A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Alaska, and it was an incredible experience! My brother manages a fishing lodge up there, and my mom, sister and I went up to clean cabins and help get the camp ready for the salmon season. So, a “working vacation” but a vacation nonetheless! My mom has done this a few times, and before my dad passed away he had helped build some of the cabins. It was really wonderful to be in this place, together as a family, to see what my brother has experienced for the last 19 years, and be surrounded by things that he and my dad worked on together.
The lodge is Alaska Wilderness Outfitting Company, situated near the mouth of the Tsiu River on the Gulf of Alaska. The closest towns are Yakitat, about 80 miles away, and Cordova, at 100 miles away, and the only way to get there is by bush plane. We were very literally in the wilderness. This is the town of Cordova:
Icebergs calved off a glacier, seen on the flight to the lodge:
It’s a little hard to describe this place; it’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s huge and quiet and wild and beautiful. Mountains on one side, ocean on the other, and filled with sand, hills, forest, flowers, strawberries and bears in between.
We have black bears in Minnesota, and I’ve had a handful of encounters in my lifetime, but grizzly bears are a little different story. When you’re out there, you’re in bear territory, they’re not in yours. It was fascinating (and sometimes scary) to see these enormous creatures just going about their business, eating berries, lumbering along, standing up to check us out. There were a couple occasions where they were a little closer than I would have liked, but it was very exciting overall. These two cubs were playing in the river, and when mama spotted us from her perch on the cliff, they all took off to the other side of the hill.We saw that same family a few times:
The camp itself is really pretty amazing. Everything to build the place had to be flown in, or shipped on a barge and helicoptered to the site. Everything. Building materials, equipment, windows, furniture, appliances. The amenities are so modern, and feel so homey, that it’s easy to forget you can’t just drive to Home Depot if you need something. You have to fly to Cordova and take the ferry to Anchorage whenever you need food or supplies. Needless to say, the owners purchase a lot of things in bulk. From comfy beds to indoor plumbing, hot showers and gourmet chefs, a visit to the lodge is like a home away from home. In the middle of nowhere.
The beach is littered with huge logs, driftwood, commercial fishing buoys and a little garbage washed up from the ocean, a lot of it from around Japan. The topography is constantly changing, the river cutting away the hills and sand, and the tides bringing something new each time they come in. There’s cabins that had been built on hills a little too close to the river, and are now covered in sand, or washed away completely. In the time we were there, we saw the mouth of the river start narrow, grow wider, wash away and build up sand bars, and cut into the beach far past places we were standing just days prior.
Bear tracks criss cross the entire beach, and wolf or coyote tracks follow the bears’.
The salmon started to run while we were there, and that was really cool to watch as well. The river turns into a churning, splashing, frantic race upstream. Some get stranded as the waves go in and out, and the seagulls are right there to take advantage of the free lunch. Harbor seals came in droves, bobbing in and out of the water, surfing the waves to get closer to the fish. There’s so much sand moving in the water that it’s quite shallow where the fish are coming in, and the seals were very cautious to stay in deeper water. Occasionally, we’d see one of the seals catch sight of a fish, scramble scramble scramble to catch him, run into too-shallow water and give up.
We saw one bear start trying to fish as well, but I guess as the season goes on, it’s not unusual to see lots of bears at the river, just down from the fishermen. I even heard stories of bears stealing already-filleted salmon from the guides. Sneaky bears.
The weather is frequently changing as well, clouds and fog rolling in and out from the sea and nearby glaciers, making for many unpredictable days. There’s no weather towers or gauges in this area; the closest one is in Cordova, and 100-mile-away weather isn’t always helpful. They need to go by sight and instinct, in conjunction with Cordova’s reports to judge whether it’s safe to fly in or out of the camp. There’s times when the planes simply have to turn around, and the guests’ stays might get extended or cut short.
Thank you to Tom and Katie for the opportunity to experience this amazing place! Thank you to my clients for being patient with me while I was out of town. And thank you, bears, for not eating me.
I used to wonder why my brother chose to spend so much of his life in such a remote place, away from everything that I know about day to day life. Mike, the chef, made the comment that this place haunts him the rest of the year until he returns. I totally get it now. There’s something truly magical about it, and I hope to get the chance to go again someday.