Twin Lakes trip

Twin Lakes trip

It’s been too long since I have been on a multi-day backcountry trip in Alaska. I’ve been on river floats, backpacking trips, and a kayaking trip.  A couple of decades ago, I was actually a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. But I have never in my life ever been on the client end of a guided backcountry trip.  And I could not have imagined a better first step in being a guiding client than to head out for a trip into the Twin Lakes area of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve with Alaska Alpine Adventures.

The purpose of this particular trip was to highlight backcountry recreation in the Bristol Bay region for fieldwork on my upcoming book, “Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.” While Alaska Alpine Adventures, or AAA as they call themselves, operates several trips in Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks, I selected their “Twin Lakes Paddle” trip as a good option for my fieldwork. Paddling is always a good thing when you are carrying camera gear into the backcountry, and the itinerary would include options for day hikes in order to explore the landscape.  Finally, the trip would culminate in a visit to the historic Dick Proenneke cabin on Upper Twin Lake.

I joined eleven other clients – people ranging from a pair of carpenters from New Jersey to a couple from Singapore – and one of the company’s founders, Dan Oberlatz, at the Lake & Pen Air office at Merrill Field in Anchorage. After brief introductions, we were split up into two groups and flown out to Port Alsworth, where AAA bases its operations in the Bristol Bay region. On our flight out, we had the chance to see a bull moose moving through the grassy area of the mudflats near the mouth of the Susitna River and a pod of Beluga whales. We met up with the rest of the group in Port Alsworth, headed over to The Farm Lodge, which is where our personal gear was staged to get ready for the flight out to our first base camp.

Getting thirteen people out into the backcountry using small aircraft takes some time, especially if that aircraft is a Cessna 185, which can only take 3-4 passengers plus, gear (plus one plane was dedicated exclusively to gear) at a time.  We flew out with Lake Clark Air, which had dedicated two planes to the effort to get us all out there.  With a half-hour flight one way to our drop off site, it took about three hours to complete the ferrying of people and gear.  We all found our own equipment, spread out across the peninsula we had chosen for a base camp, and selected spots to set up our tents.  While there is always opportunity on trips like this to find some alone time, this is one of the times where you have to be alone – setting up your own personal space out on the trail.  The primary considerations are comfort and view.  You look for ground that is level and free of rocks, padded if possible or otherwise on a level bed of gravel that still provides a somewhat comfortable ground.  The other part of the comfort is finding a spot that catches a good breeze, to drive away the bugs as much as possible. And, if you can, it’s always great to select a spot with a view.  Nothing like opening up the inner zipper and rain fly in the morning and looking out onto a scenic vista.

I find being out in the backcountry to be incredibly relaxing, rewarding, mind-clearing, inspiring – even with all of the work that has to be done in traveling, setting up and striking camp, preparing meals, cleaning up, and collecting water.  Take away all of the work, and you have even more time to take in the experience of being out in the wilderness.  For me, that is truly the wonder of going out into the backcountry on a guided trip.  Sure, it’s great to have someone else do the trip planning and handle the logistics, but taking away the work of cooking and cleaning up; that is really where the magic is. With Alaska Alpine Adventures, not only do they prepare incredible meals on the trip, they prepare their own product line of meals.  Called Adventure Appetites, this gourmet backcontry cuisine is pretty much unlike anything you have ever eaten in the backcountry before.  And when even the worst food can sometimes taste amazing in the backcountry, you can only imagine how great food can taste.

With five days out in the Twin Lakes area, we spent our days moving our way through the Twin Lakes areas on inflatable kayaks, taking day hikes to explore the area and get up high for incredible views, and spending some time alone to take in the wilderness to ourselves. It was right in the middle of an unusually hot summer for Alaska, and for most of the trip, it was sunny and hot.  The timing was perfect to see scores of wildflowers blooming from the lake shore all the way up to 4,500 feet on the alpine slopes above, where even the tiniest flowers towered over and dwarfed our base camp miles below. After one hike, I dragged myself back into camp, hot and sweaty, sore from the hike, and switched into a swimsuit to go take a dip in the lake.  It was a short dip, but I submerged completely into the icy waters and felt completely refreshed.

The diversity of elements to photograph were beyond what I could hope for.  The clear skies made for incredibly rich morning and evening light, casting warm tones on the Chigmit Mountains and the blooming flowers. There was also a surprise abundance of birds around us, from a nesting pair of Arctic terns near our camp to a Bonaparte’s gull to some plovers and a pair of lesser yellow legs. One morning, before the sun came up, I was sitting on the ground, capturing some wildflowers, when I looked up an saw a plover darting about on the ground, circling around me, getting closer and backing off, then getting closer again.  It was clear to me that the plover was guarding a nearby nest, but I couldn’t see it anywhere. I managed to get some tight shots of him as he came really close, then moved away in order to give him some space and reduce his anxiety. And the weather did not stay sunny and clear the whole time, which is good.  One evening, shortly after we had set up a new camp near a creek on the far end of Lower Twin Lakes, a thunderstorm rolled through, adding dramatic clouds and patterns of sunlight to the scene.  Another day, after a full day of clouds, wind and rain, the skies opened up at just the right point in the evening to cast dramatic red and pink hues on the clouds for a brilliant sunset.

After being delayed at one camp site for an extra day, the winds eased up enough for us to make the final paddle across Upper Twin Lake in order to visit Dick Proenneke’s cabin. For the carpenters from New Jersey, this was the ultimate purpose of the trip.  Dick Proenneke was dropped off on this site in 1967 with a handful of tools and supplies.  Over the next year, he would build the cabin by hand, cutting, carving and forging every piece himself using basic tools.  He would live alone in the cabin for the next 32 years, hiking extensively in the area, trapping, hunting and fishing, and through it all, taking copious notes of this daily routines and observations. Visiting the site can be very inspiring, and can instill a desire for what may appear to be a simpler life, but, I am sure that Dick’s life in the area was anything but simple.  At the very least, it was a pure life, a life dedicated to developing a relationship with the land, and understanding of the natural world that increasingly becomes impossible to attain in our modern world.

But, trips like this and others in the backcountry can be a good step toward at least maintaining a connection with the natural world, or developing at least some of an understanding of it. As a photographer, trips like this can be incredibly rewarding and rejuvenating.


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