Rock Hopping in Alaska

Exploring the unforgiving terrain of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

For the first time in my life, I was completely off the grid — 100 miles from civilization, deep inside the largest protected land mass in the world.

I sat on the wet alpine moss, leaning against one of the plush Alaska bush wheels that delivered me to this mountain. A 360-degree panorama of unnamed mountains surrounded me.

Steve Davidson, my pilot, guide, and partner on this adventure, leaned against the other bush wheel. “The mountains go on for hundreds of miles around here,” he said. “And there’s nobody out here. Just us.”

It’s a great feeling to feel small — to be surrounded by unending splendor, and to realize we are mere specks in this grand and magnificent world.

The silence was as pure as the view. I could have sat there all day, but Steve was eager to find more eggs. After all, that’s what brought us to this remote mountaintop in the first place.


ULTIMA THULE

Paul and Donna Claus own and operate Ultima Thule Lodge (pronounced ul ́te-ma too ́le) 100 miles inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, an Alaskan wilderness area larger than the entire nation of Switzerland.

There are no roads to Ultima Thule.

“Everything you see here was flown in. Everything,” Donna said while showing me to my fully furnished cabin. Ultima Thule is luxury.

The leather couches, stoves, kitchen equipment, coffee tables, cooking oil, flour, garden equipment, aircraft oil, dog food, avgas, garden equipment, toilet paper — everything arrived on the short gravel runway out front. I know, because some of it arrived on the same turbine Otter I did. Paul doesn’t waste a trip to town.

Ultima Thule is an ancient Greek term meaning land remote beyond reckoning, beyond the borders of the known world. Wild, unpeopled, and free.

For 35 years, Paul and Donna have hosted skiers, hikers, hunters, geologists, photographers, adventurers, and world leaders to their lodge. Their guests come for a variety of activities, but for a single purpose — to access Alaska’s remote wilderness. If you want to hunt the largest Dall sheep in the world, ski a mountain that has never seen the foot (or ski) of man, or study glaciers otherwise unreachable, Paul Claus is uniquely suited to guide you “beyond the borders of the known world.”

Paul is arguably one of the best bush pilots of our day and has accumulated more than 30,000 hours bush flying in Alaska. He is also an avid climber, skier, and adventurer. Paul was a member of an expedition that climbed a new route to Everest’s summit and last winter climbed Mount Kenya with his son and daughter. Despite his many feats, Paul seems to take as much pride with landing his Super Cub in a never-before-visited spot as he does with summiting the world’s highest peaks.

Each May, Paul and Donna take a break from hosting guests and invite friends to their lodge for a competitive yet friendly outing — the Ultima Thule geocache.

The geocache is more than a game. May is when Super Cubs in Alaska shed their skis and grow a pair of bush wheels again. It’s an important transition season for pilots. The geocache, now in its sixth year, gives Paul and friends an opportunity to relax, fly for fun, and familiarize themselves with wheels again.


GEOCACHE

Fourteen aircraft (10 Super Cubs, three Cessna 180s, and a lone Husky) arrived to Ultima Thule for this year’s competition.

The rules: Each team of two, a pilot and spotter, are given six hard-boiled eggs and six hours to plant their eggs within a 25-mile radius of the lodge. A code name is written on each egg, and its GPS coordinates are recorded. You can plant the egg right where you land or hike miles through the brush to find a creative spot. Packrafts, wet suits, skis, snowshoes — everything is fair game — that’s part of the fun.

The next day, each team is given a list of the egg coordinates and seven hours to retrieve as many code names as possible. Five points are awarded for each egg you find, one point for each egg of yours that is found, as well as bonus points for categories such as most creative and coolest spot, determined by group vote.

One more rule: No pilot can return to the lodge on day two for fuel. Since fuel management is part of bush flying, it is also part of the geocache contest.

“You don’t want to go heavy or you can’t get into the places where these guys will be landing,” Paul coached a new participant over breakfast.

“Can I plant fuel on a sandbar today, then go light tomorrow and refuel at the sandbar when I need to?” the pilot asked.

“That sounds like a good strategy,” Paul said with a slight grin, revealing yet another motive for hosting this geocache.

“This is an opportunity to learn new skills,” Paul said. “I’ve been flying this area my whole life, and I learn from the other pilots every year.”

Steve Davidson, the lodge’s A&P/IA, who doubles as a pilot and ski guide, graciously invited me to be his partner for the competition. I’m no lightweight fella (read: fuel handicap) and am not conditioned to run through the brush as fast as our competition would be, so Steve was kind to let me be his “runner.”

We flew Tango Cub, a Super Cub equipped with 35-inch bush wheels and a Lycoming O-320. It was the first airplane owned by Paul’s father, John, who bought the aircraft new in 1965.


DAY ONE

For a pilot from the lower 48 who rarely lands on runways shorter than 2,000 feet, this was an incredible opportunity to learn how real bush pilots access the wild and how they gather information and make decisions.

“Anytime you land off-airport, you’re landing somewhere nobody has landed before,” Steve said while making a low pass over a gravel bar. “I’m looking at the length, how it angulates, if there are any washes in it,” he said. “If it looks smooth, it’s rough. If it looks rough, it’s really rough. Small rocks are big. And rocks that look big are really big.”

We passed on more spots than we landed at, and all for good cause. A black bear walked across the first spot we were surveying. “Not today,” Steve said while applying full throttle.

I was also impressed with how accurately Steve monitored the wind, despite no ATIS recordings, windsocks, or smoke- stacks. It’s an acquired skill, but even as a passenger, I soon was able to better gauge the wind by paying attention to how the aircraft behaved in turns.

We landed at six different locations, each offering a unique challenge, and then trekked on foot to find fun places to plant our eggs. We planted one inside a World War II Jeep abandoned at an old copper mine halfway up a mountainside. For another egg, we hiked a mile or so through the brush before finding a picturesque vista.

Steve was in pursuit of fun places to explore, not hard places to land. We discovered a fresh moose kill site on another gravel bar. Bear tracks the size of my head confirmed somebody had made a feast of it recently.

While flying along the south side of the Chitina River, we spotted a canyon with a trickle of snowmelt flowing through it. We landed on the river basin and hiked toward the canyon. What appeared from the air to be pebbles in the canyon were boulders the size of a truck, and that creek of snowmelt I saw from above would’ve swept me away had I lost my footing while crossing it. We planted our egg and wrote the code name “Rocky Road” on its side.

“Airplanes are the magic carpet here,” Steve said. “What would take you an hour to hike on foot, we can fly over in seconds.”

In one day of flying, I saw more of Alaska’s wilderness than a person could see in a lifetime exploring on foot.

Returning to the lodge, Paul told me that he met one of his goals for the year — he landed in six completely new spots, locations he had never been to before. For somebody who has been flying this area almost every day for 35 years, that’s a testament to how massive, wild, and unexplored Alaska is — even to those with magic carpets.


GOOD COMPANY

Meals last for hours at Ultima Thule, much in the way they do when an extended family lingers after a Thanksgiving feast.

The unspoken rules of Ultima Thule only add to that feeling of being at Granny’s for Thanksgiving — kick your shoes off at the door, write your name on a red Solo cup so you can reuse it tomorrow, and help yourself to the kitchen fridge. I was among family.

After savoring a healthy portion of baked halibut, caught by Donna herself a few days earlier, the room settled into small huddles of conversation and laughter.

Logan Claus told the story of her musk ox hunt with her dad in the Bering Strait. “I have the rug in my room so I can sleep on it now,” she said. “It will look great in my house one day.”

Larry Rivers showed of the latest issue of Popular Mechanics that featured youth in Talkeetna who were rebuilding a Piper Cherokee Six. The teens’ meticulous craftsmanship gained the admiration of visiting FAA personnel, and Larry couldn’t have been more proud of “his kids.”

Chris Larsen sat on a couch talking with a few folks about some of his recent glacial research. Chris is a geologist and professor at the University of Fairbanks. He works with Paul to access remote glaciers and studies them with aircraft-mounted radar equipment. When he began showing yearlong time-lapse videos of glaciers advancing, some as much as 60 feet a day, the whole room huddled around and listened to Chris’ insights.

Being cut of from cell service and social media afforded us the opportunity to talk, listen, reason, and learn. A roomful of accomplished and educated people reclined in armchairs, on couches, and on bear rugs to hear Chris’ informal lecture. It reminded me of ancient Rome, where philosophers gathered to engage in similar discussions of their day.

Jack Hart, a previous Patagonia rep, knows Paul from years of bringing photographers, models, and gear up for photo shoots. There is no better place to get that off-the-grid look than by truly going off the grid. Jack has accumulated some great “Paul stories.” His favorite was the time Paul called him in Anchorage and told him to have his crew ready to leave at midnight.

Paul picked them up and flew the team above the overcast layer to show them the northern lights. “It was the most magnificent, most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Jack said. “It was also incredibly disorienting.”

When they punched back below the overcast layer near Ultima Thule, it was completely dark. “Nothing. Pitch black,” Jack said. “So Paul called Jay (his son) on the radio and told him to burn some rags in tin cans at the end of the runway. And that’s how Paul landed that night,” he said.

Paul, listening nearby, chimed in, “The FAA only says it has to be a lit runway.”

The after-hour conversations drifted toward grizzly stories. Don Welty’s tale was so wild I wouldn’t have believed it if it wasn’t validated by the scars on his head.

These pilots also talked more openly about their flying mishaps than I’m accustomed to in the lower 48. It may be because they have more stories to share, but they also have developed a culture where sharing these stories is welcomed and encouraged. Egos are checked at the door when these experiences are shared, because in so doing, you may help a friend live through a similar situation tomorrow.

If life is earned through scars, these people are living. And being in their company made me feel alive, too.


DAY TWO

“Just because somebody else landed here yesterday, doesn’t mean it’s easy,” Steve told me while surveying a 400-foot-long mountain crest. “You have to evaluate it yourself and see if it’s up to your level of flying.”

We landed at 10 different spots during our allotted time and collected 10 egg code names. Like the first day, we took time to enjoy our surroundings and explore.

To retrieve one egg, we hiked to an abandoned fur trapper’s cabin that dated back to the early 1900s. Inside the weathered structure, a pair of boots still sat by the bedside and pots and pans hung on the wall above the stove. It was as if nothing had been touched since the fur trapper left his post. We retrieved the code off the egg and left the scene as it was for the next explorer to find.

Other teams hid eggs in some clever locations — across a beaver dam, which required careful balance to navigate, in a field of candle ice, which created music like wind chimes as you walked across it, and another egg inside a bear trap. As you approached that egg, the pilots who hid it had another antic up their sleeve. They rubbed marten lure, a concoction of fish oil, skunk, and other obscene smells, to nearby brush so that as you walked toward the egg, you covered your pants and sleeves with a horrendous smell that filled your cockpit the rest of the day.

Hours later at the lodge, you could smell the people who found that egg.

Paul’s son and daughter, Jay and Logan, won the competition with 44 found eggs. Think about that — more than 44 different off-airport landings and hikes in seven hours.

Steve and I placed last, but to our merit, “Rocky Road,” the egg we planted in the canyon, was voted “coolest spot” by the group at large. That counts for something, right?

Flying back to the lodge on the second day, we passed dozens of 1,000-foot waterfalls and cliffs of Dall sheep. I felt more privileged than I remember ever feeling in my life. Imagine the greatest symphony in the world playing in the greatest music hall of all time, before an audience of two — that’s how my final flight through the Wrangells felt.

And to think there are vistas in Alaska that still have never been seen by human eyes.

Alaska pilots work hard to hone their skills to access such places, and they do so through games like geocaches and STOL contests.

Sitting on top of the mountain earlier that day (while we should’ve been chasing more eggs), I thanked God not only for making this vast wilderness, but also for giving us the bush wheels to access it.


Brady Lane is a private pilot and multimedia journalist for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Article originally published in Sport Aviation magazine.