Alaska: A Deadly Kind of Beautiful
I looked at the windsock standing straight in a heavy gust of wind and thought there is no way we would be flying today.
Standing on the edge of the runway at Lakehood in Anchorage I watched my pilot Joe strap down my gear and supplies in the Cessna. He looked at me and said, “Things are going to be bumpy on our route today”. I laughed and replied, “Don’t stress I won’t throw up in your plane”.
It was the only weather window we would have for days. This was my first trip to Alaska, and I was more than eager to get out into the wilderness I had read so much about.
Joe banked the plane after takeoff towards the world-famous Alaska Range. It looked a bit ominous with dark clouds rolling over its peaks. The country below was breathtaking. A myriad of golden browns, oranges and yellows. Winter was definitely on its way. I saw my first moose standing on the edge of some alders. “This is what we are here for,” I said to my pilot.
Joe flew us over an old hunting lodge then up a valley. We turned back. A low ceiling of clouds and rain blocked our passage. “Darn, we’ll have to go up Hells Pass, you might want to tighten that belt of yours a bit “. Listening to Joe’s instruction I pulled the belt tight and peered over the dash. Hell's pass was notorious for its unpredictable winds.
Our air speed shot up to 170 knots as we rocketed between the mountain slopes on either side of Cessna’s wings. The pass was definitely living up to its name! Changing our heading we smashed into a washing machine of turbulence. We shot straight up, then straight down before being hammered from the side, over and over again. Thank goodness the gear and supplies were strapped down. By now I was holding onto the seat between my legs with both hands. It was like riding a bucking bull!
I’ve flown extensively in light aircraft over the last 18 years of being an expedition cameraman, and this was definitely my hairiest ride to date. Joe cussed as we took another pounding.
Fifteen minutes later we entered the vast Dillinger River drainage boarding Denali National Park. Camp came into view and Joe executed a great touch down on the dirt strip.” Welcome to Alaska”.
The one thing that becomes quickly apparent, for those that have never been there is this feeling of vulnerability. The sheer vastness, scale and weather makes you realize how dependent you are on your gear. Simply put, without it you’ll die.
This became obvious the first night in the teepee that was allocated to me. Icy 40mph winds hammered it left and right the entire night. I found myself wondering what it would be like to spend the night out in the elements with no shelter and decent clothing.
Alaska is stunningly beautiful. Vistas go on for days, mountains, rivers, swamps and of course bugs. However, its weather is as unpredictable as winning the lottery.
I was dropped off with the hunter and guide on a remote lake 30 minutes in a Super Cub from the main lodge. We would spend the next 10 days in a spike camp. We would be hunting moose and grizzly, but that’s a story for another time.
I had taken a bag full of the Canis line-up to put through its paces on this hunt. I’m sure glad I had it! We could talk about this awesome gear, loaded with special features and technical attributes for a long time, but this isn’t a review. It’s an emphasis on being prepared correctly by having it.
Gazing at Denali Mountain while our guide called for moose the weather went from warm sunshine to a deluge of icy rain, back to sunshine, then a howling sleety wind all within a few hours, literally the four seasons in one day. This was something I wasn’t accustomed to.
I now totally understood why our guide warned us to pack everything in our pack that we thought our lives might depend on. “Make sure you have layers,” was a comment that stuck in my mind. Things would have been totally different, miserable and very uncomfortable if I hadn’t. While I didn’t experience any true life threatening conditions, it could be make or break, even life or death if things went wrong.
That night, I lay listening to a pack of wolves giving it a proper go not far from the tent. I thought why would anyone chance a trip of a lifetime into one of the last true wildernesses without the correct gear? Yes, new guns, scopes and binoculars are awesome, but they won’t keep you warm and dry.
Over the coming days I learned a lot about the fundamental advantages of Merino wool, Cordura, Climashield, Aquaguard and their different insulation properties. Layers are everything in this environment and someone asked advice from my Alaskan experience, it would be layers, layers, and layers.
Be prepared and don’t skimp on the most important barrier between your skin and the elements. It might just be the deal breaker.
Alaska can be a deadly kind of beautiful…