Wednesday, June 19th 
Big River Lakes

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A visit to the lost paradise

It's early, but it's the last time and it's for a fascinating adventure.
During breakfast I watch a family with two kids, he is rather corpulent, she about the same.  The kids aren't pleased with the early awakening.

The family seems to wait for the same shuttle bus from Ketchum Flying Services as we are.  With already two passengers on the bus and a simple addition, we find that we are 8 plus the driver, which is too much for the bus.  I propose to follow the shuttle bus with our own car, which is highly appreciated by everyone.

Float Plane at Lake Hood airportLake Hood airport is a lake with docks where the different floatplane companies are located.  It's the largest floatplane airport in the world.  The seaplanes of different colors and sizes are moored to pontoons in front of their company building.
Fortunately we can follow the shuttle bus, because the Ketchum terminal is hard to find.

While checking-in we get the name of the pilot, Steve, and the identification code of the plane. That should be enough to find what we are looking for.
Our destination is Big River Lakes, as the guy at the reception desk shows us on a big map on the wall.  It's located somewhat outside Lake Clark National Park, east of the Chigmit Mountains. At the pontoon we receive hip boots, as it could get wet when getting off the plane on arrival.

Now we are waiting for two other passengers, the Australians Ian and Laureen Saunders.  In that way we will also be able to experience the Australian English.

Everyone is present now on the pontoon and the plane is being loaded with our daypacks: walking boots, camera, binoculars, raincoat and, of course, the hip boots.
Next we taxi towards the runway (or is it the run canal) in a queue.  A dozen of ducks is following us on the waterside; it looks like an opposite world.

McArthur River8h15
With a lot of noise the floatplane pushes itself over the water.  When the plane crosses tiny ripples, it seems like we are hitting a stone.  It doesn't take much time to get us out of the water.   The ducks stare at us in a strange way, because they can get out of the water with much less noise.  A 50 minutes journey will bring us to Big River Lakes.  We cross the Cook Inlet en notice some oilrigs for gas and oil, the contemporary gold of Alaska.
To the right we see Trading Bay and the river mouth of the Chakachatna and de McArthur River, in the distance Mt. Spurr, 3374 meters, covered with glaciers and perennial snow.
After half an hour we turn inland across the tundra.  I seek attentively between the trees and bushes to discover some wildlife, but no luck.

We start descending and see some lakes in front of us, the Big River Lakes.
The lake surface is like a mirror and by landing we disturb the silence of this untouched environment. Besides the cabin where the guide lives, nature could go its own way since the beginning of times.  Here and there a salmon jumps out of the water.  The waterside has become overgrown with spruce trees and the water surface is covered with 'Spatterdocks', the kind of water lilies we also saw yesterday in Portage. It’s a vulnerable ecosystem of inestimable value.

We float towards the cabin.  Terry is waiting for us on the pontoon.  His dog also wants to welcome us.  Together with his wife Marcee he lives in Big River Camp for a couple of years now.  In summer he and his wife organizes bear-watching tours, trekkings, canoe trips for visitors like us, dropped by bush plane.  During winter times, they fill their days with backcountry skiing on the frozen lakes.  At that time of the year, the bush plane is only passing by once a month to deliver mail and necessary foodstuffs.

They like their remote existence, although Marcee admits that after a long winter when the first visitors arrive, she wants to know everything about what happened in the past few months.  Terry also operates the weather station, one of the 40 manned stations in Alaska.  He transmits the data once a day by means of his radio transmitter.

The cabin is furnished very
cosy.  A long dining table, a living room, an open kitchen and stairs towards a mezzanine, used as bedroom.  On the wooden crossbeam above the kitchen I read one of the most philosophic quotes since years:  Life is uncertain, start with dessert first.

Marcee makes us tea while Terry briefs us about the program for the day.

With a small motorboat Terry brings us to the other side of the lake.  It's a river mouth and it swarms with salmon.  Sometimes one must have a lucky streak and today it's our turn.  A female grizzly bear with her two cubs are poking around on the waterfront.

Grizzly BearsUnfortunately, anglers also appreciate this place.  They are standing less then 50 meters away from the bear family.  I also notice the family we saw this morning in the hotel.
They call it fly-fishing and it's catalogued as a sport.  I don't understand it; throwing a line in the water where about 100 salmons per square meter are floundering around, this can't be a challenge any more.  Someone who isn't able to catch a fish after one minute has probably forgotten to put a hook at the end of his line.  They a 200 dollar permit and at the end of the day they are allowed to take 2 salmons back home.  The rest has to be put back into the water.  The result is disgusting: salmon swimming around with hooks in their skin or tail fin.

For Terry it doesn't make sense: "This isn't funny anymore, I just don't understand what their challenge is. You know, you can buy the same salmon for $2 per pound on a fish-market."

Let's stop moaning; we are here to search for bears and we are seeing them right now.  Terry stopped his engine earlier and is now rowing towards the bears very slowly. 
"I call her mama bear", Terry says, "she had three cubs but she lost one in a fight with a male grizzly last month. You can still see a scar in her neck."
The cubs are 2 years old now and still playful.  They play and tease each other while the female is keeping an eye on them.  When they enter the water, they put their head below the surface to look for salmons.  We are able to approach them up to 7 or 8 meters and I shoot magnificent pictures.  I hope I have enough film rolls for the rest of the day.  I'm looking constantly through my camera in order not to miss a shot.

Grizzly Bears Grizzly Bears Grizzly Bears

"Don't we come too close?” I ask Terry after realizing how close we are drifting towards the side.  While I was looking through my zoom lens, I didn't notice it.
"Don't worry", he reassures us, "If she doesn't like us to be here, she would let us understand very quickly. Anyway, from where she is now, she can jump in our boat in 4 seconds. You don't have a chance to get away in time!"
It's obvious that 'mama bear' tolerates our presence, or we wouldn't be so dry anymore!
"She can't see us very good, but she knows my voice", Terry explains, "and she would warn me if we came to close. Then I would give her more space."

After half an hour we decide to leave the bear family in peace and look for another location to find black bears.  But after a while, we find out that luck isn't always on our side: not a single black bear.
"They normally come to this corner of the lake", Terry explains, "they hide themselves when they hear us come, but after 10 to 15 minutes they should come back."
So, we wait a bit more and look around patiently, but no success.
"Maybe it's too early today or they moved to another place. You can never predict with those animals", Terry concludes.
We understand, you can't just push on a button and bring out a bear; that would be too easy.  No, this is ‘wildlife’!

Meanwhile, it's almost noon and we return to the cabin.  A floatplane is approaching us and touches the water not far away from our boat.  Two men step out and look to the water surface as if they didn't see us.
"This is obvious", Terry says, "Alaskans are normally very friendly, but if they are doing something illegal, they just behave as if their noose is bleeding. They certainly don't have a permit, or maybe they use an illegal fishing technique. Sometimes I note the license number of the plane and I give it to the rangers when they ask for it. The animals have their rights here, but they can't fight for it, so I help them."

On the way back we stop on what Terry calls 'a floating island', a structure of moss and aquatic plants so dense that we are able to walk on it.  It gives this strange feeling as if I'm drunk.  If you stay too long on the same spot, you start to sink very slowly.  If someone jumps, you start wobbling too.

"Bears come often on these islands, because of the many berries they can find here", Terry says, "did you know that they can eat up to 30 000 berries a day?”  No, we didn't know that at all.

We continue our walk on 'real' land.  The vegetation is fascinating, from wild roses and geraniums to the strange brown-looking 'Chocolate Lily' and the edible 'fiddlehead' fern.  Even carnivorous plants can be found.

We force ourselves a way through the bushes.  Terry points to some bear droppings.  We are not frightened any more of the fact that we are in the middle of the bear's natural habitat.

Terry finds a fungus that is used by the Indians to chase off mosquitoes by burning a fire in it.  Speaking of mosquitoes, they can't leave us alone since we went on land.  You can't hear them or feel their bite, but afterwards you get an irritating bump of about 5 centimeters large and some millimeters thick.  Of course, it's my fault.  I forgot to put 'insect-repellent' on my skin and now I pay the price...

We are taking a substantial lunch in the cabin: a spicy bean soup, cheese, ham, home-baked bread and 'chocolate chumps', cookies made by Marcee herself.  That's really something different than in the 'other world’!

Terry shows us pictures of bears from the past seasons, even from bears that came nosing about around the cabin.  On a video (yes, there is a TV in the cabin!) he shows us a bear swimming aside the boat to look for salmon.  All bears get a name from Terry, like 'Wooly', who has downy ears.

We're back on the field again.
Terry tells us that this lake is only one of the five 'Big River' lakes lying like a string of pearls between the hills.  Officially, they don't have separate names but Terry gave them each a sounding name.  This one is 'Beaver Lake', the others are 'Loon Lake', 'Bear Lake', etc.
sand hill crane passes by and a 'Red-throated Loon' is sitting on her floating nest in the water.   It's a strange and shyly bird that can swim up to 3 minutes under the surface to look for fish or to escape from a predator.  When we come to close to the nest, she slides into the water and it takes at least 30 seconds before she flies out of the water more than 50 meters further away.
"I had a visitor here once", Terry says, "she was an ornithologist and the only thing she came here for was that Loon. I could show her bears and other wild animals but she wasn't interested. People can be strange …"

Stripped off salmons between the rocks14h45
We return to the river mouth where we were this morning.  The bear family has disappeared and most of the fishermen too.  We go ashore to observe the salmons more closely.
"This is Silver Salmon, one of the five types of salmon we have here in Alaska", Terry explains. "What you see here is not yet the great salmon run. That's in August. But even now they sometimes feel the need to jump upwards the stream."
It is an amazing and yet a sad event.  In just a few centimeters of water they flounder themselves higher between the rocks.  A few minutes later they slide back down, exhausted.  In that way they are an easy prey for the bears that pass by regularly.  We find dozens of stripped off salmons between the rocks.  Bears only eat the salmon's skin.  The rest, what we would appreciate the most, they leave behind.  At the end of the season, when the all the salmons are gone, they start to eat the remainders.
We return to the boat.  Who knows we may be seeing a black bear somewhere.  While looking around, Terry tells some funny, but really happened stories.  Like the one of an unsuspecting fisherman who has a bear behind his back, also looking at the water.  Then Terry whispers from his boat: "Psst, is this your dog behind you?"
Then the guy jumps into the water while the bear frightened runs into the woods.
Another funny story is only a few days old. Terry and some visitors were observing the bear with the two cubs, while someone with a camera surprisingly says: "Hey, that bear is watching us with a camera too!" It happened to be a camera of some careless campers.  A day earlier, they had to run away from their camping site for the same bear...

Back at the cabin we have to say good-bye.  Terry shows us some of his latest tricks with his dog.  On a sign of Terry, the dog jumps in Terry's neck and gets a cookie.  Marcee tells that they have to keep the dog inside, when having bears around the house.  He gets furious and would certainly attack them.  Such a fight must be avoided in the interest of both parties.
Our day in the bush comes to an end. The floatplane is waiting for us at the pontoon.  In a hurry, we exchange addresses.  We promise to send some of our best pictures of today.

After a 50 minute-flight we touch down at Lake Hood near Anchorage.
We take our car and drive back along the coast.  On the same gravel, that we visited the first evening, I park the car and we take a look over the Cook Inlet.  We think about the last three weeks and enjoy our last moments in the Last Frontier.  Before my eyes, I see all our adventures, experiences and landscapes passing by...

We just bought some presents and are now waiting in the 'Downtown Deli' for our 'Last Alaskan Supper'.  I choose 'Reindeer stew', a dish that also Bill Clinton appreciated when he visited Anchorage. At least, that's what the signboard said at the entrance.
Hilde chooses salmon, something that will never disappoint in Alaska. An 'Alaskan Wild berry ice cream' finalizes the meal and the espresso on the menu card is a real one this time, from a real espresso machine!

Anchorage International
I take a last look on our Chevy who did a good service the last three weeks: we added 2200 miles (or 3500 km) to the counter.
"Was the car OK?” the Alamo girl asks when walking around the car.
"Splendid", I reply, "and Alaska was really great!"
"So, where are you coming from?” the meanwhile classic question with the classic answer: "Belgium".
She's speechless and then says: "That's a long way from home..."
"No problem", I say, "just 20 hours of travel separates us from here."
A last 'Yukon wave' and we push our fully loaded luggage cart towards the airport building.
We wait for the elevator to bring us to the 'departure' floor.  A man with a Hawaii-shirt tries to convince us that we have to see San Diego on our next visit to the States.  Time is to short to explain him that it will be difficult to surpass our experiences in Alaska with whatever in San Diego. The lift door already opens.
We check-in the luggage. The 'U.S. Mail box' we bought yesterday in a hurry, is thoroughly investigated.
"No firearms or other weapons?” the employee asks behind his desk.  I shake my head and think that, in his eyes, we are the first passengers who take a 5 dollar-mailbox to Europe as a present, but that's his problem.
Another suitcase gets a 'HEAVY'-label.  You never know that someone would break his back on it.

Gate B9 indicates our first flight to Denver. The last dollars are spent to a postcard to Ron and Lou Davis, just to tell them how the rest of our trip was.

next day