  • Fairview Inn, which may or may not have served a meal to President Warren G. Harding in July 1923, that resulted in his death from food poisoning.

Some residents brag about the fact, while others say he suffered a heart attack.

The Fairview is still a rough-and-tumble watering hole, even though the town has been discovered by the tour buses that cruise ships use to transport passengers to Denali. Inside the inn’s tavern, a grizzly skin was nailed to the ceiling, and a female patron sitting at the bar had a large knife in a fringed sheath on her hip. Outside, two dogs led two cowboys on horseback up the dusty street.

We spent the night at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, which is perched on a hill outside of town. The handsome lodge is owned by an Alaska native corporation and has 212 rooms, a 46-foot-high rock fireplace in the lobby and killer views of Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range 60 miles away.

“You can see it 30 percent of the time,” said spokeswoman Deedee Kaye, referring to the cloud cover that often obscures North America’s tallest mountain, which is 20,320 feet high.

The area at the entrance to Denali has been dubbed “Glitter Gulch” by locals because it is home to a burgeoning commercial strip anchored by the large hotels built by Princess and Holland America cruise lines to house their guests who bus or take the train to the park.

Private vehicles can drive 15 miles into the park, and then must turn around. Narrated tour buses take you the rest of the way, which is fine because it’s difficult to see and photograph wildlife when you’re driving on twisting mountain roads where no guardrails stand between you and a sheer drop into an abyss.

A pod of orca, or killer whales, cruises Resurrection Bay in Alaska. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

A pod of orca, or killer whales, cruises Resurrection Bay in Alaska. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

We had a special permit to drive the entire 95 miles to the end of the line—our cabins at Kantishna Roadhouse—where we spent two nights. The enclave of resorts at Kantishna, near Wonder Lake at the center of the 6-million-acre park, offers the only lodging inside Denali.

Driving through the vast expanse of glassy lakes, braided rivers and jagged mountains freshly covered with a June snow reminded Charlie Hoessle, the zoo man, of his wife, who has accompanied him on several of his trips to visit their son’s family in Alaska: “Right about now, Marilyn would turn to me and say, `Well, here we are again, back in the middle of nowhere.’”

During our time in the park, we kept a list of the species we sighted and ended with 21, which included several caribou and clouds of mosquitoes. Among the best sightings were a golden eagle that circled the sky, ignoring three pesky Bonaparte gulls; a Dall ewe that scampered straight up a rock face; and the momma grizzly and her two cubs.

Before heading out of Denali, I hitched a ride in a six-seater Cessna owned by Kantishna Air Taxi for a close-up view of Mount McKinley. “Right now, there are 400 people on the mountain,” said Connie, our pilot. “The glacier on the left, you can see the bathtub ring of how high it used to be, and how high it is now. Bet Al Gore would like to see that one.”

Connie planned to circle the mountain, but got only halfway around before being turned back by the weather. He pointed out the base camp at 14,000 feet for those attempting to reach Mount McKinley’s summit. Four specks moving in the snow were climbers approaching the camp. “It takes them three weeks to get that far,” he said.

I’ll ride with Connie, thank you.

Guides will tell you an angry mother moose can be more fearsome than a bear. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

Guides will tell you an angry mother moose can be more fearsome than a bear. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)


Denali National Park and Preserve: 1-907-683-2294 and www.nps.gov/dena. The main park entrance is 237 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks. The park road is open year-round. The Alaska Railroad (1-800-544-0552) has daily passenger service to the park from Anchorage and Fairbanks. There are day hikes and backcountry hiking with shuttle bus pickups. Call 1-800-622-7275 for shuttle bus and campsite reservations. Most visitors come between late May and mid-September, when temperatures range from 35 to 75 degrees. Tours buses are available at 1-800-276-7234.

Alaska Wildland Adventures: 1-800-334-8730 and www.alaskawildland.com. Activities range from day trips for fishing and floating, to 10-day adventure outings. The staff will customize a group trip for you, or provide for honeymoon specials, wedding arrangements and company retreats. The summer season begins in May and goes through mid-September.

Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge: 1-888-959-9590 and www.talkeetnalodge.com. The lodge can arrange rafting and scenic floats, glacier landings and flights around Mount McKinley, dog-mushing lessons, jet boating, fishing and geocaching (a treasure hunt with a GPS).

Kantishna Roadhouse: 1-800-942-7420 and www.seedenali.com. Open June to early September.

Kantishna Air Taxi: 1-907-683-1223 and www.katair.com. The four pilots have 60 years of experience flying around Mount McKinley and to and from Denali National Park.

Alaska SeaLife Center: 1-800-224-2525 and www.alaskasealife.org. The only public aquarium in Alaska and the only permanent facility authorized to rescue and care for stranded marine mammals and birds. Donations are welcomed.

About Alaska: The official travel website operated by the Alaska Travel Industry Association is www.travelalaska.com. A private company offers a complimentary activities guide at 1-907-777-7700 and www.alaska.org.


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