STORY & PHOTOS BY ANDY HALL
After growing up in Alaska and spending the better part of my adult life traveling throughout the state and writing about its people and places, I thought I had a good grasp of the vastness of The Last Frontier. It took a long ride in a small plane to convince me otherwise.
A few years back a friend and I hatched a plan to explore the country between his home in Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula and the village of Sand Point in the Shumagin Islands, at the western tip of the Alaska Peninsula.
There are no roads to take us through this region of Alaska and no rails. Even formal airstrips are few and far between. Mike, a longtime pilot, suggested we make the trip in his Supercub. The two-seat plane would be cramped, but the small and versatile aircraft equipped with tundra tires could land almost anywhere and would gives us unparalleled access to the unspoiled and largely unoccupied country that lay between his home and our destination.
On a map the trip looked pretty straightforward, we’d cross Cook Inlet, thread the needle through Lake Clark Pass, make a stop in Port Alsworth on Lake Clark, and then fly west to the shores of Bristol Bay before heading southwest to follow its curving shoreline toward the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. At Herendeen Bay, we’d cut south across the Peninsula and to get to Popof Island and the tiny fishing community of Sand Point.
I’d flown over this part of the state a couple of times, once in a jet on the way to Dutch Harbor and later in a smaller commuter plane carrying me to King Salmon and on to the Pribilof Islands. A small air carrier could also have gotten me to Sand Point more quickly, but this trip was more about the journey than the destination.
In Mike’s small plane, we flew low and slow, allowing us a unique perspective on the landscape. Lake Clark Pass was the first obstacle; the narrow and circuitous route begins near Mount Redoubt, a simmering volcano on the west side of Cook Inlet, and passes between the southernmost reach of the Alaska Range, know as the Neacola Mountains, and the Chigmit Range. It is the primary aviation route between southcentral and western Alaska, and Mike had flown it many times; this was my first time through. Though easy to navigate in clear and even marginal weather, more than a few pilots have lost their lives in it. We had relatively clear weather crossing Cook Inlet but at the west end of the pass it was marginal at best. I tried to hide my concern and deferred to Mike’s experience, as we pushed on.
Apparently I hadn’t hidden it well, as Mike ribbed me by thoughtfully pointing out the shiny spots on the walls of the valley that he claimed were the wreckage of small planes that hadn’t made it through.
Despite those ominous markers, the rugged mountains that rose above along the narrow passage harbored high valleys and nearly hidden glaciers that are virtually invisible from planes that forgo this dangerous passage by flying over the top of the range.
Beyond the pass, moving over the low rolling country surrounding Lake Clark, we spotted caribou and bear but left them t
o their wandering, intent on reaching the village of Naknek, where we touched down and refueled. Here there was a shock of human activity; the airport crowded with small planes, the mouth of the Naknek River swarmed with commercial fishing boats, gathered there to wait for the next opportunity to set their nets for the bay’s abundant sockeye salmon run that was due to hit at any time.
It didn’t take long for us to leave all that behind. The ancient husk of an abandoned cannery, complete with the hulls of two old double-ender sailboats resting amid the clutter, slipped beneath us. Soon we were following only the line of sand that divided the sea on our right and the grass on our left. Still, even here man’s mark was never out of sight as orange buoys and other plastic detritus could always be seen washed up on the upper margin of the beach.
We landed to stretch our legs on a desolate stretch of beach near Cape Seniavin and hiked to the top the high bluff there. Far offshore fishing vessels appeared to be setting and pulling their nets. Directly below us thousands of walrus basked on the sandy beach, some roaring and barking as they waddled in and out surf likely p
ursuing the same quarry as the fishing boats.
Farther on Mike spotted a low bluff where the sand had been washed back into the grassy plain that lay behind. After landing the plane and walking a short distance he stooped and picked up a glass float about the size of softball. Then I spotted one and soon we had more than a dozen lined up on the sand near the plane. Before plastic had become ubiquitous in the fishing industry, Japanese fishermen used them to keep their nets afloat. These had been bobbing around for at least 50 years and though weathered, they looked like they could survive another half century or more.
We reached Sand Point that night and though we’d spent nearly eight hours in the cramped confines of the small plane, time had passed quickly as the landscape unfolded before us. I had business in the village and so did Mike, but we managed to break away one evening and visit nearby Unga Island to explore its desolate and beautiful coastline and the abandoned village of Unga.
A tail wind pushed us home, and our passage along the Bristol Bay shoreline was going too quickly for both of us, so Mike began looking for a good spot to camp for one last night out. When I spotted the wreckage of a fishing boat pitched against a bluff, Mike circled for a closer look. The clincher was the string of whale vertebrae that lay scattered around it.
We landed, extracted our last two beers and enjoyed them in front of a driftwood fire. Overhead, a white contrail marked the passage of a jet heading west to some exotic destination, I wondered where it was headed and felt sorry for the passengers who were passing overhead, oblivious to the landscape that lay beneath them.