Ben Gray, 32, was brought up at the foot of Lazy Mountain, 60 miles from Anchorage in Alaska. He owned his first plane aged 14, and more recently he served as a Pave Hawk helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. Over the past decade he has flown the length and breadth of his state, and in 2010 married a pilot, Ellie Claus, with whom he lives inside the 13.2m-acre Wrangell-St Elias National Park, 100 miles from the nearest paved road. Gray’s father-in-law, Paul Claus, is also a bush pilot, who last year flew a Cessna 180 on a two-month scientific expedition from Alaska’s west coast to Greenland’s east coast, traversing Canada, Baffin Island and the Greenland ice sheet. In the summer months, from March to October, all of them work out of the Claus family’s Alaskan lodge, Ultima Thule, using four Piper Super Cubs – the keys to the kingdom for experiencing the frozen north’s remote and roadless interior.
The Ultima Thule planes are not for everyone; they carry just two passengers, with the back passenger’s legs wrapped around the other person’s hips. During take-off and landing, it is necessary to lean towards the front to take the weight off the machine’s tail. As to a fixed route, nothing is predictable: the extreme topography of this national park, which at nearly six times the size of Yellowstone is North America’s largest, comprises nine mountains above 14,000ft and four in excess of 16,000ft. Siberian high-pressure cold weather from the north, combined with the wet, warm low-pressure systems from the Aleutians to the south, whip up some of the fiercest storms on the planet. When the weather is benign, however, there is no better way to bomb about an empty land. “Within an hour in a Super Cub, I can show you just about every single ecosystem in the United States,” said Gray, who picked us up in Anchorage in his plane dressed in a chequered shirt and flip-flops. “The diversity of this place is like Disneyland on steroids.”
When I visited in mid-July, we flew over rounded, snow-crested hills as smooth and white as goose eggs. We banked between rocky pinnacles, followed the contours of giant bowls of ice scooped out of the earth, and slipped over jagged crests poking out of wisps and curls of cloud. Beneath us flowed glacial rivers more than a mile wide through undulating land covered in velvet greens, the endless Arctic sun lighting up the water until the valleys were veined with gold. We followed silver tributaries to see salmon hang like black ghosts in currents as they waited to spawn, and in the silt-bottomed lakes we saw tracks left by hungry bears.
Everywhere in this restless landscape was movement. Spring landslips on the Chitina River had caused mile-long, 500ft-high chunks of spruce forest to topple into the waters below. Trunks more than 40ft tall looked like broken matchsticks; they hung by their roots from the layer of permafrost that had given way in the melt. It looked as if rock faces had been splintered by the freeze and thaw in the violence of the hard winters. Even in summer, vertical cliffs dripped with ice and snow, like Japanese ink thrown at vellum, while the charred ground in a 20,000-acre valley razed by fire from a single lightning strike was carpeted in cerise flowers.
But far greater scars have been left by millennia of tectonic trauma. Everywhere there was evidence of the ferocious rifting that formed these mountains, thrusting up crests of black volcanic rock into the sky as glaciers grind their passage through Alaska’s empty mass. Above the treeline, rocks were striped with copper, weeping a turquoise blue – the same blue found in the depths of crevasses on glaciers that swept up through mountain clefts. There were lakes of pale peppermint, pools of blinding cobalt and dark blue eyes of water in the snow.
“None of our flying is by instruments,” said Gray, “it’s all by sight. We’re on our own up here. No roads, no public services, no fire services, no medical services, no property taxes and very few restrictions. You’re more or less back in the Wild West.” It felt like we were travelling in another time – in the 1930s, to the soundtrack of a propeller’s light buzz as we used this small, sturdy machine with its big soft tyres to land on rough tundra, sandbars, snow and ice. But when the terrain allowed, we also walked the hills over which we flew. Like a bird circling its prey, we swooped once, then twice, over a flat-topped mountain before landing for lunch on unmarked land. I lay back to rest in the sun and found a fossilised seashell about the size of my thumb thrust up from the seabed about 100 miles to the south.
It is this scale that is so difficult to grasp, which also reveals the core of Alaska’s infinite possibilities. I was confining myself to a single national park – larger than Switzerland – with Wrangell-St Elias the start of a new 10-night pan-Alaskan Super Cub customised safari operated by Ultima Thule Lodge. From here one heads north to the Gates of the Arctic National Park, which in early June catches the caribou migration comprising 60,000 animals in a single herd. The route then circles up through the Brooks Range under a midnight sun before striking west to the Seward Peninsula to take in the gold-rush town of Nome, followed by remote hot springs and traditional Eskimo villages on the Bering Strait. Ultima Thule’s bush pilots then follow the threads of the Yukon River back into the interior and down towards Denali (also called Mount McKinley), which is North America’s highest peak, before slipping south to Katmai to find bears feeding on salmon in clear-water tributaries on the remote Pacific coast.
“We finish up on the other side of Cook Inlet for a feast of Kachemak oysters bought fresh from the fishermen and shucked on the beach,” said Ellie Claus, the eldest daughter in the Claus family, three generations of whom own and run Ultima Thule, its Super Cubs, two Cessnas and single DeHavilland turbine Otter. “It’s a long trip – a huge trip – that includes all the highlights everyone expects from Alaska, plus everything else that nobody knows exists. With weather and extreme wilderness, there are bound to be hiccups – but that’s the point of adventure. It’s what our clients crave.”
Compared with the wooden cabins of Ultima Thule, with their Godin fires, cotton sheets and faux-fur throws, not every bed on this safari might be quite so comfortable, warned Claus. Some nights are spent camping, or in village homestays among some of the most remote communities on earth. “The right kind of visitor wants a connection with place,” said Claus. “Alaska has the power to remind people that privilege is experiencing wilderness as it is meant to be felt – simply and singularly.”
While wanting to visit Alaska for a while, I was nervous of the means available, less because of the risks of wilderness adventure than the fact most high-end travellers observe Alaska from the veranda of a cruise ship. Alaska itineraries tend to follow a similar route, winding through the Inside Passage, through the fjords of the Panhandle, from Vancouver in British Columbia to Juneau or Seward. Admittedly, a growing number of smaller boats are plying these waters, including private charters from yacht brokers such as Burgess, which can manoeuvre their way deep into the gorges carved by glaciers; and a handful of cruise ship journeys are being developed to penetrate more remote parts. They include Silversea’s Silver Shadow, which last month embarked on a 14-day voyage from Vancouver to Tokyo, taking in the Alaskan Peninsula’s entire length. But compared to the freedom one can experience from the air – and the necessity, it seemed to me, of seeing Alaska through the eyes of its people – such trips still skirt around the edges of the state’s extraordinary potential. I therefore looked into other lodges, including Crystal Creek Lodge in Bristol Bay on the Peninsula, which also operates a wood-floored pop-up fishing camp on the Nushagak River to catch the largest run of king salmon in the world. I thought about Winterlake Lodge, located 198 miles northwest of Anchorage, along Alaska’s historic Iditarod Trail. It offers hiking, helicopter-assisted trekking and fishing on the surrounding lakes – and is open in winter for skiing and the Northern Lights. My fixer, Will Bolsover from UK-based Natural World Safaris, put the focus on the wildlife instead, which in Alaska hibernates or migrates in the winter freeze.
I didn’t see any grizzlies, which was unusual, but I was glad for the summer warmth – and sightings of moose, black bear and buffalo. In Wrangell-St Elias, we snorkelled, rock climbed and went wakeboarding at the feet of glaciers on the spectacular waters of high alpine Tebay Lake. We spent a night camping under the stars on the exposed tundra of McCall Ridge; to the northwest we watched the white peak of Mount Blackburn rise with the brightening dawn. When we flew over the top of a rainbow, I wondered if the white Dall sheep on the horizon were a herd of unicorns grazing on the taiga. Maybe they were.“To stay in a single park and experience this much variety is beyond one person’s lifetime,” said Paul Claus. That day, he made three landings in his Super Cub in three different locations he had never visited before. Its scale makes the imagined world of Alice in Wonderland seem suburban by comparison. To access it, there are boats, there are lodges and there is this family of extraordinary bush pilots living in a playground that is so off the map, it makes unicorns seem possible.