Final installment of the Alaska 2015 adventure

We left the Denali Backcountry Lodge in the morning at 6am. We saw a bunch of wildlife on the drive out of the park. The highlight was a grizzly bear eating a moose just 50 yards off the side of the road at a bridge crossing. A couple great pictures HERE. It was pretty intense to see. Vehicles are not allowed on this road until 6am so our bus had a head start. Leaving from inside the park and driving out, we were first to disturb any of the early morning animals that got comfortable with the empty driving road. Alaska-2015-07-2844On to the Denali visitors center to wait for our train to leave. We had about 2 hours to kill. It sucked being back in the real world. The visitor center is full of rubes, and here we are back in the mix. We saw more people in a minute than we had in the past 2 weeks. Mainly frumpy tourists (like us), Ornamentals with cameras, and Midwesterners wearing too much makeup hurrying to get their tee shirts. There is a lot to be said for seclusion and isolation. The train left at 12:30pm. A long 8 hour ride to Anchorage and the end of our trip. Those pictures of the bus ride with the grizzlies are HERE.

Alaska winding down-Denali National Park

Very few pictures HERE. Bush Pilot Paul Claus dropped us off at the McCarthy airstrip where we were met by our charter pilot for the flight into Denali. Wouldn’t you know it, our new best friend in the whole world pilot Bill McKinney again. He had requested our return flight. I guess we hit it off pretty well. He liked having someone to talk about The Dead with. This was a much more eventful flight in the way of bumps and wind. It was just over 2 hours and some of it was very bumpy. Wifey had just come off a week of no anxiety flying, so this was an unfortunate turn of events for her. Of course we made it safely, Bill is an expert. Bill the pilot told me about some music he and some friends were going to be playing later that night just up the hill from where we would be staying, the Denali Backcountry Lodge. Once on the ground and he met up with his friends I proceeded to get an invite. I never felt more accepted in my life. I felt like I was slowly being integrated into the Alaskan Back County Society. In hind site I wish I had went. We got shuttled to the lodge by pilot Bill’s friend Matt. Once there it was almost 8pm, dinner time. It was yummy and then off to bed after a long day.

I guess we hit the Alaskan weather lottery while in Wrangell St. Elias National Park. We had a week in Wrangell of almost perfect weather, and now the forecast for the next few days is pretty shitty. Rain and wind. We slept in with a plan of going to breakfast and then I would go on an unguided hike alone. I set out but only walked for about an hour. Took a nicely leisurely stroll up a stream. Hiking here is not like what I am used to. There are not really any super defined trails, mostly bushwhacking. But I ventured out for a little while with my borrowed can of bear spray. After wandering for a little while I decided to loop back and take a leisurely morning and see what happens next.

What came next was a bus trip to Wonder Lake. It is a beautiful walking area with a view of Denali peak. Unfortunately the weather today only allowed us to see the bottom of the mountain. Seeing the full mountain is apparently a rarity. It only shows something like 40 days per year? Once the bus dropped us off at Wonder Lake we were going to ride mountain bikes back. It was a great ride back, about and hour. A great way to see a very small part of this park. Over dinner tonight we sat with 2 older couples from St. Louis. They were talking about bucket lists. One couple had now officially been in all 50 states. The other older lady wanted to complete the 50 states and smoke a joint for her bucket list. We quickly chimed in trying to help her by giving her suggestions of things to do in Delaware and encouraging her to visit Colorado to smoke a joint. Hopefully it all works out for her. We did not do too much here in Denali but I am really glad we were able to make it. Ben, Paul Clause’s son in law, told us that we would have a nice laugh at the cute little park that is Denali. After being in Wrangell I don’t think anything will ever be the same for me. Tomorrow is our trek back to anchorage for a flight home and back to real life. I’ve spent the last 2 weeks completely unplugged from everything and the outside world. I have never been happier. I could see living like this again. Tomorrow is a 6-hour bus ride out of Denali Park followed by a 7-hour train ride into Anchorage to catch a 1am flight back home. It is either that or stay in Alaska forever. I am still undecided. Very few pictures HEREAlaska-2015-07-2805-HDR

Alaska Ultima Thule final day, a sad day

Day 4 at Ultima Thule. Lots of pictures HERE. Today was a shorter day because we had to depart at 4pm. We flew with Steve who is possibly the loveliest man alive. He is the mechanic for the Ultima Thule fleet, as well as the guy that flew us from the airstrip in McCarthy, and our first ride in Alaska-2015-07-2668these tiny Super Cub planes. Most of the day was spent in the air. The wind was higher today and a lot of landing areas were not available. Today’s goal was to see moose for Wifey. So he went straight to an area that they call Moose Valley. Even moose valley was empty today because of the high winds. After some time searching Steve finally spotted a moose and her baby. We did a few circles, watched them hide in the brush, and then take off running. Mission complete. We later saw a giant buck as well. Steve did a few laps inside the very narrow valley for me to get some pictures of him. We then went onto a sandy beach area.  It was almost comparable to a desert, so crazy to see in Alaska. It was a giant sandy beach area in between 2 glaciers with a bunch of crystal clear glacier ponds. Steve said this was his favorite swimming hole. Alaska-2015-07-2650There was a fantastic view. In a single site line you could see sandy beach with green grass growing, then a crystal clear pond, then rocky mountain outcroppings, and finally the snow capped mountain peaks in the distance. It was finally off to find somewhere to eat lunch. On the way there we flew over a recently burned area. Not too large, only a couple hundred thousand acres. This is where we saw the giant moose buck. It was decided to have lunch at a place called Jakes Bar. This was an old trapper lodge that was build by a guy named Jacobson. This was so fascinating. There were 2 small cabins still standing. The NPS has since done some improvements to ensure they remain standing. Mostly they were original with the woods stoves, a sauna, some cots, and shelving. There we also a lot of the original tools including a still operable axe grinding stone lying around. These cabins were open for use on a first come first serve basis. Of course they only way to get here is by a tiny plane. I was surprised to see how many visitors it actually had in the logbook considering how remote it is. Past visitors had stocked the cabins with everything. There was plenty of kindling, firewood, books, cooking supplies, water, and all kinds of other amenities. It is an unwritten rule to leave a cabin in the wilderness ready for the next visitor as they may be coming in from the cold, and need to make fire immediately with frost bitten hands. This cabin anywhere else would have been vandalized or not respected to the degree it deserves. I love Alaska. We were chatting with Steve over lunch about all kinds of things. Having a bunch of laughs and filling him in on what awful people we are, how we like being mean and having fun at other peoples expense. Steve made a comment that “in another life we could have been friends.” I jumped all over that by saying, “But not now? Gee thanks a lot.” He loved that one, almost fell off the porch laughing. I knew what he meant, but it was still fun to pounce on him. After lunch it was time to head back to the compound for packing and a very sad departure. I went to the main lodge to say goodbyes and take a picture of their geocaching trophy. I milled around like a sad lost puppy making sure they did not want to offer me a job. Paul flew a big group of us back in his larger Otter plane. I got to ride as the copilot, not much could have made me happier. I think Paul felt safer knowing I was there in the copilot’s position in case anything happened. One more round of goodbyes to our new friends, a handsome and well traveled family from Chicago, and the reporter and photographer for the financial times magazine. Hopefully I will be quoted. Lots of pictures HERE.Alaska-2015-07-2635

It’s just dirt, rocks, and water

Wednesday day 3 at Ultima Thule. Way too many pictures HERE, but it is hard to narrow down and weed out the awesome views from the other amazing views. If it were even possible, I would say that today was a highlight day for me. It is just dirt, rocks, and water. Alaska-2015-07-2456It’s not pretty, but damn it’s beautiful! Today was spent flying around again with Paul Claus, the captain of this compound. We have decided that he is definitely the world’s most interesting man. He would easily win a contest for the baddest man on earth. Disclaimer, I say that not being one of his children or employees 😉 Most of the day was spent walking on ice of some kind. To start we flew through a narrow canyon while Paul told us a story about an old cabin they found years ago. It has since collapsed, but you can still see where it is. When they first saw it they landed and found a sign on the door that said “left in good health 1926”. He said the oddest thing was there was evidence of a lady living in this cabin. There was a mirror, a dress, and high-heeled shoes. Some lady needed to look good even though she was a million miles, and a 4-week walking trek from anything. Our first landing was on a small glacier. Small is a relative word up here. You can’t see either end of it from the ground or sky. The top we walked on looked like slush we have back home. So the brain was telling me to tread lightly it might be deep or slippery. The reality is it is just like walking on blacktop. We saw very fresh grizzly bear tracks in new, over night snow. Paul said they were definitively from today. Never saw the bear but we followed the tracks for a bit. We each took turns kneeling down and drinking glacier water. So delicious and refreshing.

Alaska-2015-07-2377From there we went to a meadow in a valley surrounded by mountains with an awesome stream running through. I’m sure this analogy is overused here, but it looked like The Sound of Music. Not that I have seen the movie, but I have seen the cover…I guess. This is where we then had a delicious lunch.

Next we flew over the Bagley Ice Field, the largest nonpolar ice field on the planet. It is around 200 miles long, much bigger than the state I was born in. It felt like the edge of the
world, which seems to happen a lot up here. We landed near a pretty glacier-made lake. Alaska-2015-07-2408We were flying over and Paul comments, “that looks pretty, I want to land here.” More evidence that we were interfering in his Alaskan adventure. We were on the ground for about 20 minutes when Paul noted incoming fog and said we had to get out of here fast. As we were loading up the plane he commented, “4 days is the longest I have been trapped on a glacier with guests because of weather issues.” Wifey panicked and I started moving slower, I would love to hold a record with Paul Claus. From here our final stop was atop another glacier, a feeder glacier for the ice field. This was most impressive. There were huge crevices, several ice caves, moulins (deep holes drilled by moving water), and tons of naturally made wonders in the ice here. Paul had us hopping over crevices and trying to lure us into ice caves. It was surreal. The kind of stuff that only happens to other people. The entire time we were here we could you hear what must have been the start of an avalanche somewhere. Giant snaps and cracks from high above us. The sounds were distant, but not that distant. Paul never panicked so I knew it must be ok, no danger.

Somewhere during the day Paul was in an area that he said was labeled on an old cartographers map as Natural Arch. He has searched for this “Natural Arch” for years but eventually kinda gave up. He said his son found it the other day from the air. So, since this was Paul’s Alaskan adventure, we did a few circles in the air looking for it. Wouldn’t you know, since he was with the Lucky Boy he spotted it. He was genuinely excited like a little kid. Here we went for a few more laps while he rejoiced in the siting and took some pictures. Both hands off the wheel to take pictures, naturally. He then showed us a mountain that recently broke. Yeah that’s right, a broken mountain. A few weeks ago a mountain collapsed around itself. There was broken mountain remnants scattered downhill for at least a mile. Pretty fascinating to know that a mountain can break.

We feel like we are in the presence of royalty up here in Alaska around the Claus family. Not sure that we have felt like that anywhere else we have been. They definitely have the unique adventure and customer service racket aspects perfected. Way to many pictures HEREAlaska-2015-07-2445

The greatest walk I have ever taken

Tuesday, day 2 at Ultima Thule. Lots of pictures HERE. Today started at breakfast with a discussion of what everyone wanted to do. A rafting trip was proposed I knew that we wanted to do that. Alaska-2015-07-2267There was also an offer of a point A to point B wilderness hike. One of the other couples had a very injured foot. So she was going to raft, and the guy go for the hike. Wifey suggested that we do the same thing. Even though I would like to raft, I would like to walk in the wilderness even more. So we split up for the day. Wowzers. When friends and I talk about going hiking certain things are implied. There is going to be leaves, bark, trees, and quite possibly a path to follow. I would not call what we did a hike but it as definitely the greatest walk I have ever taken. A plane dropped us off at point A which was along a ridge line about 7 miles away at an elevation of about 4200 feet. Point B was our camp. We were only getting in a plane once today. From the starting point we hiked almost straight uphill, above the tree line, through meadows to around 6000 feet. Where that part of the walk ended looked like the edge of the world. The other side of the peak dropped straight down and the only thing you could see were snow capped mountains miles in the

Edge of the world

Edge of the world

distance. Very dramatic. From there began the most grueling walk I have ever taken. It was 5000 feet downhill over 8.5 miles. Most of it was along the spine of the mountain.  Some areas were no more than 6 feet wide, walking on loose rocks, staring down into the abyss on both sides. One section was a 3000 feet drop in 1 mile. That is a downhill angle of much more than 45 degrees. Lots of places were spent sliding sideways downhill, jogging and skipping just to stay upright, and even the occasional butt skooch. At one point my GPS machine said we were going downhill at an average rate of 77 feet per minute. Once the mountain ridge/spine ended it was a much flatter walk through the woods back to the lodge. More what a hike is in my world. It was 8 hours of walking, only stopping for lunch. I rolled my ankle twice. It looked like I was smuggling a baseball under my skin. We saw a ton of sheep, a ram, and golden eagles. If I had known what this walk was I might not have signed up. I could not be happier that I had this experience. So in hindsight it was a great decision. I’ll be paying for it for days, but I will remember this walk forever. Lots of pictures HERE.

Taking it all in

Taking it all in

Geocaching in Alaska….well, kind of

Geocaching video:

Disclaimer: The below video is not about the official geocaching hobby and I doubt any of us watching this video will ever be cool enough to participate. That being said I had to share this video once I was given permission. This is geocaching by small, Piper Super Cub airplanes in the remote wilderness of Alaska. Recently I had the greatest week of my life in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska. The family at the Ultima Thule Lodge (http://www.ultimathulelodge.com) made this little boy’s dreams come true. During our trip our guide Paul Claus asked me if we knew what benchmarks were. Benchmarks are small survey discs put in the ground usually by the National Geological Service. They indicate elevation, boundaries, and other important things about the earth. I said we did know what benchmarks were and asked him if he ever heard of geocaching. He had, but not in the same way we knew it. He proceeded to tell me about a once a year event they do in the spring. They have friends come in from all over. After dinner that night Paul played a 5-minute video his daughter Logan made about their 2015 event. We then talked about their events and geocaching for a long time. They break off into 3 man teams. The first day each team hides 6 hard-boiled eggs (biodegradable) with a secret code written on the outside. They get the GPS coordinates for the hiding location. The following day each team flies around in search of the other eggs to see who can find the most. Once in the air where to land can be a guessing game. Paul told a story about landing near a set of coordinates, but then the actual location was a few hundred feet away. That few hundred feet was straight up in the air and may have required a different landing spot. As a geocacher it sounded like the most amazing thing I have ever heard about. I could have listened to their stories all night. The oddest part is that none of the people that participate are “actual” geocachers. But I guess if you can fly a super cub anywhere you want, who cares about a stupid nerdy game like geocaching. Enjoy this video. If you ever get the chance to visit Ultima Thule I guarantee it will be the greatest adventure of your life. Check them out online and visit them on social media http://www.ultimathulelodge.com. For more about me (who cares), my rambling nonsense, and travel/geocaching pictures check out www.jimmysellers.com

Ultima Thule Wrangell St. Elias day 1

Monday. Ultima Thule day 1. Way too many pictures HERE if you are interested. Wow. I am speechless. It is unlike me to not have words. The luckiest boy in the world has driven from coast to coast, snowboarded from helicopters, viewed the world from tops of mountain peaks, seen the earth from 100 feet below the ocean, married the best gal on the planet, and followed the migration though the Serengeti in Africa. What we did today is on a completely other level of activity, beauty, amazement, and appreciation of this planet. We saw all 4 seasons in the same day. We got rained on, Alaska-2015-07-2140saw fresh overnight snowfall, needed sunblock, and sweated a bit. Day 1 and we got to fly with Paul Claus, the head muckity muck. He is recognized as one of the best pilots alive and a top pilot for the Piper Super Cub planes. The Super Cubs fit 3 people, barely. We all 3 sit inline, basically between each other’s legs. Very intimate. Flying in the Super Cubs is a cross between and airplane and a 4 wheeler ATV. Landing and take offs only require very little ground space. We flew to about 5 different locations. We traveled a total of 200 miles according to my GPS machine. At each location we walked a bit, to the top of a cliff, along a river, and ate lunch facing an enormous glacier. The one thing that freaked Wifey out was when Paul decided to take his own pictures from the plane. I assume he was steering (or whatever it is called in a plane) with his knees, and taking pictures out the window. I equated it to when your dad would steer the car with his knees so he could reach in the backseat for another beer. Or today’s equivalent of texting and driving. One of the other planes was flying near and next to us. I wanted to get a picture out the window. Screw that Paul says, he just flips a lever and removed the window all together, no big deal. We saw fresh bear tracks a couple places. We scoured through some old glacier melt for cool rocks and geodes. We got rained on for a while and the wind picked up. There were two groups together during this time. The pilots decided that we needed to get out of this area because of the wind. So Paul took Ken the professional photographer from the other group solo and dropped him off, to have a lighter load. Then he left Ken by himself, in the wilderness, while he tested the winds coming back to get us. Ken was stranded for a Alaska-2015-07-2021while in the middle of the wilderness. Ken is here to take pictures for Travel and Leisure or Financial Times magazine, one of those. They almost didn’t get the completed assignment. I guess Paul thought Ken’s life was less valuable than the rest of us. Good call Paul. 13 million acres of playground, which is known as Wrangell St. Elias National Park. The largest National Park and about twice the size of #2. The size of Switzerland, whatever that means. We saw almost none of it, yet it is somehow the most spectacular things I have ever seen. At times I felt like we were lucky enough to be along with Paul on his Alaskan vacation adventure, just following him around. That is what I told him we wanted to do…whatever he wanted us to do, this is his world. It was either that or these guys somehow figured out the greatest scam to get their adventures and hobbies funded by other people. Whatever the case is, I was just happy to be along for the ride. Way too many pictures HERE if you are interested.Alaska-2015-07-2005-HDR

Kennecott abandoned copper mill & mine

Sunday, Kennicott Glacier Lodge. Today was the day we killed in the town of Kennecott. It is inside the Wrangell St. Elias National Park. The airstrip is just 4 miles away from the lodge. We had until 4pm to do as we see fit before the Ultima Thule folks picked us up. We decided to do the tour of the abandoned copper mine. The Pepper-Herman family, that were our dinner companions, went on and on about the tour for hours. Granted they were not looking us in the eyes while they did it, they were sort of googling around all over the place. Alaska-2015-07-1730It was a walking and history tour of the abandoned copper mill and mine. It was so fascinating. We got to go inside and all the way up to the top of the abandoned copper mill where the copper was processed after coming in from the mines. I can’t get over how interesting it was and how much we enjoyed it. Back when this happened in the 1920’s they did amazing things in such a remote place. It seems impossible what they pulled off. The best part of touring the old mill was having access to almost every area. There were almost not hand rails, very little safety precautions, and hazards a plenty. We did have to sign a “sorry if you die” waiver. But since this is a national park in America it seemed very out of the norm to have access to such dangerous places during a guided tour. Alaska-2015-07-1778-HDRIt was refreshing not to have every little aspect sanitized for my consumption.  I’m an adult, if I want to make bad, dangerous decisions that is my right. After the tour we relaxed, had lunch, and killed time checking out the view of 2 glaciers while waiting for our ride. The Ultima Thule folks arrived at the airfield right on schedule. We were flown about 20 minutes away to our new home for the week. We were flown in a Piper Super Cub plane with no electric of any kind. The propeller is manually started. The 2 of us had to sit in between legs, single file, with the pilot in the very front, also single file. Hard to believe there was room for all 3 of us. Our luggage had to go in another plane that was larger and brought in for the luggage and some other people. Wifey had a hard time with this tiny plane. I loved it! Such a thrill. We arrived safely got settled in to our new home for the next week. We were greeted by 1 of the 8 dogs that live here. Hopefully we will get to know them all soon. We should have brought Sandy and Charlie.  We will be flying everywhere we go inside the national park park for the next 5 days. This place is amazing but even more so knowing that everything here came in by small plane. They have built an amazing little compound here 1 small plane at a time. Tons of pictures HERE if you are interested.Alaska-2015-07-1742-HDR

Time to get off the boat

Saturday, leave the boat day and travel day. Leaving the boat was sad. The crew was fantastic. They felt like a new set of friends I will never see again, and that will never think of us again. We had to kill a little time around Juneau again waiting for our flight. Then it was on to the airport for a quick flight to Anchorage. From there we had to get a charter flight into Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Kennecott/McCarthy Alaska to be more specific. I assumed the flight would be utilitarian, uneventful, a form of travel at best. It turned out to be a highlight of the trip so far. It was 2 hours in a tiny 3-person plane with

View from the sky, WOW!

View from the sky, WOW!

Bill McKinney, our pilot. He was so much fun. The views were marvelous, just stunning the entire way. Flying around and next to almost 20k feet peaks, over top of glaciers, lakes, rivers, animals, civilization, lack of civilization, everything imaginable. He kept maneuvering the plane so I could try to get better pictures. “Hey Bill, can you move that wing please?” No problem. He offered to let me drive for a bit, but someone in the back seat would not have enjoyed that very much. Turns out that Bill the pilot is an old deadhead. That makes perfect sense. We talked about the recent finale shows. The 2 hours flew by. Once we landed we were shuttled to the Kennicott Glacier Lodge where we spend 1 night and the next day. We arrived just after dinnertime. They eat a communal family style dinner with everyone at the lodge. Everyone was already seated and eating. They threw us into dinner, our heads were spinning. If felt like they were speaking a different language around us. We didn’t know how to act or what to do. We were in a different world with different customs. Wifey said it felt like we landed in Oz. that is a great analogy. This place could not be more in the middle of nowhere. We will kill the next day here exploring the glacier next door and touring an abandoned copper mine, which is supposed to be amazing. Then it is off to the backcountry adventure for the next 5 days. A few pictures HERE if you are interested.

Get that wing out of my way Bill.

Get that wing out of my way Bill.

Look who's driving

Look who’s driving