Flying to Alaska takes about as long as driving to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota from Tennessee. My GPS reported the straight-line distance from my front yard to Kisaralik Lake to be 3600 miles exactly. Our flight left Nashville (90 miles away) at 6:00 a.m. We realized belatedly that it was crazy to start a 17 hours flight by getting up at 2:30 a.m. and driving to the airport. Norm's brother-in-law drove us up the afternoon before and we stayed in a motel. We got to the airport early because we were checking guns and we wanted to allow plenty of time for that. It turned out to be simple: sign a card stating that the gun was unloaded and lock the signed card in the gun case. (If this is hard to understand, check with Northwest Airlines. I don't pretend to grasp the logic).
The flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul went quickly. I was interested to see how the grid pattern of southern Minnesota extended into the twin cities. Rows of corn and soybeans among the checkerboard of roads were replaced by rows of houses. As we boarded the flight to Anchorage, I sensed a different energy. I caught snatches of conversation about hunting and fishing. Many of the passengers were wearing camo hats or t-shirts. All seats were taken. Soon we were over the Canadian Rockies which looked very wild and unspoiled.
When we disembarked in Anchorage, the first thing we saw in the airport was a huge stuffed grizzly in a glass cage. Norm and I both had the same reaction: it was much bigger than we thought! As will be discussed later, we had spent a good deal of time researching grizzlies and had bought guns just for this trip to protect ourselves from a bear attack. It was sobering to see how big a grizzly can be.
Shortly we left for Bethel, 500 miles to the west. Our plane was a "palletized" 737 which meant that a bulkhead had been installed in the forward part of the cabin to allow containers of freight to be loaded with a forklift. Clouds prevented our seeing any of the country we would travel, even though we flew over it. The number of 747's at the Anchorage airport impressed us. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, UPS, FedEx and more were all there. All most everything is flown into Alaska and this is where it first lands. It's a beautiful place to land; high mountains ring Anchorage--many are snow covered.
In the Bethel airport we finally connected with our outfitter who refuses to use a sign--intuition rules. At the guesthouse the pilots immediately asked if we wanted to go now. The weather was good. But we declined. We were beat from our 19 hours of travel and had to sort out our stuff.
It was cloudy and looked like rain the next morning. But the pilot thought he could make it so we loaded up the plane. (He did not think our 2 dry bags, big duffle and 2 guns was much gear. A recent party of 4 had taken 900 pounds of canned food for a week.) We flew over amazing bog country, the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta. There were many little ponds and streams meandering through low bog plants. We sighted several tundra swans in the ponds. But then the pilot pointed out that the clouds had lowered up in the mountains and we turned around.
We sat around in the outfitter's office and soaked up Alaska lore. They used the Internet to check the weathere--specially Alaskaweathercams.com which is worth a look. Eventually the pilot decided the rain was over and we took off again. We flew beyond the delta and got into the mountains and the pilot pointed out the river that we would float down. Then he began to point out caribou. We quickly learned to pick them out. They were in small groups and tended to be on the tops of ridges. There were no trees; we were in the tundra. As we started our descent to Kisaralik Lake, the pilot suddenly said, "There's a bear. There's a grizzly." He circled around to get a better look but the bear had gone into some low cottonwood bushes. The bear was a very dark brown almost a black. But he was big. Not a black bear. As we landed we realized that the bear was only one low ridge away from us.
We unloaded our stuff and the pilot got out a generator and a vacuum cleaner and pumped up our raft. Soon he was gone. And as the sound of the engines faded away, we got the feeling that many Alaskan adventurers comment on. We were on our own and we were completely in the wilderness. There was no sound except the wind and there was no sign of any other human beings. We were also surprised to see snow in the mountains surrounding the lake; nothing we had read had mentioned that. We later learned that the lake does not thaw out until July 1st. Its elevation is only 1500 feet.
We found a fire pit that others had used and decided to cook there and set the tent up further down the lake. In bear country it is very important to keep cooking and sleeping separated. After we got the tent up, I noticed a wolf turd full of bones and hair just outside the door. There was also a bird skeleton. While Norm arranged his stuff in the tent, I scanned the surrounding hills with my binoculars. I immediately saw another grizzly, a sow with two cubs. The sow was almost blonde but the cubs were black. The wind was in our faces and they were moving away from us, apparently eating blueberries. They were a long way off; we could barely see them without the binoculars. So we now knew there were four bears in the immediate area!
We cooked some supper under a tarp that we erected with some difficulty--the stakes wouldn't hold very well in the gravel. It started to rain and we hung out in the tent. We emerged when it stopped and noticed several caribou on a hill behind us. So we walked up that way and saw 8 or 9. We also could see the grizzly off in the distance. The cubs were wrestling with each other; but the mother was still eating blueberries.
The rain began again and we retreated to the tent and got ready to sleep. We were warm and dry and tired.
The approach to Lake Kisaralik. The Kisaralik River is in the foreground and the lake lies ahead at the foot ot the mountains.
View of the boggy Yukon-Kuskowim Delta
Typical gravel bars on Kisaralik river near lake.
Wade (the pilot) and Norm unroll the raft at Kisaralik Lake.
By Boeing jet to Bethel, AK and by DeHaviland Beaver to the Lake.
The moment of truth--our plane leaves. Have we forgotten anything???