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Angling Wild Alaska: Getting There is Half the Fun

By: Lynn Burkhead

With the drone of the Cessna 206 aircraft prop engine dulling my senses and threatening to put my jet-lagged form to sleep, I have to confess that I wasn't fully prepared for the sudden lurch of Charles Allen's Alaskan bush plane.

Quickly coming awake, I heard his familiar voice crackle over the headset: "Hey Lynn, look down there."

Down there being the rugged and barren coastal marshes lying east of Cordova, Alaska, a "Deadliest Catch" kind of seaport lying just a hop, skip and jump from the spectacular snow-capped peaks of the rugged Chugach Mountains and the Bering Glacier.

"Wow, what is that?" I queried Allen, a longtime wildlife biologist, hunting/fishing guide, bush plane pilot, and owner of the Alaska Expedition Company (www.alaskaexpedition.com) camp situated on the Tsiu (Sigh-You) River.

Situated near the state's southeastern "Lost Coast" on the Gulf of Alaska, I knew that the dark object - or objects - on the tundra below was a part of the untamed land that I had often dreamed of visiting.

"That my friend is a brown bear," said Allen. "Or to be more precise, it's a brown bear eating another brown bear."

As Allen circled the plane overhead one last time, I took a closer look. And sure enough, brown bear backstraps were indeed on the local menu.

Somewhere during that last flyby, I realized once and for all - if I had ever harbored any doubts previously - that my dream of one day visiting the most untamed wilderness left in North America was now an exciting reality.

"Toto," I mused quietly to no one in particular, "we're not in Kansas anymore."

It's a good thing too because I wasn't packed for a pheasant or deer hunting trip to the Sunflower State. Instead, my duffle bag was full of Gore-Tex rain gear, warm clothing, waders, and Orvis and Temple Fork seven and eight-weight fly rods destined to do battle with migrating salmonids.

With any luck, the early fall rain that had battered the southern coastline for several days would soon abate and the Pacific Rim's Coho's - or silver salmon - would arrive in ever increasing numbers as they continued to find their way up the Tsiu to complete an annual spawning ritual that is as old as time itself.

In the meantime, there was plenty more aerial sightseeing to do as Allen took advantage of a break in the weather to ferry yours truly and California outdoors writer Durwood Hollis into the lodge while giving us a deluxe tour of the wild terrain that wee were flying over.

There were huge bull moose roaming the tundra below, massive creatures of antlers, fur, and wild meat that left me wishing I could trade in my fly rod for a compound bow.

There were frigid waves rolling as far as the eye could see, crashing onto the sub-Arctic beaches that dot the northern rim of the world's greatest ocean, the vast Pacific.

There were uncountable flocks of waterfowl wheeling below our plane along with the sight of an occasional bald eagle inspecting things from above as it soared on unseen thermals.

Finally, there were the nearby coastal mountain peaks, the brownish-green foothills, scattered pockets of timber, and seemingly endless coastal tundra, all of which would eventually lie beneath a mantle of ice and snow after the spectacular Alaskan summer and fall ended in a few weeks.

But that was then and this was now, the now being Alaska's glorious summertime. As I continued looking on deep in thought, we neared Allen's Driftwood Lodge, a sparse but ruggedly luxurious camp built from lumber milled from the river's driftwood piles.

With a sharp bank of the plane, we swept through the skies low and steady above the coastal tundra.And suddenly, without any warning it seemed, the skies opened up and the massive Bearing Glacier loomed directly in front of us.

It was a sight that took my breath away, a vision that let me see deep into the heart of the Alaskan wild.

As Allen climbed our winged craft above the rugged icy folds of North America's largest glacier, he pointed out various features on the ice field and in the surrounding terrain.

Soon we were soaring above the glacier's terminal end where it calves into a fourteen-mile long and five-and-a-half-mile wide water body known as Vitus Lake.

An icy pool of icebergs and eerily blue water named after Vitus Bearing, leader of a 1741 expedition to Alaska, the sight of this glacier fed lake left me keenly aware that I was witnessing a sight that only airborne travelers above and a handful of hardy souls on foot below had ever been privileged to see.

After a short time winging our way over the rugged river of ice that was slowly and silently grinding its way towards the ocean, Allen took note that our window of serviceable weather was beginning to close.

The veteran bush pilot that he is, he took no chances with a lowering ceiling and soon had his Cessna flying back towards the coastline.

Within minutes, we were on final approach to the camp as Allen brought the aircraft low over a small lake lying between the ocean and his wilderness lodge.

As he lined us up for a landing, the plane's big tires reached for the ground and a few bumpy moments later, we were taxiing towards the camp's front door.

Allen's chief guide, Chris De Los Santos, met us and opened the door to begin unloading gear. That allowed me to spill out of the front seat, stretch my legs a bit, and marvel at the cool salty air that stood in stark contrast to the triple digit heat I had left behind in Texas a couple of days previously.

I was smiling big, because finally, after a life time of dreaming about our nation's 49th state, I was there.

Standing on wild-at-heart ground, ready to see all of the outdoors experiences that the Last Frontier had in store for me.

As I soaked it all in, it dawned on me that that Alaska had already provided me with an unexpected reward.

And that was the realization that one of the greatest pleasures to come from a trip to the Land of the Midnight Sun is the amazing adventure of simply getting there.

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