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Fly Inns : Alaska Special Issue : In a land virtually without roads, four of the best, most congenial lodges from which to explore Alaska's rich, vast wilderness.

March 12, 1995|Jon K. Tillinghast | Tillinghast is a Juneau-based attorney and free-lance writer

Traveling in Alaska was once like running a trap line--out there were horizons both cruel and bountiful, with both the trapper's and the traveler's survival turning on knowing where to rest and on whom to rely. Sadly, few of Alaska's million summer tourists require that aptitude these days.

Their bus driver will tell them all they need to know.

But for those earnest souls willing to veer from the tour-bus and cruise-line circuit, the key to navigating Alaska's wilderness is still knowing where to rest and on whom to rely. In my 21 years in Alaska, I've stayed at dozens of the more than 100 wilderness lodges that dot the largely roadless Alaska bush. Here are four of my favorites, chosen for their family atmosphere, their isolation and their diverse locations, beginning in the rough peaks of the Brooks Range and ending about 1,000 miles south, in the fertile waters of the Alexander Archipelago.

Peace of Selby

Peace of Selby is a two-story, spruce-log chalet on Selby Lake, where grayling and lake trout are caught each evening and bear and wolf prowl, seemingly oblivious to the gentrified real estate they're invading.

This gracious hermitage is deep in the mountains of northern Alaska, about 100 miles west of the town of Bettles and 300 miles northwest of Fairbanks. Each morning, co-owner Dee Mortvedt walks about 600 feet from her own sod-roofed cabin to the 1,000-square-foot guest chalet (one family or group of five are typically booked at a time) to make breakfast in the downstairs kitchen and suggest that the rising visitors might catch a lake trout or two for dinner. Her husband Art, a seasoned Arctic master guide, leads those same visitors on custom journeys ranging from day hikes up nearby Don't Pee on Me Hill (a translation of the Eskimo name) to week-long floats on the Range's diamond-clear rivers. Visitors return to ample, simply prepared meals and a sprawling upstairs loft furnished with a queen-sized bed with down comforter and two single beds. Chocolates are left within reach for a late-night snack should a guest's sleep be interrupted by moose bathing in the midnight sun or the incessant cries of loon just outside the loft's panoramic windows.

What distinguishes Peace of Selby, however, is not its architecture nor its cuisine--there are fine cottages for hire in every American mountain range--but the chalet's setting in the midst of a wilderness whose inaccessibility keeps most travelers away.

Brooks Range is the great east-west spine that separates forested Alaska from the Arctic. Its peaks have chiseled profiles that seem designed to dissuade any traveler from crossing. The mountains and the chalet lie within the 8-million-acre Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve which, a National Park Service brochure warns, "has no facilities, roads or trails." A mere 4,000 visitors pass through the park each year, mostly along dozens of rivers, half of which flow south, through birch and white spruce, and half north, through rolling hills of Arctic tundra and wildflowers. These visitors come to raft, climb mountains and catch sight of some of the hundreds of thousands of Western Arctic caribou migrating through the park.

Most of them are part of group expeditions, mainly arduous backpacking and river trips launched from Bettles. At Peace of Selby, by contrast, families who long ago carried their last backpacks can first acclimate to the Range during a day or two of elegant solitude before venturing into the wild. Then, Art will lead them on an expedition tailored to their own desires and limitations.

His only stipulation is that they choose routes that are free of other tourists. "I just don't like floating the Noatak (a river about 100 miles north of the lodge) anymore," he says. "It's getting too crowded." "Too crowded," in Brooks Range talk, means the slim chance of encountering someone else over the course of a seven-day float.

Or a visitor might pass up rafting or fishing and just do nothing at all. "The last guest I had," says Art, "was a Catholic priest from Rhode Island. And he loved to just sit on the porch swing, watching the clouds go by."

Denali West Lodge

Denali National Park and Preserve is one of the most frenetic arms of Alaska's tourist octopus, attracting about 490,000 visitors every summer. But deep in a lonely birch forest, a 20-minute bush-plane flight from the western end of the park's only road, Jack and Sherri Hayden have created a serene environment in stark contrast to the slide shows and bus tours.

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