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In search of the Unrelenting, Unforgiving Final Frontier

By GINGER DINGUS

© St. Petersburg Times


As he rested his slender frame on a crooked limb, his back to the afternoon sun, Boyd's silhouette expressed the essence of his nickname, "the bushmaster." He wore a bear claw tied to a leather thong around his neck, and a .357 Magnum strapped to his hip.

A fur hat cut from a raccoon skin covered his wavy blond hair. "Road kill," he said matter-of-factly when asked where he got the cap. "I didn't kill it, but I ate it. The hat was the best way I knew to honor the animal."

Boyd, a youthful 45, hailed from the city life of Portland, Ore. But for five summers, he has worked in Alaska, overseeing the remote stretch of beach where we planned to camp for the night.

While he casually rolled a cigarette, we sipped the Chardonnay he had poured as a welcome. We, three women traveling in search of the real Alaska, and Laura, the safari guide who had brought us here, sat around a table set on the pebbly shore and took stock of our serene home-away-from-home.

The inky waters of Skilak Lake quietly lapped the shore. A pair of gulls cried shrilly in frantic pursuit of fluffy chicks that had just learned to fly. So far from civilization, it was easy to relax on that beach in the heart of the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, south of Anchorage.

Two days earlier I had been met by Laurence John, co-owner of Great Alaska Fish Camp and Safaris, at the Kenai Airport. But rather than head for the fishing and safari lodge, he immediately drove us to look for whales. "The belugas usually swim up the river about this time," he said. No luck, but we soon spotted several caribou grazing beside the road.

The evening happy hour was in full swing when we finally drove up to the lodge. Talk centered around a 200-pound monster halibut that two men and a boy had landed after a lengthy struggle. During dinner, a group agreed that their day's flight-seeing mission was a rousing success because they had landed near three grizzly bears.

At 4:15 the next morning, a sharp knock jarred me awake: Laurence was delivering my wake-up cup of coffee. By 5:30, I had dressed, consumed a huge breakfast and joined three others on a boat in the middle of the Kenai River, getting my first lesson on catching salmon.

A gray mist rose from the milky glacier waters. I felt as if we were on a ghost ship adrift in a dream world. The splash of a fish jumping and falling back into the river shattered my reverie. "Fish on!" yelled Claus, who was visiting from Germany and the only one except for Steve, our guide, who already knew how to fish.

Once we got the hang of casting, reeling in the salmon was exciting and easy. Hundreds swam upstream, their bright-red spawning colors clearly visible below the surface. By 10 a.m. we had caught our limit of three fish each.

Steve cranked on the motor, and we sped upriver for a scenic ride. A loon passed overhead, announced by a rush of wings and a melodic cry. A bald eagle perched high in a spruce tree, standing guard over nesting eaglets. A beaver swam silently along the shore, only its head poking up above the waterline. All this before noon on the first full day of my Alaska safari.

After lunch, I joined two other campers, Laurence and Will, our bush pilot, for a bear-seeking flight. Will headed over Cook Inlet and turned his Cessna south along the coast. We flew low over yellow-green meadows crisscrossed with dozens of bear tracks. After an hour, we finally spotted a chocolate-brown male running along the beach, a silvery salmon glinting in its jaw.

Active days at Great Alaska Fish Camp become relaxed evenings and comfortable nights. "Our style is in the grand safari tradition, with white table cloths and wine," Laurence told us. Sure enough, that night the chef prepared an excellent dinner of halibut.

The next day, we drove across the Kenai Peninsula to the port of Seward, where we boarded a boat for a half-day tour of the emerald-green waterways of Kenai Fjords National Park. A couple of otters cavorted near the pier. Farther out, we passed seals lounging on the rocky bluffs. An impressive array of sea birds, including kittiwakes, black oystercatchers, murres and bright-billed puffins, clung precariously to narrow ledges in noisy, cliffside rookeries.

Unfortunately, the humpback whales and orcas that frequent these waters eluded us.

Still to come was a 14-mile raft trip down the Kenai River. It ended with a night at Scotty's remote wilderness tent camp.

The trip itself was a leisurely one by "cataraft," a sturdy frame with a bench seat supported on pontoons. While a guide manned the oars to steer, we drifted past forests of spruce and birch, already taking on fall colors in mid-August.

We reached camp late in the afternoon, dropped our gear in our tents and sipped wine while we chatted with Scotty. He drove us out in his motorboat to watch the resident birdlife, and then, somewhere back in the bush, he prepared dinner.

We sat at our lakefront table in the middle of nowhere, relishing stir-fry chicken and the stunning view of pristine surroundings -- the glassy lake, towering spruce forests and jagged, snow-capped peaks.

The following morning, we would hike out, on our way to discover yet another facet of the Alaskan bush. If you go: Alaska safari Getting there: Airlines flying to Anchorage from the Lower 48 include Alaska Airlines, United, Delta and Continental. Era Aviation -- (800) 866-8394 -- flies from Anchorage to Kenai. Staying there: Great Alaska Fish Camp and Safaris offers comfortable lodging in 18 hillside rooms, all with private baths. A variety of safari packages for groups up to six offers levels of physical activity. For those who prefer the wilderness, the lodge features tented camps in three diverse locations. Seven-day packages range from $1,595 (camping) to $2,295 (camping and lodge combination) to $2,795 (lodge only). Rates include safari activities, lodging, meals, happy hour and transportation from Anchorage. The season runs from late May to early September. Contact Great Alaska Fish Camp, HCI Box 218, Sterling, AK 99672. In winter, write to P.O. Box 2670, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Call (800) 544-2261. More information: For a free Alaska Vacation Planner, call (907) 465-2010. Contact Kenai Peninsula Tourism at (907) 283-3850 or (800) 535-3624. Ginger Dingus is a freelance writer living in Mill Valley, Calif.

Originally published February 2, 1997



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