On July 20th 2018 I joined a small group of people on a 10 day journey into the Alaskan wilderness. A journey so far into the backcountry you can only get there by floatplane
Personally I wanted to experience the real American wilderness that I used to watch on TV as a kid. We’re talking “Dick Proenneke” and “North to Alaska“ here. To me Alaska still stands as the ultimate wilderness. I also wanted to experience sleeping outside in bear country. Whether under a tarp, in a natural shelter or out in the open nothing brings you closer to nature than sleeping outside.
I had come along on this trip because I wanted to experience a wilder and even more untouched nature than I had ever experienced before. I always strive to leave civilization behind on my trips the best I can. To me every trip I go on is a step further towards understanding the ancient hunter gatherer inside myself. Before departure I had quite a few talks with our tour leader Claus Ballisager. I told him I wanted to live outside in the wild and be as close to nature as possible. My idea was to sleep under a tarp using a tarp pole and some paracord to support it. This was already a compromise for me since I’m used to building natural shelters when I’m outside. On this trip I needed to be agile and be able to set up my camp and pack it up in the same pace as the rest of the group though. Claus warned me against it several times. He was worried that I would be miserable on the mountain if we were to see high windspeeds or if it was to rain when camping on the river banks in wet sand.
When Claus speaks you listen. He is a very experienced and respected outdoorsman, tracker and big game hunter. He lived in Alaska for many years and he knows the place like no other.
Now people who know me will probably tell you I can be stubborn at times. And of course I didn’t follow Claus’ advice about bringing a tent. The closer we came to departure the more certain I became in fact that my goal for this trip would be to live out there in a tarp only. I can understand why some people may see this as foolish but I have way more experience with sleeping outside in a shelter than I have with sleeping in a tent. Most often it’s the thought that scares you more than reality. Hell yes I was going to sleep outside in the Alaskan wilderness with the bears!
I was looking for a tarp to fit my needs. I wanted it to be big enough for me to use it both as a roof and a windshield at the same time and for me to be able to lie down inside it. But I also wanted it to be light weight. I really don’t like packing too heavy. Half the joy for me on a hike is to check out edible plants on the way, collecting fire making materials, learning new animal tracks and the like. I read the land as I walk. So carrying a heavy pack is a sure show stopper since you can’t lean forward or kneel down with it. I considered buying a DD Hammock tarp for about $50. I really like it but it weighs 790g. Instead I went to my local DIY store and bought a $4 tarp measuring 2.5 x 3.6 m weighing only 585g. The only problem was that it was missing two eyelets in order to work they way I had planned it. I bought two extra eyelets and made the holes myself. I was pretty much up to par with the rest of my gear.
After spending a couple of days in Anchorage we were getting ready to leave for the wilderness. I had spent a few days with Claus stashing up on food, ammo and other necessities. On the day of our departure into the wild, we all met up at Rust’s Flying Service in Lake Hood, the world’s busiest airport for float planes. We were only 6 people in the group due to some unfortunate events leading to four people missing out on the trip.
As we sat in the red float plane watching all the rivers, lakes, trees and mountains pass us by underneath we realized that awaiting us down there was an adventure like no other. Down there was the home of elk, caribou, moose, black bear, grizzly bear, beaver, the bald eagle and many more. And we were going down there to live among them for ten days.
The sun was shining on a blue sky as the small plane turned around to prepare for landing on Stephan Lake and as the pontons hit the water we were greeted by a moose standing on the shore. The plane took off and everything went quiet.
From this point on we were on our own. Claus gave us a briefing on the shore of the lake and then we started moving inland. The first couple of kilometers you think a lot about bears. You know they are out there and you’re walking in dense vegetation with a small visibility range. It’s a funny thing with bears. On one hand you are anxious to meet one but on the other hand you don’t want to surprise one up close. As we made our way through the landscape uphill from the lake we saw a lot of bear tracks. Everything from scratch marks, droppings and fur. Oh yes they were there.
It was an unusually warm day and we were all enjoying the hike through the spruce forest. On the way we saw a spruce grouse and I found some spruce shoots to use for tea.
Our goal for the day was to reach a small hut called “The Halfway Hut”. It was a small hunting hut with room for 2 – 3 people. I had no intention of travelling more than 6.500 km to experience one of the most pristine wildernesses in the world from the inside of a hut. So Claus and I slept outside leaving the hut to the 4 others. They were two couples and they managed to fit in there together although they complained the next morning that it had been a fairly warm experience.
This was my first night in bear territory so I was excited to lie down in my sleeping bag. I had put up my shelter with the back towards the wind and the front overlooking the landscape. Except I couldn’t see anything because of the bushes in front of me. It was summer in Alaska so it didn’t really get dark. The sun was only out of sight for a few hours during midnight. I lay down with both an air horn and a bear spray within reach and fell asleep immediately. It had been a long day with a lot of new impressions.
First morning in the wild
Waking up the next morning was amazing though. It was such a quiet and peaceful morning and the sun light hit me through the branches of the bush in front of me. This is the reward you get for sleeping outside. I breathed in and felt the fresh Alaskan air fill my lungs. I felt at one with nature.
This day would turn out to become one of the toughest days of our hike. The plan was to reach the second hut on our trip and the last sign of civilization. The Grizzly Hut. It was another very warm day which made hiking a beautiful experience. On the way I found some spruce resin for fire making. I always collect tinder for fire making before I need it. You never know if everything suddenly becomes wet from a rainfall or if the terrain changes so no materials are available. I also found some Crowberries that I didn’t eat though. I wasn’t able to identify them with a 100% certainty and I didn’t want to risk ending my journey like Christopher Mccandless (Alexander Supertramp) did.
The terrain was extremely varied. We crossed marshes, beaver dams, streams, hill sides and mountains. It was great fun. We had lunch in a small ravine on top of a mountain. It was an ideal place to take a break. We were partially out of the sun and it was windy and close to a stream where we could fill our water rations. Just what we needed on this hot day.
As we moved on after lunch the distance to the Grizzly Hut seemed endless however. The sun was really taking its toll on us. And Claus was beginning to suggest that we split the trip in half. He was also feeling the heat. It was a quite interesting talk we had. As a leader it’s a very sympathetic feature to be able to open up and admit your vulnerability. It sends a message to everyone else that being tired is ok. But this was a tough crowd. Even though everyone was exhausted and we did consider splitting the journey in two we had all set our mind on reaching the Grizzly Hut. So we agreed to move on a bit and see how we would feel when we made it to the opposite side of the mountain.
As we continued around the mountain we also worked our way out of the sun. This really increased our moral. Everyone had expected Alaska to be rainy and maybe a bit windy and cold. And here we were in the middle of a hot summer day. Another moral booster was the sight of the Grizzly Hut across the valley. We had a short break and decided to keep going. Then suddenly we heard an airplane. We were high up on the side of the mountain when we saw the small white Cessna like plane circle the Grizzly Hut below us. At one point it almost looked like it was going to crash the mountain wall on the other side of the valley. And then on it’s third round it flew over the hut in low altitude and one of the girls believed that she saw the pilot make an air drop. We weren’t sure about it but the tenant who looks after the land had told us before we took off that he would have his pilot air drop some muffins for us. At the time we thought he was just joking of course. Who would fly a plane all the way out here just to drop off a couple of muffins? Well it made us curious enough to proceed all the way to the hut. It was easier said than done however.
We had been walking on the side of the mountain for the last couple of hours and now we had to do it in dense woodland. This continued for about half an hour or so I believe before we reached a place to cross the valley. It was completely flooded by beaver dams and unlike the other dams we crossed this was a wide plateau with reed growing above our heads. We jumped from tussock to tussock and waded through muddy water before we finally stood at foot of the big hill leading up to the Grizzly Hut.
Everyone started the ascend to the hut except two of us. We went to fetch water from a small nearby creek. Even if we were relaxed when walking through the high grass you could still hear us shout “hey bear!” regularly in between chit chatting. It’s funny how quickly your mindset changes when you know you’re in bear country. You never let down your guards completely.
After camping we sat down on a bench facing Grizzly Creek. The wind was blowing heavily as we sat there looking back at the landscape we had spend the whole day crossing. Then suddenly we remembered the plane making an airdrop. We jumped up and started searching the area. Within a few minutes one of the girls came back with a white package with a long yellow ribbon tied to it. We opened it and inside was four muffins and two oranges! Pure luxury.
We sat in the hut talking for a while as we made dinner. Afterwards we had coffee and muffins. It didn’t take long before the sun slowly started to disappear behind one of the tall mountains towards west. Since we were on a small plateau above the valley the wind was blowing quite heavily. So I went to secure my tarp before hitting the sack. I put a couple of rocks in the corners and tightened up the paracord holding the tarp pole in place. And then one of the grommets that I had put in the tarp myself broke. I was supposed to use this tarp through out the whole trip so this was not an ideal situation. I guess that’s the price you pay when you buy cheap gear. I had brought an extra tarp but it was not nearly as big as this one. It was really windy, the sun was disappearing and I was getting tired so I had to figure out something quickly. I found a small rock, wrapped the corner of the tarp around it and tied the paracord around it. I then secured it to the tarp pole and hoped it would stand the tearing of the wind. I had a plan B for windy mountain tops all along but I preferred sleeping in a tarp with a view rather than under it with rocks all the way around the edges.
Rain, pain and plains
The next day was set to be the longest hike of our journey. We started out by crossing a small rapid creek. Apparently I didn’t tie my gaiters tight enough so a few steps in the water was enough to get my socks completely soaked. I emptied my boots, pulled out the inner soles and wrung my socks before we continued. The weather had changed a bit and we had clouds coming in. Most of the morning we spent walking uphill. A long straight stretch. By lunch my feet were starting to blister because of the wet socks I wore. My feet didn’t feel very wet but one of the other guys recommended that I changed my socks anyway. It also gave me a chance to dry the other pair of socks so after allowing my feet a bit of fresh air during lunch I changed socks. It felt great. Also because I put my inner soles back into my boots. It’s incredible how much difference an inner sole makes in a pair of Meindl boots.
The rest of the afternoon we hiked through a big rocky plateau. We could see rain clouds coming in and before we knew it we had to change to our rain gear. Staying dry is essential when you’re in the wild. Water leads heat away from your body 25 times faster than air. If you are in an emergency situation with no prospect of seeking shelter or lighting a fire to dry your clothes, you are better off taking them off. “Cotton Kills” – you may have heard the expression before. The reason for this is that cotton looses it’s ability to insulate when wet and it takes a long time for it to dry. Wool on the other hand retains up to 80% of it’s insulation ability when wet.
This part of the hike was really beautiful and it was made even more beautiful by the sun occasionally penetrating the rain clouds in the horizon. The terrain was rocky and wet with deep pools of water everywhere. Despite being a bit monotonous I really liked it. The biggest downside was the mosquitoes. They were an intense plague. Every time we stopped for even a second they would be all over us. Even ascending into higher and more windy ground didn’t help.
We crossed a wide shallow river before the last hardships of the day: The final ascent to our camp site higher up in the mountains. The first one with no signs of civilization what so ever.
Out of the blue – literally – we heard a huge bang. It was extremely loud but at the same time it felt far away. At first we thought it was thunder but later we learned that it was probably a big piece of the mountain that had fallen off. And that’s exactly how you would imagine that sound. It wasn’t a long growling rumbling like thunder. It was more like a huge cannon being fired. A single loud boom reverberating throughout the mountains.
We came from the opposite side of the mountain when we first saw the camp site and we had to walk back down the mountain a bit before we hit camp. The view from up here was truly amazing but the mosquitoes were still plentiful. Surprisingly as it may seem the only place with no mosquitoes at all was under my tarp. I can’t explain why they didn’t find their way inside my shelter but for some reason they just didn’t.
The weather had changed and the sun was out again. Everyone was happy and still in a good mood. I had brought my fishing pole but still hadn’t had a chance to try my luck with it. During dinner Claus told us about a mountain lake further up the mountain that he knew of. He suggested we should give it a try and see if it held any fish. Since we were all in good spirit we decided to all do a hike to the lake from our camp.
It was a short hike of maybe an hour from our camp. We crossed a small creek on the way but apart from that it was a straight walk to the top. And we didn’t even carry our backpacks. The lake was really beautiful. It had a green colour reflection in the water from the rocky bottom and the blue sky was mirroring in the surface. I quickly rigged my fishing rod and did my first cast. I was full of anticipation and hope that this lake would offer some action. And of course dinner. I went to the opposite side of the lake to get away from the others who seized the opportunity to take a swim. As I moved around the lake it became clear however that there was no fish in it. It was a big lake of melting water from the peak next to it. There were no plants growing in it or other signs of life really. It was just a beautiful lake.
As we descended from the peak to go back to our camp I stumbled across an Arctic dock growing on some rocks right where the lake flowed into a stream. It’s an edible plant similar to Common sorrel. We followed the stream down the mountain and encountered a flock og chipmunks. They had occupied a big rock to use as their fortress. Maybe that’s why they allowed us to get so close to them before they hid. We got to a range of 5 to 10 meters away from them. A bit further down we passed a spot with a small snow deposition. This was the first and only time I stepped on snow during our trip. Back in camp I went straight to bed.
Bears and bushcraft
The next morning I woke up to sunshine. I had the most amazing view from my shelter. The terrain ahead of us was one long forest of shrub consisting of mainly dwarf birch (Betula nana) a shrub about 1-2 meters tall. We began our hike by descending from our camp ground halfway up the mountain and crossing the small creek where we had picked up water from the day before. We filled our bottles and moved on. For about an hour we bushwhacked through these bushes and whatever grew in between. We had a visibility range of maximum 2 meters. Not ideal in bear country. On top of that it started raining so we were walking for a couple of hours shouting “hey bear” and just watching our step. Here and there there we stepped over steep pits between the rocks and the grass. It was a hike that demanded our attention. A few of the pits were so deep you couldn’t see where they ended. Most of the day went by like this. Rain on and off and nothing but bushes. The hike was set to be a lot shorter than the day before. This fact combined with the rain meant we didn’t sit down for a long lunch break. Before we could reach the next camping spot we had to cross a canyon. The ground was really slippery and the descent was fairly steep so we had to hold on to the trees on our way down to avoid sliding. Now we only had one final ascent left before reaching our destination. It was a lot longer than I had expected however. And even though I was quite energetic the discouragement of a number of false peaks was taken it’s toll on me. When we finally reached the top it had stopped raining and the view from up here was probably the most beautiful one of the whole trip.
Claus and I had walked ahead in order to find an ideal camp site before picking up the other guys a hundred meters down the mountain. We found a rocky spot on the side of the mountain surrounded by straight ground here and there. From up here we had the most amazing view over the Talkeetna River and the valley we were going into the next day. Two of the guys went all the way back down in the canyon where we came from to get water. Meanwhile I started setting up my tarp. As I was about to finish the whole thing I could suddenly hear Claus shout from a distance. I didn’t sense any panic in his voice and when I came closer I could see him standing with his back towards me looking in his binoculars towards the opposite side of the river. “There’s a bear he said. A grizzly with two cubs.” I could sense both a hint of relief and excitement in Claus’ voice. He had guaranteed us all that we would see bears on this trip and until now he had hadn’t delivered. It was amazing to see this huge animal walk freely. And to see the two cubs was just an added bonus.
I felt bad for the others who had gone to get water for the group. So I decided to run down the mountain and get them. Hoping they were already on their way back I shouted to them on the way. It was a long way down, so fetching water was quite the task here. When I was almost half way down the mountain I finally heard someone answer. Luckily they made it back in time to see the bears. Back in camp everyone was ready for dinner. Because of my bushcraft experience Claus had asked me to be in charge of fire making. I started preparing materials to get a fire going. Before this we had all been collecting firewood. In the process Claus’ folding saw accidentally broke. So as we sat by the fire after dinner I decided to weave a temporary handle for it made from small twigs. It is the kind of pastime that makes life around a camp fire special. If you visit the B-Wild Store in Copenhagen today you can still see the saw I made in the exhibition next to the knives. Although the twigs have loosened and withered the saw has become a fun souvenir from our trip.
Destination: The Talkeetna River
It was a great nights sleep and this morning was kind of special. It was the last peak of our hike and ahead of us was the Talkeetna river. We could see the river banks where our next camp would be. The spot where we had arranged to meet up with the rafting team the next day. The view was simply indescribable and with a bald eagle flying by it was an out of this world experience. As a finishing touch I made myself a cup of tea from some spruce shoots that I had collected earlier on along the way. Before packing up I collected some birch bark from some nearby trees to use for tinder later on. You never know what the weather will be like later.
As I packed up I realized that I had slept on top of a blueberry bush. This is the American version mind you. They are bigger than the Nordic blueberries (bilberries) but not as rich in vitamins and they don’t hold the same amount of anthocyanin. Anthocyanin has been found to prevent cancer, diabetes and inflammation, and even slow the signs of aging. They still tasted great of course and I picked a few of them as a bonus breakfast before we started our hike.
My feet were still aching from the long wet hike but going downhill helped ease the strain on my heels since the pressure was now on my toes. As we moved down through the big forest leading down to the lake we were also going straight into dense bear habitat. Claus was getting more tense now. He was way more alert than at any other point of our trip. He repeated the procedures to us in case of a close encounter. As we continued we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a black forest. The result of a forest fire that had happened a couple of years back. It felt like we were part of a scene in the movie The Road. Afterwards both my pants and my arms had black stripes all over them from fending off coal branches.
Bear tracks became more frequent as we got closer to the lake. Tufts of hair, tracks and then – as we finally made our way through the clearing and onto the sand banks of the Talkeetna River – a loud, long and agressive roar from the opposite side of the river. We all stopped. Then there was nothing. We couldn’t see anything but dense forest. Claus told us he hadn’t heard a roar like this in 20 years. After a short while we filled our water bottles from the river and started walking along the bank of the river.
It was a nice feeling to suddenly be walking on sand. This was also the beginning of the end of our hiking trip. We were almost at the pick up spot where we had arranged to meet up with the river rafting crew the next day. Before we could get there however we had to get off the river again and walk inland for a while. We also had one last obstacle left. We had to cross a small but fast moving river. We used a throw bag to secure a rope across it and two of us stepped out into it to make sure the others didn’t end up in the main river in case they slipped.
That was it. Two minutes later we finally walked onto the river bank where our hiking trip ended. It was a wide and open spot with a lot of wind. The sand here was extremely fine grained so it found its way in everywhere. After putting up my tarp with the back towards the wind I secured it with rocks all the way around the sides of it. I didn’t want to risk it flying away during the night. It was a great and sturdy solution which also helped tighten it.
After getting my stuff in order and making my bed I took off my hiking boots for the last time. It wasn’t a pretty sight but it felt extremely great. My feet were both wet, wrinkled and blistered. All because of my mistake on day 3 were I didn’t change socks in time. It’s just a reminder of how important it is to take proper care of your feet out here. I had walked just a few hours with wet feet but it was enough to give me blisters for the rest of the trip. And since I didn’t have any blister plasters it was hard to get rid of them again. Regular plaster just doesn’t do the job because it moves around. I was happy to walk around bare foot here in the sand though. Even if it hurt whenever I stepped on the rocks.
We collected some firewood and then I went out to find some kindling to get a camp fire going. When making fire, many people focus on starting it. But the biggest part of successful fire making is preparation. Knowing what materials to collect, where to find them, keeping your tinder dry and building the fire correctly. I usually collect tinder before I need it. Here in Alaska I collected spruce resin and birch bark along the way. This made it easy for me to start a fire without scavenging the whole place everytime we camped in a new place. All I needed to find was some kindling and some firewood.
After I had the fire going I went out to collect two big piles of fresh branches with green leaves to use as a signal fire for the air crew who was coming to look for us the next the morning. They were going to point out our location for the River Rafting crew before dropping them off further up the river.
If you need to make a signal fire, you want to build a basis fire and keep it going until you need it. You also need to have plenty of extra firewood ready to intensify the fire when needed. And of course you need fresh green branches to produce the smoke. If your life depends on it you may also want to consider the colour of the smoke. Think about the background. If you’re in a spruce forest which looks dark from above, you want to create white smoke. If you’re on a beach, in the snow or somewhere else with a light backdrop, you may want to burn some plastic, oil or rubber to create a black smoke. The rest of the night we just spent hanging out by the camp fire, drinking coffee, eating snacks, telling stories and talking.
Waiting for the rafting crew
I was awakened by the sound of an engine. I was a bit confused for a second and then I realized that it was the sound of the plane we were supposed to signal. I jumped out of my shelter. I needed to get the signal fire going. I looked around and realized that everyone else was wide awake. I could see the dense white smoke rise from our camp fire and Claus standing next to it.
The pilot had seen us and after doing a fly by to help the rafting crew plan their landfall the small plane disappeared in the horizon. All we had to do now was wait for the rafting crew to unload, prepare the rafts and come meet us later in the day. We hung up some brightly coloured clothes on a tripod of branches some hundred meters up the river, so they could se our camp in time.
Claus had brought a pack raft along so we took the opportunity to test it. Although my approach to wilderness living is a bit old school and I’m not normally impressed by new fancy inventions, I must say that this is a cool little gadget. If you don’t know what a pack raft is it’s basically a small inflatable raft that fits in your backpack. So if you’re going hiking in a remote area with long distances this is an easy way to travel on the wilderness highways. And with a weight of only 1.5 kgs I think it’s pretty cool.
I also did a bit of fishing to pass the time but this far up the river the water is so muddy that the fish can’t see your bait. You need to find the small tributaries where the water is clearer and also a bit more calm if you want to find the salmon. The sun was out now and it was really hot so I needed to get myself in the shade for a while. I had packed up my stuff so I went to lie down on the sand under a tarp we had put up temporarily. This was amazing. The quietness out here combined with the shade and the breeze was pure therapy for the mind. I ended up taking a small nap. This was the first day in almost a week where we didn’t have pack up and move on.
About 3:30 in the afternoon we spotted three rafts in the horizon. It was a great sight and everyone was full of anticipation. When they finally arrived we were all handed a drysuit and a pair of rubber boots. It was great for me to step into a different pair of boots. Just what my feet needed. Another great thing was that the rafting crew had brought us lunch. Not freeze dried lunch. REAL food! They lined up a big table with DIY sandwiches. There was ham, cheese, sausages, different kinds of spread, lettuche, peperoncini, water melon and even Pringles. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until the minute I put my teeth in it. Wow!
After the lunch break we saddled up. Claus and I were in the first raft, the other four guys were in the next one and in the last one there was a couple who had missed the first part of the trip because of an accident. The husband had dislocated his shoulder in Denver trying to catch a connecting flight. Rushing through security he had skipped tying his shoe laces and on the way up the escalator he stumbled in it. It was a sad situation for them but Claus had arranged with the rafting crew that they could fly out with them and meet us for the last part of the trip down the river.
It was great to just sit and watch the landscape pass us by as we floated down the river. Even though this was the slower part of the river we still moved quite fast. You could feel that it was a powerful river. We drifted like this for a couple of hours before we started looking for a place to camp. After a few reconnaissances we decided for at spot on the right side of the river. It was practically a small island where the river broke into a small channel going around the back of it.
Here we had our first instructions on how to act and react on the river. We were told how to paddle the rapids, how to respond to different commands as well as how to react in the case of an emergency. This was no joke. We were going down class 5 rapids the next day.
When I signed up for the trip I didn’t pay much attention to the river rafting part. I was here to spend time in the wild. The idea of action packed rapids didn’t really appeal to me. I think I was a bit nervous about it actually. Not something that I aspired to at all. I guess that’s part of why I ended up enjoying this part of the trip so much. I came with no expectations whatsoever. But this extended way of camping was really cosy. The rafting crew prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner for us every night. They even made dessert for us and they had brought beer too. Pure luxury.
I enjoyed the slow tempo after we camped. It gave me time to wander around in the area and just take in the Alaskan wilderness. I was still in charge of fire making so I spent this time foraging for tinder and kindling as well.
White water rafting ahead
No backpack, no bear spray. The next morning I just packed up my shelter and put on my dry suit. I had mounted a GoPro on my helmet for this day. It was my son’s GoPro and he had been so kind as to lend it to me for this trip. I had also brought 2 iPhones to take pictures with. One was my other son’s. I kept them in dry cases and left one of them in a dry bag which was secured to the raft and the other one I kept in my pocket.
We took off down the river. It was a cloudy day but it wasn’t raining. It didn’t take long before we started seeing some action. It was maybe class 2 or 3 rapids at this stage. A great way to get familiar with the principles of paddling and aligning ourselves with our instructor’s expectations.
Our instructor was a girl named Crissy. I felt very safe with her as our guide and I later found out she was the more experience of them all. Let me just point out a few things about these river guides. They will not be impressed by your outdoor skills or your experience. They eat, sleep, cook and work outside throughout the rafting season which goes from around April to October. They don’t bring a tent either. They just sleep on the ground under a tarp or under the raft. They are weather-beaten, tough breeds with a good mood and colourful clothes.
Floating down the river like this gives you an extraordinary opportunity to see some wildlife up close. As we silently floated down the river at bicycling speed, we saw bald eagles right above our heads several times. A beaver made a splash right next to our raft as it dived down only to pop up in front of the next raft. We also surprised a caribou which ended up running alongside of us on the river banks for about a mile or so before it decided to cross the river in front of us. This was indeed Alaska. And then a couple of minutes later about 200 meters ahead of us a mother black bear was in a hurry. She was desperately trying to get her cub to cross the river before we caught up with them. It was amazing to watch her body language. As soon as they had made it to the other side of the river she started running and then she stopped to see if the cub followed her then she continued running constantly looking back at her cub as if to tell it to hurry up. The small cub was really making an effort trying to keep up with it’s mother when they disappeared into the brush. A moment later we could see that it was a small island they had run on to and as we continued down stream we spotted them again crossing the the river on the back side of the island.
I was the one taking most of the pics on this trip and after all these amazing experiences I kept my phone ready at hand for what else we might encounter. It wasn’t long after when Claus suddenly jumps up and points at another black bear. Only this one was no more than 5 – 10 meters away from us. It was standing on the bank of the river in a clearing of a spruce forest and it was just as surprised to see us as we were to see it. It stood on two legs with it’s front paws leaned against a tree. When she saw us she immediately jumped down on all four legs and the same second it did two small furry cubs rushed up the tree for safety. I had my phone out already so I slid the camera open only to realize that my storage was full! Before I could even begin to think about getting my back-up phone out of the dry bag we had passed the bears long ago. This was my chance to get a close up photo of a black bear and I missed it. The experience is still stored in my memory of course and as you know sometimes that’s even better than a photo.
All this would have been enough excitement for one day but we were still waiting to hit the rapids. We stopped for lunch in a small spot with a lot of rounded rocks sticking out of the sand everywhere. I checked my GoPro to see if it was running like it was supposed to and then we continued down the river. It wasn’t long before we pulled in for another break. The sound of the water had intensified now. We were standing on the edge of the rapids and our guides wanted to climb the cliff and read the river from above before we went in.
When they came back from the top you could feel a different kind of focus from our guides. They were depending on us to do our part of the paddling and they basically didn’t know how we would perform. So this was it. Our raft was the first one to go into the narrow gap between the black rocks rising vertically on each side. We were sucked into the river to the sound of the roaring water. “Forward paddle! Two times!” The voice of our guide was lashing through the air as I leaned forward over the side of our raft and started digging into the river as hard as I could. We made it around the first corner. Everything was like a big tumbler. Then it was time to paddle backwards. We needed to steer around a big rock before going down the next drop and then it was the other way around. I have no idea how long this lasted for but then, just as sudden as it had started, everything went quiet again. The experience was so intense that I completely lost track of time. But the rush and the experience was amazing.
We made another stop allowing everyone to take a pee before the next part of the rapids. We continued around a big rock in the middle of the river partly hidden by the flowing water. That’s when we heard one of the other guides shouting: “Oh sh*t!”. They weren’t able to make it around the rock so they went straight over it hitting the river with a big splash. I turned my head forward again and saw a huge branch coming straight at me. With zero time to think I instinctively bent forward just in time to avoid being struck into the river or getting seriously hurt. I only just recovered from the shock before we hit a big splash across the raft. This was so intense. And it lasted most of the afternoon with a few breaks here and there.
That night I had a few extra beers after dinner. It was just great to be out here. I was walking around in the outskirts of our camp looking for firewood when I came across a line of footprints from a black bear. Impressions just kept coming. Knowing that tomorrow would be a calm trip down the river we all sat and talked for hours around the campfire that night. We even had bit of whiskey going around.
A quiet day with some action packed fishing
I felt really bad when I woke up the next morning. I couldn’t even take a sip from my water bottle. And for sure I wasn’t able get up. It was an endurance test. Because I needed to pee badly but every time I moved it felt as if I was going to throw up. I heard the others call out several times to let me know breakfast was being served. I had to ignore them. I was so hungover from the whiskey I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pack up. And then I saw the hand of God coming through the opening of my shelter. Well it was actually just the hand of Claus but he had made me a plate full of pancakes, fruit and bread with syrup. I don’t remember exactly what was on the plate but it felt like heaven and it didn’t take me long before I was up and going again. I was the last one to break camp but it wasn’t that everyone was waiting for me. And surprisingly enough after an hour or so I wasn’t feeling sick anymore.
We had a quiet day ahead of us and the sun was out this morning. I just sat for a while taking in nature. Claus and I weren’t paddling. I asked our guide if I could try to take over the oars and navigate down the river on my own. I know how to row but going down a river is different. The technique here is different because the primary use of the oars is for steering. What I learned was that a river doesn’t flow equally fast everywhere so you want to learn how to read it. Did you know for instance that the current is stronger on the outside of corners and where it runs straight it is stronger in the center. If you can find the stronger current you will go faster without rowing. I also learned how to enter the corners sideways so that you are ready to push away from the outside of the meander once you get to it. I kept going for an hour or so before I handed the oars back over to our guide. It was a great experience learning the basics of oar guiding. What a cool skill to master.
As you know I had brought my fishing pole along all the way and I still hadn’t had a chance to seriously give fishing a chance. We had tried reaching a campsite where fishing was possible with no luck. Claus told me there might be a spot further down the river that we might be able reach for lunch. I didn’t want to set my hopes too high but when we finally landed on the bank for lunch I saw some other people there. With fishing rods in their hands. I quickly rigged my gear and went over there. I didn’t care about lunch now. There was a tributary with completely clear water and I could see salmon in the middle of it. I cast my Danish made FC spinner a few times without luck. Then I felt a tug. and I was struck by adrenalin. I raised my fishing rod and pulled back. I couldn’t pull it in so I released the pressure a bit in order to spin the reel a bit. And then I lost it. I tried several times and the same thing happened.
I waded a bit further into the river but I was wearing only high rubber boots so I couldn’t go too far. I cast the spinner again. Waited. Started spinning and then I felt a huge tug. Only this time I didn’t keep as much pressure on the line. The salmon started moving towards the big river. I tightened the break and pulled back. This was the biggest salmon I had hooked so far and the most lively one too. My fishing rod was bend to it’s breaking point. I was battling this one for a long time until I could feel it give in just a little bit. And then I lost it. It was extremely frustrating to see this much fighting only to loose one salmon after the other. I could see the salmon resting in the water and looking back I regret that I didn’t just wade out there to grab it. I had some great fights though and just witnessing the salmon run was a great experience. Before I knew it it was time to move on. I didn’t prioritize lunch that day but the others had made me a sandwich. So after an action packed noon I sat back in the raft with my sandwich and relaxed a bit.
The end of our trip was closing in. The first sign of civilization was a power line. We had also passed a house with people fishing from the river bank and occasionally a motorboat with hopeful anglers would pass us by. The weather was shifty. It had been sunny during fishing but we saw a lot of rain on the last stretch towards Talkeetna, the take out point of our rafting trip. We were almost there.
We landed by a small slipway. The rafts were disassembled and deflated, we took our gear out of the drybags and put it under a small shed before we were picked up by a van and taken to a small bed and breakfast near town. We were back in civilization.
As I stood in the shower in the small hut I could feel every muscle in my body. It was surreal to stand here after 8 days in the wild and feel the warm water on my body. We were all going out to eat together.
We met in the courtyard at the West Rib Pub and Grill at about 6 I believe. The weather was great and we all enjoyed being outside. There was caribou and halibut burgers on the menu. And of course we had a few beers as well. I didn’t want to wake up the next day feeling like I did this morning so I took it easy. After dinner we took a walk around town to get a few drinks and see the town.
At this point I was tired and I missed my family a lot. I had been thinking a lot about them during the whole trip and now I really just wanted to get back to them. We were going to the Maldives together as soon as I returned from Alaska. So I left early and went back to bed.
Back to Anchorage and back to Denmark
We had breakfast at the cosiest little bakery and restaurant called “Roadhouse” before being picked up by an old bus taking us back to Anchorage where we all split up. The ride back was a couple of hours or more. Claus had booked a flight back to Denmark the same afternoon and everyone else had plans to go on a roadtrip from Anchorage. I did some sightseeing and some souvenir shopping for my family before I went to “Gwennies Old Alaska Restaurant” for a “Reindeer Philly” – a burger with a reindeer sausage in it that I recommend you try if you ever go there. After that I went back to my hotel, packed up my suitcase and went to sleep. I regretted booking an extra night in Anchorage at this point really because I had also booked an extra night there before we headed out into the wilderness so I had already seen the most of it. I also knew I would have only 36 hours to pack for the Maldives when I got back home. Look out for that story soon.