All Roads Lead to Home Base

Have your Alaskan wilderness and your baked Alaska, too—just bring a couple guides along.

Misty Fjords National Monument     Photo: Corel

Lodges: The Details

Great Alaska (800-544-2261, www.greatalaska.com) schedules seven-day "Safari Camps" June 8 through September 14. Trips depart from Kenai and cost $1,595 per person. Five-day trips cost $1,195. Prices include all meals and activities. Great Alaska offers a group discount—the sixth person in each group travels free.

At first, an Alaska camping trip sounded out of the question for my family. Too much work, too much gear, too much unfamiliar territory. Not to mention too few showers and not enough good food. Yet there we were, camped out on the shore of Skilak Lake on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula: my husband, Jim; our seven-year-old son, Will; and me. What made the journey not only possible but practically posh were the non-family members we brought along, two guides who doted on us every step of the way.

For families who desire an intimate brush with wilderness but shy away from the hard labor and skills required to make it happen, hiring an outfitter that operates out of a base camp brings the best of all worlds. In our case, we chose Great Alaska because of its flexibility and a backcountry-camping option. The seven-day itinerary included two base camps—a tent lodge on the Moose River about a mile and a half up from the confluence of the Moose and Kenai Rivers, and backpacking tents on the shores of Skilak Lake, a 24,000-acre glacier-fed lake surrounded by snowcapped mountains. From both of these sites we could make guided forays without much preparation, or worrying about backwoods risks like hypothermia or hunger.
Our camping base for the last four days' excursions—paddling kayaks, hiking to view salmon jumping up a waterfall on the Russian River, and cruising Kenai Fjords National Park in an 80-passenger boat—was the tent lodge, which we reached by boat from the Moose River. We bunked in a high-walled tent on a wooden platform, with a front deck and lounging chairs. The camp's caretakers, Cara and Pete, pampered us with thick white towels for washing, and coffee and hot water delivered with each morning's wake-up. The camp's central gathering place, a newly erected wooden lodge with a soaring ceiling and windows, was cabin-basic but had a hint of refinement—upholstered armchairs circling the room atop a braided rug. A chess set was all Will needed to feel at home, and our cook, Cara, whipped up mac and cheese especially for him.

While the Moose River site was a good introduction to far-north luxury camping, the Skilak site, which we visited during the first part of our trip, delivered the grandeur for which Alaska is so revered. Will's favorite guide, Jim, took us by pontoon boat down the Kenai River, past bald eagles (Will spotted 18 by midday), cormorants, a swimming moose, and fishermen. In Kenai Canyon we ran action-packed Class II rapids triggered by unusually warm temperatures and corresponding snowmelt; when we reached the lake, we hiked a half-mile along the shore to what would be our home for the next two days and nights. But instead of arriving at camp for the exhausting routine of setting up tents, cooking dinner, and keeping a child from bonking, we left such worries to Charlie, the camp's caretaker, who had everything ready and waiting, including cookies and lemonade.

The rest of the day flew by in a whirlwind of Alaska-style activity. We paddled to a nearby rookery where hundreds of gulls and cormorants treated us to an ear-splitting serenade. At dinnertime, we sat down to a portable table adorned with a wildflower bouquet to sip wine and drink in the view of the edge of Harding Icefield. Then we toasted s'mores over a campfire—an odd experience in the midnight sun.

The next day, Charlie motored us across the lake to a hiking trail that cut through junglelike greenery, alpine tundra, and snowfields as it wended to the top of one of Alaska's many unnamed peaks. It took a while to get used to the sight of Charlie toting a shotgun, but it was that or fend for ourselves should we encounter a grizzly.

My son kept up well with us adults, sticking to Charlie's heels, but as we took one last turn to the summit, we faced a mini-crisis. Will decided he was tired and ready to turn around. A quick family powwow produced nothing, until a small bribe (the promise of a souvenir the next day) turned the tide. Up Will scampered, beating the adults to the top.

Not a road or building could be seen from our perch, just lake after lake and mountain after mountain, including a glimpse of Redoubt Volcano across Cook Inlet, some 80 miles away. Will munched on cookies, his exhaustion long gone. We started our descent by sliding down a snowfield and ended back at camp with a hot-water backpacking shower and a sirloin steak dinner.

After a week like this, I'm up for another Alaska camping trip anytime. All I need is my family—and just a couple of experienced guides.

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