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Alaska: Into the Wild

Chugach Mountains, Alaska.Chugach Mountains, Alaska. Image: Getty

Fulfilling a long-held fantasy, Matt Carroll ventures forth into Alaska’s big, beautiful and gloriously untamed landscape

“I’m gonna be all the way out there… just to be out there in it. You know, big mountains, rivers, sky, game. Just to be out there in it, you know? In the wild…” Ever since I heard these words uttered in the 2007 movie Into the Wild about the real-life character Christopher McCandless, who shunned society and headed off to Alaska in search of back-to-basics solitude, I’d always wanted to follow in his footsteps — minus the critical outcome. For those who’ve not seen the film, I won’t go any further.

Suffice to say Into the Wild planted a seed, one only fuelled by watching countless snowboarding movies featuring riders risking everything as they point their boards down Alaska’s 40-degree slopes. In fact, mention Alaska to most people and you’ll see their pupils dilate through a blend of envy and awe; this place has almost mythical status among travelers.

So imagine the surprise when I arrived in Anchorage to find that they have restaurants. And shops. And hotels. With a population of over 300,000, Anchorage is hardly a big city, at least as most Americans would know it. But in a state where the total inhabitants amount to fewer than 750,000 souls, that’s a big deal — especially when that state is large enough to fit Texas more than twice over.

Yep, this place is huge, as a glimpse out of my hotel window at the epic Chugach mountain range confirmed shortly after my arrival. Snowcapped in places, and hazy in the early September sunshine, these gnarled peaks were a constant reminder that Mother Nature was waiting — and I planned to explore as much of her as humanly possible over the next week or so.

Aside from the fact there are hotels, and cellphone coverage in many places, one of the biggest surprises of Alaska was the ease of getting around. Using Anchorage as my base (or ‘civilization’, as I liked to call it), I was able to explore some pretty extreme outposts, of the kind Christopher McCandless waxed lyrical about.

In fact, the wilderness was so accessible that on my first morning I’d arranged to go hiking just 40 minutes’ drive from my hotel, thinking it would break me in gently for the week ahead. A full three hours after lacing up my boots, I arrived at the top of Bird Ridge a sweaty mess. My reward, however, was one of the most spectacular views I’ve experienced in years.

Stood atop a rock, I stared out over the Turnagain Arm, a vast body of water on which the sunlight glinted like a sequined shirt, and where whales breach on a regular basis. It was like looking down at a Google Maps close-up. To my left, tree-covered hillsides funneled down into an empty valley, where apparently you could walk for weeks without seeing another human being. You will, however, probably see a bear or three.

Seward harbor, Alaska. Image: AWL Images

Seward harbor, Alaska. Image: AWL Images

Alaska is teeming with them, I was told — and late August through September is when they come out of hiding in search of salmon to fatten up ahead of the winter hibernation. As I made my way up to Seward a day or so later, these bears were proving elusive, but that was set to change in the next few days.

After relaxing aboard the Alaska Railroad train for four hours as it threaded its way between peaks and glaciers, I arrived in Seward with some time to kill before joining a hiking group bound for nearby Exit Glacier. In contrast to Anchorage, with its gridded streets and cluster of tower blocks, sleepy Seward has an endearing, boho edge. While waiting for my espresso down at Sip N Spin, the local laundromat-cum-coffee-shop, I got talking to a traveling musician on his day off; it was one of those rare moments when you stop and talk to a stranger, with no feeling of awkwardness.

An hour later I was slipping on a backpack at the foot of Exit Glacier as myself and two others, Johnny and Michael, both in their mid-forties, made our way up on to the ice.

The trail led us up through woodland, where the trees were turning from green to gold, before we reached a plateau and forked off left. Plunging down into a hidden, rock-strewn valley, it felt as if we were journeying to the center of the earth. A waft of cool air announced we’d reached the edge of the ice field as our guide implored us to “make sure your crampons are done up tight” before leading us on to the steep, slippery slope.

Here, among the sculpted blue seracs and sheer crevasses that end up who-knows-where, I truly felt I was venturing into the wild. But this was nothing compared to the splendid isolation that lay in store over the next few days.

From Seward, I took a four-hour boat ride over to the Kenai Fjords National Park, pausing en route to watch killer whales feeding and glaciers calving into the ocean. Nature was certainly laying on the drama, but the climax came as the boat dropped me off on a peninsula, on the southernmost edge of central Alaska.

My home for the next few days was a humble cabin on the edge of a turquoise lagoon, where seals and sea otters frolicked. In all, there were 16 cabins dotted along the shore, but just 30 paddle strokes away you’d never know they were there, so well hidden were they by the trees.

The Alaska Range. Image: Getty

The Alaska Range. Image: Getty

This was the Into the Wild experience I’d long been craving, with mornings spent paddling out on the epic lagoon, exploring the maze of icebergs drifting on the aquamarine water. The only sound was the occasional splosh of my paddle on the water; it was so quiet I heard the beating of wings as an eagle took flight from an overhead cliff.

In truth, roasting smores over the campfire was probably as back to basics as I got. The food here was superb, with three-course evening meals enjoyed around communal dining tables in the main lodge; and when I wasn’t canoeing or hiking, the rest of my time was simply spent curled up in front of the wood-burning stove with a good book.

However, the climax to my stay came on the last evening, when a brown bear plodded past my window in front of the lake. Waddling past, its rear end fattened from weeks spent gorging on salmon, it barely raised an eyebrow on its way to the waterfront. After sniffing the air, it wandered off into the tall grass, probably in search of a snack, and disappeared in seconds. It was one of those brushes with wildlife where you immediately ask yourself whether it really happened. As I like to call it, an Alaska moment.

Where to stay
The good news for anyone planning a trip to Alaska is you won’t have to build your own shelter to brave the elements. In fact, there’s a very good range of hotels throughout the state, catering to all kinds of budgets, coupled with back-to-basics lodges for those looking to get closer to nature.

Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge: If your idea of heaven involves stunning views and no cellphone signal, then look no further. Choose from 16 cozy lodges huddled around the edge of a lagoon, with guides offering daily escorted canoe and hiking trips. Alternatively, sit back and soak up the silence. T: 800 334 8730. kenaifjordsglacierlodge.com
Historic Anchorage Hotel: Old-world atmosphere and spacious rooms are just two of the benefits of a stay here. Another is the convenient downtown Anchorage location, a short stroll from bars and restaurants that include the Fat Ptarmigan (fatptarmigan.com), serving the best pizza in town, not to mention the Alaska Railroad station. T: 907 272 4553. historicanchoragehotel.com
Seward Windsong Lodge: A 15-minute drive from Seward itself, Windsong has an air of calm about it, with the breeze blowing through the spruce trees and the sound of the nearby Resurrection River. There are 15 self-contained cabins to choose from, and the on-site Roadhouse restaurant serving delicious, locally caught salmon. T: 877 777 4079. sewardwindsong.com

PUBLISHED IN THE WINTER 2014/15 EDITION OF ASTAnetwork

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