Getting Away from It All in Alaska: Flying in a Bush Plane from Anchorage to be Dropped at a Wilderness Lake
By Lee Foster
Solitude was my quest on one of my Alaska trips. Not that I am a misanthrope, far from it. I just wanted some quality time with myself.
I wanted to be air dropped by a float plane for a couple of days at some remote wilderness lake, preferably a lake with a cabin as an amenity. When the float plane, my umbilical cord to civilization, lifted off, I would have an opportunity to commune with myself, deep in the Alaska bush.
I made some inquiries to see if this was possible, and indeed it was. Ketchum Air Service has been operating out of Anchorage for more than four decades and has a number of options.
I arranged for them to drop me at a cabin at Trail Lake, about an hour’s air flight west of Anchorage. They would also pick me up again, hopefully, at a pre-arranged time.
So I flew to Anchorage and went grocery shopping. Like a good sourdough, I would need some supplies. The Ketchum folks told me they had a propane stove at the cabin, so I planned accordingly. I stocked up on steaks to fry and vegetables to saute.
Unlike the old sourdoughs of the Alaska bush, however, I also laid in some bottles of smooth Merlot to ease me through the long summer twilight. I craved the experience of the Alaska bush, but there was no need to suffer.
When I arrived at the Ketchum Air Service building on Anchorage’s Lake Hood, which is sometimes said to be the busiest small plane field in the world, the Ketchum folks immediately outfitted me with hip boots, indicating it would be a wet landing in the boggy, muskeg environment of the lake. Indeed, when I did get to my Trail Lake home, I never took the boots off while outside the cabin.
The Ketchum pilot flew me out in an Otter, the workhorse plane of the Alaskan bush. Along with me in the plane, for another drop further on, were two fellows who planned to raft and fish for six days through the wilderness, down a class-three river known as Lake Creek.
The flight in a small plane over the Alaska bush was exhilarating. There were spruce forests, lakes, and wet muskeg bogs in all directions, ringed with mountains in the distance. Some of the rivers below, like Big Susitna, were gray with glacial “rock flour,” the residue left when the weight of glaciers crushes rocks. Other rivers, formed from springs and runoff, such as Lake Creek, were crystal clear. Red sockeye and king salmon were migrating up the rivers, using their awesome energy to find a spawning place.
The weather at our takeoff was gray and rainy, but as long as an Alaskan bush pilot can see, he will fly. Alaska bush pilots have a generally good safety record. For one thing, if you have to go down, there’s plenty of water below, and this was a float plane with pontoons, after all.
Cabin at Trail Lake
When we landed at Trail Lake and my cabin, my first impression was that it was rustic but comfortable, basic plywood and 2×4 construction. There was no running water, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing. But there was the propane stove and propane lights, plus a wood-burning stove to take the chill off the August nights in Alaska.
When the Ketchum pilot lifted off in the Otter and I was left standing in the muskeg, the impact of my situation began to sink in.
Looking at the map, I noted that Trail Lake, by coincidence, was close to the trail used in the Iditarod, the dogsled overland quest of winter.
I was pleased that I had packed in some mosquito repellent because the Alaska mosquitoes were vicious. I remembered once standing a few feet from a moose and seeing its tender nose skin literally crowded with hundreds of mosquitoes. Avoiding insects is one reason why moose like to hang out in the water.
After walking back to the cabin, I sat awhile on the porch. The silence was enormous, except for the patter of the constant rain. The uninterrupted silence, which continued during my entire stay, was perhaps the main difference between my days in the bush and my usual life back in Berkeley, California. I could shout, swear, hurl poetry, or sing love songs to the wilderness, and there was no response, only silence. The wilderness is a good listener when you want to have a dialogue with yourself.
I looked out at my lush green surroundings. I was located in an alder forest with dense underbrush and wildflowers, especially fireweed, the showy pink flower that is a signature of Alaska. Since the month was August, red berries were abundant on several plants, including bunch berry dogwood, mountain ash, and devil’s club.
I walked around the cabin and saw that the corner posts had been splintered by bears, who like to sharpen their claws on trees (or wood cabins, when available). There were also muddy bear paw prints all over a barbecue on the front porch.
Then I picked up my fishing rod and put on a Daredevil lure, one of the proven fish-catchers from my youth in Minnesota. I walked down to the lake. On the first cast I had a strike, a northern pike, but didn’t set the hook. On the second cast I did catch a pike. Thinking I could easily repeat this trick, I continued casting, but caught no more fish that afternoon.
I was getting hungry by this time, so I walked back to the cabin, peeled a few garlic cloves, chopped up an onion, heated some olive oil and pan-fried a steak, washing it down with some Merlot. My appetite in the bush was enormous, perhaps just as a reaction to the chill and the rain, or maybe because I was an hour by air into the wilderness from Anchorage. Next I sauteed the red pepper, broccoli, and zucchini I had brought.
That night I would have enjoyed seeing the stars, but the sky was overcast and didn’t get that dark anyway, except for a few hours between midnight and four a.m.
What I did during my allotted time at Trail Lake was read, think, fish, cook, look for moose, and build fires. If I were in the priesthood of fishermen, who particularly like these lakes, the schedule would have been simpler–fish, fish again, then fish some more. One of the surprising experiences of the bush is that my time had no structure or schedule. If you live in a world where your daily life is highly scheduled by some external force, a couple of days in the bush may either be liberating or drive you bonkers, depending on your temperament.
I was cautious about hiking too far from the cabin. I didn’t want to lose my way in the wilderness. A spruce forest in the Alaska bush can have a disorienting sameness about it at ground level if you confuse your direction. Traveling through the spongy muskeg was also tricky. Craig had pointed out to me from the air a trout-and-salmon stream about an hour hike away, but I didn’t venture over there because it necessitated crossing the lake, and the motor on the small fishing boat at the cabin proved temperamental. I was totally dependent on myself, if only for a couple of days, so I didn’t want to risk an accident.
It took me a while to brush up on some atrophied skills, such as building a fire in a wood-burning stove. There was downed wood in the area, but it was wet.
One thing I missed was the hot shower I take every night to relax, cleanse myself, and get a good rest. It took a night of fitful sleeping for my body to accept that there would be no shower.
When the plane returned a few days later, I was ready to re-enter civilization, refreshed by my sojourn in the wilderness. The Ketchum pilot picked me up in a Cessna 206 and took me on an animal-viewing excursion (we saw three bears and about 10 moose) and a sightseeing trip over the Beluga Glacier. I had completed my search for Alaskan solitude. I wondered if a week-long rafting trip, such as the adventure of the other passengers on the plane ride out to Trail Lake, would be my next Alaska passion.
Alaska: If You Go, Getting Away From It All
Ketchum Air Service in Anchorage is at http://www.alaska.net/~ketchum/KETCHUMFLYINALASKA.OLD.
For tourism information on Alaska, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.