Stories of the North

Tales of Alaskan adventure.

Mt. McKinley    

The High Way
By Dave Hahn
There is more to a bush flight than a glimpse of granite and glacier. It's the company. The best pilots won't just shock you with yaw and sway you with pitch; they'll also weave you a story of aviators, explorers, wilderness, and geology. I started flying onto Denali in 1986. By '88 I was guiding on the mountain and was catching rides out of Talkeetna with a living legend. Cliff Hudson, who'd gone into the business in 1946, was the quintessential Alaskan bush pilot, and I felt fortunate to see him at work. My luck continued as I formed a friendship with his son, Jay, who took over chief pilot duties at Hudson Air Service. In December, Jay died at age 52 from cancer. He and I had spent 20 years building genuine respect for one another. My preference has always been to go at the very end of the normal climbing season, in July. But by then, most Talkeetna pilots have switched to freshly showered tourists who don't require landings on skis uphill in the snow. I figured Jay would quit climbers altogether at some point, but he said that such awkward flights—be they for climbers, fishermen, or folks in the bush needing their mail—were the guts of his family business and always would be. Some years, I'd conspire to get that last flight off the mountain all by myself with Jay. I wouldn't require a big tour on the trip back, and he wouldn't require a blow-by-blow of the three-week climb. Sure, I'd ask him what it had been like controlling a plane at age eight or getting his pilot's license at 16. And I'd nibble politely about how he could live so far from everything. But often I'd just shut up and enjoy the company, the amazing Alaskan summer sun, and the world spinning oh-so smoothly beneath Jay Hudson's trusty Cessna 206 Turbo.

Kings of All That
By Ryan Krogh
Fishermen are a foolhardy bunch—nowhere more so than in Alaska. With good reason: Alaska is the piscatory promised land. Piggish rainbows, overeager grayling, freight-train-like salmon—they're all here. And they're all equally fun to catch. That is, of course, with one exception: king salmon. In Alaska, kings are king, and landing one on a fly, possible in only a few places, is the pinnacle of sport. Last June, at Deneki Outdoors' Alaska West tent camp ($4,900 per person, includes lodging, food, and guided fishing; deneki.com), a remote fly-in camp on the banks of the Kanektok River, in western Alaska, the kings were running, and so was I. In three days, I hooked two but landed neither. Another fisherman in camp, an 85-year-old named John, had been trying to catch a king for 12 straight days, coming within an arm's length of success. In the course of his pursuit, John's face had become sunburnt, and by the 12th day, when he announced he'd had enough, his skin was peeling like a snake's. But the next morning, John got up, lathered himself in sunscreen, and hit the water again. He hooked two kings...and landed both. After returning home, he planned a four-week trip for the following summer.

Travel Advisory
By Daniel Coyle
Little-known fact: Along with grizzlies and moose, Alaska's wilderness teems with another highly specialized charismatic megafauna: Polaris romanticus, more commonly known as the Alaska Romeo. An exquisitely adapted bipedal mammal, Romeos survive by latching on to lower-48ers for a single summer at a time, sustaining themselves on wide-eyed dreams of wilderness living. In our small town, for instance, there's one storied female Romeo whose cabin was built entirely by lower-48ers: First she hooked up with a visiting carpenter, then an electrician, and so forth. Then there's the Romeo whose annual hookups comprise his fishing crew. A sure sign of summer: the sight of his boat headed out with a freshly minted girlfriend (or, some years, two) perched on the bow. It's possible for visitors to safely interact with P. romanticus, provided they use common sense and follow a few simple rules.

What to look for: Sun-bleached, wind-whipped hair, horizon-gazing eyes, rosy complexion, ripped Carhartts. Other identifying marks: a devil-may-care smile, a mid-1980s Subaru. Habitat: Fishing boats, saunas, and cabins in need of constant upkeep (often provided by willing lower-48ers). Both males and females reach peak maturity in their mid-forties; a few have even stayed active into their sixties. They gravitate to vague, seasonal jobs such as "fish counter" or "volunteer fireman."

What to do: Be aware that late-summer evenings are P. romanticus's prime hunting time. Twenty daily hours of sunlight frequently leaves lower-48ers dazed, blissful, and vulnerable. Avoid displaying bright, shiny objects, like rental cars, credit cards, and hotel-room keys. Also avoid demonstrating potentially useful skills, like wood splitting or clam digging. If a Romeo should display over­aggressive behavior, it's recommended to employ either pepper spray or a sentence beginning with the phrase "When we're married..." Both work equally well.

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