Backcountry Living: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
Last month, I flew out to one of Alaska’s more remote national parks as part of my internship (a slight improvement over my usual view of cubicle walls). My first experience of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve was a glimpse of a waterfall, falling hundreds of feet from sheer rock cliffs. The clouds dissipated again, and this time I spotted the jagged, turquoise peaks of a glacier sprawled between mountain peaks like the tongue of some gargantuan ice god. Our plane bounced out of the narrow walls of Lake Clark Pass and within moments we were banking a turn over the saturated waters of Lake Clark and landing gracefully on a dirt runway in the park’s only town, Port Alsworth.
By the time we’d taxied down the runway, we had seen a good portion of the town already. Sandwiched in and around two airstrips, Port Alsworth is close-knit and friendly with little more than a few resorts, the visitor center and the people that live there.
By the next morning, I’d exhausted a considerable portion of Port Alsworth’s trail system and was ready to continue on to our destination: Upper Twin Lake. Visitors come from all over the world to the lake to visit the homeland of Richard Proenneke, a beloved Alaskan icon who crafted his entire cabin by hand and spent 30 years living alone in the wilderness.
Our pilot met us at the NPS headquarters at 9am. Loaded down with mail and food supplies for the backcountry rangers along our route, it was like a game of luggage Tetris trying to fit everything into the tiny Cessna. I was mildly concerned when the pilot stowed carefully packaged eggs into the floats themselves (expecting them to be scrambled the second we took off) but by the time we were in the air I understood. The plane glided so smoothly off the water I had to look down to check we were actually in the air.
The next four days at Upper Twin passed in a foggy bliss of mapping trails and hiking in the rain. In our off time, we ate wild blueberries (and watched a black bear do the same), made elaborate backcountry dinners, took chilly dips in the lake, and warmed up around the wood stove.
Out there, every task takes on a kind of mindfulness. Scrubbing dishes on the shore of the lake in the misting rain, I thought about a question one of the rangers posed to a group of visitors touring the cabin: who here would spend a year alone in this wilderness? (I would).
The whir of a float plane circling overhead to take me back to Anchorage came much too soon. Flying over miles and miles of land interrupted only by the intricate web of ancient caribou paths, rushing rivers, and the occasional shaggy rump of a bear was a comfort; there are still wild places to be found in this world.
“There is always a sadness about packing. I guess you wonder if where you’re going is as good as where you’ve been.”
― Richard Proenneke,