Splendor in Alaska / Lake Clark NP
Next stop: Soldotna, on the Kanai Peninsula. But skirting the north shore of Turnagain Arm on the drive from Anchorage, I turn into the funky ski town of Girdwood for a lunch break. I often ate in a restaurant during winter visits to Alyeska resort, which I like for the backcountry cat-skiing and heliskiing operations, and I wanted to see what it’s like on a sunny summer day. The resort’s lift-served mountain, a 3,000-foot peak that rises directly above Cook Inlet, offers the weird feeling of skiing down to a beach. Alyeska also offers some of the steepest in-bounds ski slopes I’ve ever seen,steep enough to turn my stomach as I picture jumping in off the edge.
From Soldotna, a bush plane flies me west across the Cook Inlet to remote Lake Clark National Park, passing on the way the snow-laden cone of Mount Redoubt, a 10,197-foot volcano that rises like royalty from the sea. As we buzz past a volcanic black-sand beach, then swing back around to land on it — the flight is timed to coincide with low tide — I spot three brown bears grazing on meadows no more than 200 yards away. Brown bears are grizzlies that live on the coast. They tend to be fatter and healthier-looking than their inland brethren due to their protein-rich diet of salmon once the fish start running upstream in August.
In June, however, the bears are more interested in the succulent sedge grasses of the meadow between the sea and the lodge, their first food after coming out of hibernation and before berries mature in July. A guide leads us into the meadow on foot, stopping 100 feet from the bears. A few of the more curious animals graze their way toward us for a better look. Leaves of grass hang out of their mouths like country rubes. They stop just short of being too close for comfort — theirs and ours.
I am at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge for a night, plenty of time during these long days of June to walk about among the bears. Lodge guests used to come just for the salmon fishing later in the summer, owner David Coray tells me. He bought the lodge in 1983, but people had been coming for a long time before that. I am startled by photos on the wall of humans and bears fishing side by side — I mean it, standing right next to each other — each going after the upstream-swimming salmon in the particular species particular way.
Over the decades, the bears have seen that human visitors pose no danger to them, so they go about their own business, Coray says. Today more than half of the lodge’s visitors come just to see and photograph the bears.
I find it strange, anti-intuitive really, to be walking among grizzlies, an animal I have often feared while hiking in the Canadian or Montana Rockies. Strange, also, that we humans can be reassured so easily. Photos don’t lie, I think, and I saw them fishing next to my own kind on a wall of photos. Soon they seem as much a part of the landscape as a dog might while hiking in my own Sangre de Cristo mountains. However, I remind myself where I am: the southeast corner of Lake Clark National Park and Reserve. About 130 miles south along Cooks Inlet from here, in neighboring Kitmai National Park and Reserve, Timothy Treadwell — the focus of Werner Herzog’s disturbing documentary, Grizzly Man —and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were devoured by kin of these bears in 2003.
“Treadwell did everything wrong,” Coray says. “He was crazy. What can you do?”