My rendezvous with the wilderness is set for 6pm, on the edge of a remote Alaskan village with a population of just 150. “Park alongside the log cabin and wait but stay away from the stretch of ground beside the car park,” were the instructions in the email.
I have driven four hours from Anchorage to get to the village, Chitina, and stand beside the car, staring at the cloudy sky. In the distance, a red dot appears. It grows, its buzzing becoming audible as it veers left and right following the curves of the Chitina river, until, after several minutes, a shiny red De Havilland Otter swoops down and lands before me on the gravel. My taxi has arrived, with Paul Claus at the wheel – aviator, adventurer and owner of Ultima Thule, a lodge 100 miles from the nearest road, where I am to stay for the next three days. We board the plane and leave civilisation far behind.
Paul’s father, John, was a teacher in Anchorage, eager to climb in the Alaskan mountains but frustrated by how hard it was to access them. Then, in the late 1950s, he learnt to fly and found the doors to the wilderness suddenly thrown open. He continued teaching but used his spare time to explore by air, landing on plains and river sandbars where no one had touched down before.
In 1960, he staked a claim to a patch of land beside the Chitina river, and was granted five acres where he and his wife Eleanor set about building a modest wooden cabin and landing strip. Decades later, when the Wrangell-St Elias National Park was established, the Claus family were allowed to keep their land, one of only a handful of private properties within a park the size of Switzerland.
“Lots of celebrities like coming because they can be absolutely sure that no paparazzi can get up here,” says Paul, as the Otter passes miles of mountainous nowhere. He tells me about the time he took the actor Jim Carrey, a regular guest, on an emergency flight to carry diesel to some stranded trekkers. “I’ll never forget their faces.”
John and Eleanor Claus split their time between the remote lodge and Anchorage but, in 1982, Paul and his wife Donna moved to Ultima Thule full-time and began building cabins for paying guests. Today there are five two-bedroom cabins (accommodating a maximum of 12 guests) and the whole family is involved with the business – their daughters Ellie, Logan, son Jay and son-in-law Ben all work at the lodge. Like their grandfather (now retired and living in Anchorage), all are skilled bush pilots. When the lodge runs out of wine or beer, one of the family hops into a plane and flies out to get it.
Planes are central to the activities on offer for guests too, providing an easy way to reach the best locations for hiking, skiing, wildlife-spotting, sightseeing or simply having a picnic. There are five in all, ranging from the nine-seater Otter, to a three-seater Piper Super Cub that weighs less than 450kg.
“How do you fancy a hike up the mountain behind the lodge tomorrow, weather permitting?” asks Paul, over dinner on the first night. I look up at the peak apprehensively, taking a quick swig of Alaskan White Ale to stiffen my nerve. “Hey, don’t panic,” says Paul. “We fly you to the top in the Super Cub. Easy! From there, you hike for a couple of hours to the edge of the rock face, where we come and pick you up again, two by two. Deal?”
Flying in the Super Cub is an experience in itself. It has no electric motor so the propeller has to be manually spun to start it. Once airborne, the featherweight plane skims low across the river and then soars upwards, as nimble as a buzzing bee. When he spots a good piece of grass, Paul circles and prepares to land. Then, after only a few bumpy metres on its gigantic rubber tyres, the Super Cub comes to a halt. “Out you get,” he says. “I’ve got other guests to pick up!”
While he flies off to fetch them, I stand waiting beside the two guides, enjoying the silence. Around us there is nothing but wild Alaskan nature; snowy peaks and glaciers disappear into the far distance. We walk for several hours over mossy ground, with no trees, occasionally snow, a few wild sheep and, according to one of our guides, a brown bear in the distance.
The guides always carry a gun, standard kit when walking in Alaska. That evening, back at the lodge, we hear more about bears – a few weeks earlier a grizzly had to be shot after it kept approaching the cabins, undeterred by the dog or the noises of humans. “When one of the girls went outside in the evening, the grizzly was standing just a few metres from her,” says Paul.
Meanwhile, Ellie and her sister are cooking dinner, a large salmon caught locally by one of the team. As she chops vegetables from the garden, Ellie tells me that as well as flying planes here, her husband Ben is also a helicopter pilot with the American army, at present posted in Afghanistan. “He’ll be back in a few months. It is safer here than out there, even with the occasional bear in the garden.”
Loni Habersetzer, another of the lodge’s pilots, works in Alaska in the summer and east Africa in winter. “Extremely different places but equally challenging to fly around,” he says, as he prepares the Super Cub for our second day’s expedition. We follow the river, passing through narrow gorges with wingtips seeming just metres from the rocks, then suddenly we are above the Chitina glacier and the temperature drops dramatically. Lonie puts the plane down beside an enormous sinkhole, where meltwater pours into the deep blue abyss.
Later, we land on a sandbank beside the river and we break out the picnic lunch, gun beside the cool box in case bears get curious. There is a sense of exquisite solitude – covering more than 13m acres, Wrangell-St Elias is the largest national park in the US, and the Claus family, the first people to settle in this valley, claim that every week they fly to places where no human has stood before.
At dinner, there are new guests, three Alaskans who have arrived by helicopter to maintain the weather stations scattered throughout the park. The weather changes fast here and is impossible to ignore. When we ask Paul for the following day’s programme, he just grins. “Friends,” he says, “we are in the deep Alaskan wilderness – I can’t tell you right now. Maybe I’ll fly you to an abandoned gold mine, or we’ll go rafting on the Chitina river. Or perhaps we’ll fly over the peak of Mount St Elias, the highest vertical rock face in the world. If the weather is fine, I can even take you to the Pacific Ocean. No single day is the same here, the wilderness decides.”
Debbie Pappyn was a guest of Ultima Thule Lodge (www.ultimathulelodge.com); where a five-day stay costs $8,000 per person, full-board, including all bush plane flights and excursions. For more general information, see www.travelalaska.com