August 2017September 2017 October 2017

09/23 - Our Ultimate Day at Ultima Thule - Part 4

We had one more stop before McCarthy. We had flown far through the hills. Our pilot circled, testing the winds. Then we landed on a high ridge. It was wide open. We were scared to get too close to the edge. For some reason, flying what seemed inches from a mountainside thousands of feet above an active glacier wasn't a problem, but walking across a meadow towards the edge of a cliff turned our legs to jelly. Go figure. Then again, our pilots seemed to be more competent in the air than we are on the ground.

It was icy up on the ledge. We broke into our bags and brought out another layer. Ultima Thule suggests packing layer after layer and bringing the whole kit with one every day. With landings like this, it only seems sensible.

Then we took off again, leaping over the edge of the cliff and into the sky. Off to McCarthy. Our bags were waiting for us. Our connecting flight had not arrived. Our pilots departed after assuring us that there was a plane heading out our way. We waited patiently. Our plane arrived. Amazingly, though, the incoming flight was carrying take out pizza for the staff at Ultima Thule. Luckily, McCarthy has good Verizon coverage, so we made a quick call to the lodge. They would send a plane for it ASAP.

We left the pizza in what we hoped was a safe place and headed off for Alaska. Apparently ordering take out pizza is different in Alaska.


Alaskan hills

Dall sheep

The sheep again

The view from one of the landing strips

High country - It was cold.

Seen on the ground

Seen en route to McCarthy

Goodbye to the glaciers

More glacial melt

Another glacial pond

Keywords: alaska

09/23 - Our Ultimate Day at Ultima Thule - Part 3

We explored some more and found some wolverine tracks. Then, it was getting on. We had a four o'clock flight back to Anchorage, so we started making our way back to McCarthy.

Wolverine tracks

Yup, wolverine tracks

Clear water meets milky water

A glacial melt water channel

Cracked rock

Autumn color - There was a lot of that.

Over the river

Over the river bed

Another river

The painted hills

Yet another river

Keywords: alaska

09/23 - Our Ultimate Day at Ultima Thule - Part 2

Then we flew downriver and landed to explore clear water pools, almost amazingly blue, and brown milky river channels. We were regretting that this was our last day by the Chitina.

Clear water meets milky glacier water

Along the channel

Wonderful color

Autumn again

Cracked ground

Melting ice covered with soil

Our airplane at the terminal

More autumn color


Another bit of clear water

Another reflection

Keywords: alaska

09/22 - Our Ultimate Day at Ultima Thule - Part 1

Ultima Thule is extremely organized. On the last day, we packed all our goods and chattels and went out on a final adventure. Our bags would be waiting for us in McCarthy where we would get the plane to Anchorage.

Our goodbye tour took us over one of the great glaciers and into the connecting canyons where other glaciers flowed down mountain sides to join it. There were a lot of glaciers and a lot of canyons, so our pilot took us about past steep rock walls and over the rivers of ice.

We landed on the river bed, and stretched our legs. There was a little waterfall in a side canyon, and then the wide open river bed.

The view from the lodge

Bison as seen from above

A glacier view

Another glacier view

Yet another glacier view

Seen awfully close to our plane

Down to the glacier

Ice covered with soil


A little waterfall

Back to the river bed

Keywords: alaska

09/21 - Our Third Day at Ultima Thule - Part 4

This wasn't an eventful hike. So much of it was about being out there in an impossible place and taking in both the broad expanse and the little details. Details like the silverberry plants or the shattered rocks that looks as if they were sliced at a deli. There was the feel of the air and the sense of wide open space. We were rewarded for looking up and afar as much as for looking down and up close.

We spent the entire day walking the river bed, but we have no idea of how far we had traveled. We could only note our progress in terms of the unfamiliar ground or distant landmarks which barely seemed to change as we walked and wandered. Gibraltar, that island to the east, grew only slightly smaller as we headed west, and the great mountains seemed as distant as ever.

Then came our ride. A Piper Super Cub appeared from nowhere and found a landing strip. There were lots of landing strips. Then we were airborne. The river looked different from the sky.

Color on the mountain

We took a lot of pictures of those mountains.

Silverberry plant with berries

A worn and broken rock

More color

Dried flowers

Seen on the river bed

Our ride back to the lodge

A view from above

It looks different from the sky.

Complex channels

Keywords: alaska

09/21 - Our Third Day at Ultima Thule - Part 3

As we wandered east along the river bed, we paid attention to the ground. There were signs of running water everywhere. At the base of one small plant we saw small marks on the soil. We thought they might be small animal tracks, but they were drip marks from a recent rain.

The sand in the river bed is extremely fine. Glacial rivers carry very fine sand as we noted earlier. A light kick could send up a cloud of dust. In the spring, the river bed spawns dust devils, whirling clouds of fine dust. As the winds get more powerful, the entire river bed is almost hidden by the clouds of fine dust, the same dust that gives the river its milkiness.

River bed plants, either that or from Mars

Local color

Gibraltar and the mountains

The ridge we had followed the day before

Another look at Gibraltar as we headed away

The far bank

Water drops

Nature's harvest season

Another set of prints

A dry river bed, almost like the ones on Mars

Another pretty view

Keywords: alaska

09/21 - Our Third Day at Ultima Thule - Part 2

We hadn't expected autumn foliage in Alaska. I suppose we imagined that the trees would go from green to barren in one single powerful blast of cold air coming off the slopes of the Brooks Range if not from the Arctic. We seem to have arrived at its peak. The forest were golden in contrast to the pale blue color scheme of the distant mountains.

One of the more interesting plants we found was the silverberry. It had white berries, the size of olives. They almost looked as if they were made of plastic. The outer skin almost dissolved in one's hand, but the inner green berry was hard. These were popular with the local bears.

Wide open country

We saw a squirrel, but no moose

More autumn color

Silverberries - bears love them

Mountains and autumn


Down on the river bed

More signs of autumn

That island is Gibraltar

River bed


Keywords: alaska

09/20 - Our Third Day at Ultima Thule - Part 1

On our third day, we explored the river bed. We flew upstream a way and found a landing strip on one of the banks. Our guide was waiting for us. We started exploring the low bank forested area, then made our way towards the river channel proper.

We were looking for bison. There was a herd of them nearby. We could even see their hoof prints, so we explored some of their likely hangouts. We didn't find any.

As we approached the river bed proper we got a real sense of just how big the river valley was. It was miles across and seemed to run forever in either direction.

The river

Autumn color

A close look at the ground

A broader view

Heading towards the river

Bison tracks

Approaching the river bed

Mountains in view

Another close up

More tracks

Green life

Keywords: alaska

09/19 - Our Second Day at Ultima Thule - Part 4

To our north were the painted hills. Our guide explained that they were full of gold ore. That's what we called them. They were a spill of layered minerals forming a row of hills, or more likely mountains, given the scale of things. They reminded us of the John Day Painted Hills in Oregon, but were larger and formed differently. The hills in Oregon were volcanic. Here we could see the differently colored sedimentary layers that comprised the range.

We continued east and were soon overlooking the high valley where we would get our return ride. It looked so close. We started down the slope. This was possibly the roughest part of the walk. The slope was steep; then we entered an area of what had appeared to be small bushes between us and our landing strip. These small bushes were small trees, taller than we were. There was no real trail, though our guide found a path through.

There was a small tent with survival gear. Our return flight was right on time. Again, flying in Alaska was different. A Piper Super Cub landed and we clambered aboard, grabbing at support rods and trying not to damage the side panels. We took off for another view of the ridge, river and the valley. It had been an amazing journey, and we would be back at the lodge in time for a hot shower and delightful dinner.

We were fascinated by the river

The painted hills, maybe next visit

Looking down

The painted hills again

Our ride home; Lift, not Lyft

Autumn color on the hill sides

The ridge we had followed

Another view with autumn color

Forest meets river

The river from a lower altitude

Our landing strip; home sweet home

Keywords: alaska

09/18 - Our Second Day at Ultima Thule - Part 3

We spent most of the day hiking. We were dropped off around ten o'clock and would not be picked up until four, so we covered the rolling ground at a leisurely pace, stopping often to absorb the surrounding beauty.

The river in the valley below followed the usual glacial pattern. It photographs as blue, but appears a milky brown to the naked eye. It is so full of glacial sediment that it looks like chocolate milk or horchata. As the river flows and turns, it drops some of its sediment load, so its course is braided, twisting and turning, splitting and rejoining as sprawls across five miles of the valley floor.

The Chitina River, looking towards its sources

Another look

Glacial rivers flow in braids, not channels

One of the great glaciers

Exotic hills

A distant glacier to the north

There are two moose by this distant lake

More exotic hills

Another glacier

Those painted hills

Rock formations of the ridge

Keywords: alaska

09/17 - Our Second Day at Ultima Thule - Part 2

We left our muttons and continued our hike to the east. One thing about being in such big, wide open country is that one can do a lot of walking while the scenery changes only slowly. Alaska is a big country, which is one reason we chose an air based tour. There is just so much of it.

We loosely followed the ridge, now and then heading towards the edge towards fantastic views of the Chitina River. That name means "copper river". The "na" suffix means river and appears in a lot of Alaskan river names. The "chit" part refers to copper. This region was known from time immemorial for its copper ore, and one of the biggest copper mines in the world, the Kennecott mine, was in the area.

As we progressed the land folded and revealed new, distant forms. We had a tantalizing look at some distant painted hills and glacier covered mountains. We marched on.

Leaving our muttons behind ...

Enjoying a rest

Open country

Mountain and river views

Autumn color on the mountains

Another view

Fields of dried flowers

Another distant mountain

Mountain goats; they are a bit blockier.

The painted hills

Another view of mountains and the river

Keywords: alaska

09/16 - Our Second Day at Ultima Thule - Part 1

Our second day was a hiking adventure. We took a short flight to the ridge that followed the river. It was just north of the lodge and offered views of the Chitina River and distant mountains. It was three thousand and some feet higher than the valley floor, so we circled for a bit before heading north. We set down on yet another impossibly short landing strip where our guide was waiting for us with supplies and a high powered rifle, just in case.

We arranged to be picked up later in the day and started heading east, following the ridge. It was wild, open country, barren of trees. We were in our own isolated world. Depending on the lay of the land, we could see for miles in every direction.

We could see the herd of Dall sheep from quite a distance, tiny white forms dotting the hills. Our binoculars revealed more detail, and as we approached we could see an entire herd of sheep all busy doing the usual sheep things, mainly eating. As we drew nearer, a bunch of them got skittish and bolted up the far hillside. Then they settled down and returned to their meal.

Autumn color at the lodge

The view from our landing strip

Autumn color on the trail

Dried grasses and flowers

Dall sheep

Here's what they eat. Yummy?

Alpine foliage

More sheep

Skittish sheep; we spooked them.

Safety in numbers

It was quite a herd.

Keywords: alaska

09/15 - Our First Day at Ultima Thule - Part 4

Our flight back was as amazing as our flight out. We headed north towards the lodge passing over mountains of ice and following the course of wild rivers. As we descended, the mountains were full of fall color. It's hard to capture from an airplane, especially the crowded back seat, but the effect was overwhelming.

Autumn color by a river

More autumn color

Even more autumn color

Still a bit of green down here

Another glacial lake

Keywords: alaska

09/14 - Our First Day at Ultima Thule - Part 3

Our next stop was even less probable and even more magnificent. We flew into yet another fjord lined with glaciers and waterfalls. Our pilot took us about, exploring the nooks and crannies and amazing views. Then we circled in for a landing, a landing on a high grassy ledge part way up the wall of fjord.

By now we were used to landing on small patches of ground, but this was our first landing well above sea level.

We wandered about for better views of the great waterfall rushing from the glacier at the end of the fjord. There were ice caves and melt pools and strange rock formations. Getting here without an airplane would have required hiking, sailing and then mountaineering. This wilderness is not only roadless, but trackless.

Our landing strip; let's hope they have a gate available.

Melting glaciers

The ground - lichens

The view

One of the amazing waterfalls

The really big waterfall rushing from the glacier

Another view

A visitor

Another waterfall

More ice

An ice cave glowing blue

Keywords: alaska

09/13 - Our First Day at Ultima Thule - Part 2

Then we flew along the coast for a bit before turning into one of the bays. Here, spread out before us was a magnificent glacier. Our pilot flew us high for a view of the bay. Our pilot flew us low for a view along the melting wall of ice as it met salt water. Then our pilot landed us on an impossibly small patch of land at the edge of the water.

Here we ate lunch.

While we dined, the glacier entertained us as chunks of ice snapped and cracked and dropped into the sea leaving clouds of shattered ice in their wake. For a while, after a large piece of ice dropped, the sea where we were would stay calm, but after a while the sea would start to churn. The chunks of floating ice would rise and fall as the wave front moved past with an ominous rushing sound like an angry river.

It was a great lunch. Only with reluctance, we jimmied ourselves back into our little plane and headed on for the next part of our Alaska adventure.

The glacier from afar

Closer to the ice flow

A close up

Chunks of floating ice between us and the glacier

A chunk of ice breaks off and falls

We ate our lunch and watched

Dall sheep on the hillside above us

Another chunk of ice breaks off

Yet another chunk - almost caught with the telephoto lens

It was hypnotic; there should be a glacier channel.

Seals on the ice

Keywords: alaska

09/12 - Our First Day at Ultima Thule - Part 1

Everything at Ultima Thule is about flying. We spent most of our first day flying around in little Piper Super Cubs. These are a trick to get in and out of and quite cosy inside. The pilot sits on the front seat at the controls while the two passengers sit in tandem as in a roller coaster. Despite their small size and maneuverability, the planes fly smoothly, almost like a car on a smooth road except in three dimensions. They can take off and land on a strip less than a hundred feet long, so they are perfect for exploring Alaska. Roadless areas tend not to have a lot of long landing strips.

We flew south over the spectacular scenery of the Wrangell Mountains to the Pacific coast where we landed on a small sand beach to stretch our legs and explore. We had been far inland 45 minutes ago, now we were on an isolated beach. There were rocks, sand, barnacles and seals. We were truly in the middle of nowhere, and it was beautiful.

Big mountains, little airplanes

Mountains across the river


Glacial meltwater

A river - Yes, those are our hiking sticks lashed to the airplane.

The beach

Tidal pool


and more seals

Another view of the beach

The beach again

Keywords: alaska

09/11 - Coming Into The Country - Part 2

We kept flying east until we reached the little town of McCarthy. It wasn't much of a town compared to Anchorage, but it was the first sign of settlement we had seen in an hour and a half of flying.

We changed planes here. Our next plane was waiting for us, and we took a half hour hop south with yet more spectacular scenery before arriving at Ultima Thule Lodge, a bastion of civilization and luxury in the roadless wilderness of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This was a lodge built on the banks of the Chitina using local wood and local stone. Everything else arrived by air.

We wandered the grounds a bit. The lodge wouldn't let us leave the close in region without an escort, so we had a guide take us down for a good look at the five mile wide river bed. We saw another rainbow. This would be our home and base for the next four days.

Our connecting flight

Keywords: alaska

09/10 - Coming Into The Country - Part1

We started our journey at the most peculiar airport. It was right next to the main Anchorage airport, but this airport was full of little planes. A lot of them had wheels and rolled down the highway where they had right of way. Others had floats and had little cut outs and docks so they could just push off like a boat and use the lake for a runway.

We took off, said goodbye to Anchorage, and were soon looking out the windows as the landscape rolled and folded dramatically. As the instruments on board showed, there was terrain ahead, lots of terrain. There was also ice, vast glaciers of ice, and rivers run wild between the mountains. We caught a bit of fall color and a rainbow, but we kept flying east.

Keywords: alaska

09/09 - Our Journey North

We've been out of town and, for much of the time, we have been on beyond internet access. We journeyed north and had an amazing trip. Now that we're back, it's time to update our web page.

That city we're flying towards is Anchorage, only a three and a half hour flight from Seattle. We stayed up late and managed to catch a sunset, then we explored the city a bit. On the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail we were rewarded with some sandhill cranes.

Then we checked out the botanical gardens, but cut our visit short. Some of the trails were closed due to recent bear activity.

Finally, we had dinner with our friend Clare who is now living in Anchorage. We met at the Marx Brothers Cafe which we cannot recommend highly enough. Alaska is an excellent place to order things like halibut cheeks and freshly caught scallops.

This was only the beginning. We have over a thousand pictures to go through, so we'll start winnowing and posting them over the next few days. Stay tuned to this blog.

Flying in to Anchorage

Catching the pink of the sunset on the mountains to the east

Along the waterfront

Sandhill cranes

Seen at the botanical garden

Also seen at the botanical garden

The Marx Brothers Cafe

Keywords: alaska

August 2017September 2017 October 2017