We seek wilderness adventures, but the places we go are rarely wild. Perhaps nowhere in the lower 48 states can a deep-woods backpacker truly escape civilization. In two decades of hiking, I don't think that I had ever gone more than 24 hours without coming across another soul--and not been, in some way, disappointed.
Alaska is different. There, we walked for a week and saw no one. Civilization--or help in an emergency--was a hard three-day trek away.
Backpacking in Alaska takes care and planning. But the returns are enormous: unimaginable vistas, eerie silences, incomparable light, and the opportunity to see some of North America's great creatures. We hooked up with an Anchorage guide service called Hugh Glass Backpacking Co. (907 344-1340), which provided a bush-plane charter, a guide, and food for a week for about $1,200 per person. A good one-stop source for information on wilderness travel is Alaska Rainforest Tours in Juneau (907 463-3466).
There is something special about seeing Alaska on foot. Rather than jumping on and off a cruise ship or a bus, my wife, Ann, and I prefer a slower, close-up view. The small pleasures of stopping to watch the sun set over a broad river or of settling beside a berry bush to munch on dessert bring the sheer immensity of a place such as Alaska back to human scale.
NO VISITORS. One of the state's most spectacular corners is the Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. At a staggering 13 million acres, Wrangell is the largest park in the system--six-times bigger than Yellowstone. It is blessed with 10,000-foot peaks and powerful rivers, and most don't even have names. But Wrangell is primitive and unknown: no visitor centers, hardly a road, barely any trails.
Getting there takes time and patience. We drove to a small pond about six hours northeast of Anchorage. From there, Bart, the bush pilot, flew us to a wilderness lake. A week later, he and his rickety float plane would pick us up at a backwater of the Copper River--25 miles away. The route was pretty simple--head up a creek to a 6,000-foot pass, drop down to the next valley, and follow another river to the takeout spot.
Twenty-five miles in a week doesn't seem like much. But on trailless tundra, carrying 40 pounds of food and gear was a real workout. Imperatives for a trip such as this: Have prior backpacking experience, be in good shape, and bring layers of high-quality, lightweight clothing and a pair of well broken-in boots.
When we could, we followed a gravelly streambed. But warm weather meant melting glaciers, and that kept the water fast and high. Some days we made repeated crossings in search of a few hundred yards of dry terrain. On others, we'd have to climb hundreds of feet to follow a ridgeline and avoid the treacherous river. On one stretch, sheer rock walls created a canyon no more than 20 feet wide. Climbing was impossible, so we just splashed along--thigh deep in cold, rushing water. Then there was the afternoon we spent crashing though impenetrable willow thickets. Did I mention that grizzlies love willow thickets? (Luckily, we didn't encounter any bears.)
Although Ann and I usually hike by ourselves, we made this trip with our guide and four other trekkers--an Iowa real estate developer, a California school principal, a Manhattan health- club manager, and a Wyoming auto mechanic. Except for our group, we never saw another soul. But one afternoon, we paused to watch mountain sheep 50 yards above us on a rocky hillside. Two mornings later, we were halted in our tracks by caribou as they began herding up for their great annual migration southward.
Our trip ended near the headwaters of the Copper River. After setting up camp, we walked up to a broad bluff. We took pictures of one another, grinning like fools, to celebrate our trek. Then we all separated, lost in our own thoughts. There, maybe a thousand feet below, was the great braided Copper River--a mile wide and glistening bronze and silver in the evening sun. We just sat and marveled.