- Published on Thursday, 25 April 2013
Elegance in the wilderness
I’ve packed it in and packed it out. I’ve lived on wet bagels and dried fruit, made spaghetti sauce from tomato paste in a tube, then scrubbed my pan with a pine cone and sand. I’ve pitched tents in rain, snow and the darkest night. I know how to heat up a sleeping bag with a bottle of hot water, then use the water for morning tea.
At the end of the day, roughing it, I believed, was the price to pay for falling asleep to the sound of a babbling brook or waking to see the first slice of sunrise from a mountaintop. I filled my stuff sack with dirty clothes, and bragged that it was better than the finest down-filled pillow money can buy. Clean air and communing with nature cleansed the soul, and hiking up 2,000 feet to stake out the campsite only made the payoff that much greater.
But things started changing. Aging bones have a hard time recovering from three nights on the cold, hard ground. Increasing disposable income meant the affordability became less of an issue. My camping friends became OK with the idea of leaving a larger footprint. The unpredictable weather that was once an element of nature we marveled at became nothing more than a nuisance. We even broke camp early once.
With the advent of glamorous camping, “glamping”—the idea of being able to sleep under the stars, minus the survival component—those in search of Alaska summer adventures now have lodging options that offer all the advantages of wide-open spaces, but with amenities that range from electricity to pork Wellington and guided side trips. The industry definition is open to interpretation, and the level of luxury depends on how the operation chooses to define it, though there is no denying there is an increasing demand for have-it-both-ways travel.
When Mary Jane and Tony Lastufka started Across the Bay Tent and Breakfast Adventure Company 20 years ago, one of their motivations was to be able to share “the real Alaska” with those who were as enamored by the state as they were, without having to spend hundreds of dollars just to be able to put their head on a pillow. In the early 1960s, Mary Jane and her friend had traveled to 33 countries in 18 months, hitchhiking and accepting the generosity of others. It was in this spirit of goodwill and paying it forward that she wanted to operate her business, she said.
Located in Kasitsna Bay on the south side of Kachemak Bay, home to one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world, Across the Bay is nine miles from the nearest town, Seldovia, and is surrounded by plush spruce rainforests, with a view of the Alaska Range to the north. The easiest way to reach it is by water taxi from the small-boat harbor on the Homer Spit.
Each of the five cabin-like wall tents and two cabins with electricity accommodate two to four people and include area rugs, end tables, beds with pillows and wool blankets. There are also extra sleeping bags for those who do not bring their own. The beach tent is one of the most popular because guests can hear the ocean from inside.
Besides the tent-cabins, Mary Jane says Across the Bay is known for having two of the most beautiful outhouses in Alaska, each with stained-glass windows and framed art. Adjacent are outdoor sinks with purified water and hand soap, and guests share shower rooms stocked with soap, shampoo and fresh towels. All guests have access to the main lodge, which has electricity.
Many visitors fill one day with a guided kayaking trip designed for all abilities. One sea route tours around the Herring Islands to the west, where they learn about the natural history of the area and see marine invertebrates, porpoises, sea otters and whales. Mountain bikes are available to ride into Seldovia or up to Red Mountain, a unique geological area carved by ancient glacial movement. Beachcombing and hiking are also popular, and various workshops are offered throughout the summer, including activities such as fish-skin basketry, yoga, watercolor painting and photography.
One of the most popular features of the property is the main lodge, which offers wireless Internet, games and musical instruments. It is decorated with different artwork and can best be described as “funky, whimsical and eclectic,” Mary Jane said. Up to 20 guests gather here for family-style meals and to share travel stories and discuss the day’s adventures.
Although there are refrigerators and outdoor cooking facilities for those who do not want to relinquish that part of camping, most guests purchase a daily meal package that features a hearty continental breakfast, lunch that can be eaten on the go or at the lodge and a hot, sit-down dinner that showcases the area’s variety of fresh seafood, vegetables and salad fixings that go straight from the garden to the table.
“Although we’re surrounded by the breathtaking natural beauty, the best part about this place is our guests. We’ve welcomed backpackers from Europe, news producers from Washington, D.C., and groups from Anchorage who hold annual reunions on our beach,” she said. “Guests become part of the family.”
Drink Coffee While Watching Bears
Glamping comes in all shapes and sizes. Just ask the 70 resident bears who also consider themselves guests at the Great Alaska Bear Camp on the shores of Lake Clark National Park, or the guests who range from retirees and families to professional photographers, TV crews and Hollywood writers.
Bear viewing is the number-one attraction in Alaska. Although Brooks Camp at Katmai National Park and Preserve is often the first place people think of for bear viewing, the Great Alaska Bear Camp is the only place in the state where visitors can see the whites of their eyes without being in harm’s way as they move around the coastal plain. Brown bears bring their cubs to feed after leaving their winter dens each spring.
Rather than move around in search of food, the surrounding plain—which extends several miles in all directions—offers a steady supply of food so the bears never leave to search it out in other locations. The stream under the viewing platform also fills with spawning salmon. It means guests get to live with the bears at this exclusive camp, said Laurence John, president and owner of the operation.
Almost anywhere else in the world, to get this close to bears would require hiking deep into the wilderness with survival gear, carefully chosen rations and firearms for defense. The Great Alaska Bear Camp, a 45-minute flight over Cook Inlet from Anchorage, is situated in the shadow of Mount Iliamna, amid snow-peaked mountains, forest and the sea, yet the accommodations and amenities are nicer than those of many hotels on the road system. Eight WeatherPORT cabin-tents, each 12 by 15, have carpeted, wooden floors, solid doors, two twin beds, writing desks and propane heat and light. They are built on platforms with small front decks so visitors can sit outside with a cup of coffee and watch the bears as they dig for clams on the beach directly in front of them, or play directly under the deck chasing salmon.
Although hitting the five-star mark is a bit more difficult when supplies have to be flown in daily, John says the food is what puts the word glamorous in his glamping property. A professional chef plans the menu. Each day starts with guides delivering coffee to the tent-cabins and a hot American breakfast served at the larger central WeatherPORT facility. While guests are eating, guides scope out where the bears are before heading out for the morning. Complimentary wine and appetizers are served every night before dinner, though the schedule changes if a good bear-viewing opportunity arises, which is not uncommon during the mid-evening hours when the salmon are in the river.
After 15 years of operating, it is the combination of “amazing wilderness” and exclusivity that makes his bear camp so popular. “Between the flight here—over two 10,000-foot volcanoes—and the bear camp, guests say they feel like they have really seen it all,” John said.
‘Adventure With a Shower and a Glass of Wine’
Call it what you want, glamping is not new to Alaska Wildland Adventures. “The concept is at the heart of what we’ve always done,” said Kirk Hoessle, Alaska Wildland Adventures president and chief “exploration” officer. “We try to find a bit of comfort in the wilderness, which is especially important in Alaska because it can be so threatening.”
While his company is known for providing the comforts of home in a different setting, he said he never wants to be the lodge that falls into the luxury format. “There should be a bit of humility or respect involved in nature and wilderness experiences so you don’t make the mistake of forgetting about the adventure part—where you are and what you’re doing.”
As he likes to tell his clients: it’s adventure with a shower and a glass of wine at the end of the day. Still, he and his staff are quick to point out that some inconveniences are simply part of the experience. “Layer up, put on your rain coat and get out there,” is his mantra, and along the way his staff will provide enough pampering so guests realize the real Alaska doesn’t have to be hard to experience.
Kenai Backcountry Lodge is located on the southwest side of the glacier-carved Skilak Lake, accessible only by boat. Built as a hunting lodge in the 1930s, today the award-winning, environmentally friendly log lodge combines solitude and the great outdoors—a million acres of designated wilderness surround it—with enough of the finer things in life to help guests open their minds so they are willing to find new ways of looking at the world.
Until this year, Hoessle offered guided tent camping, but he found travelers today want more comfort. Like many glamping operations, five custom-designed, Yukon-style wall tents with two different configurations have propane for heat and light, wooden floors, pine paneling and shelving units, a roof covered in canvas, small private porches, sliding-glass door entries and side windows.
“You can hear the wind blowing, the lake lapping on the shore and rain falling on the roof from completely enclosed units,” said Kris Malecha, marketing director.
It has none of the disadvantages of the camping experience and all of the advantages, including flannel sheets dried on the line and goose-down comforters. Shared bathrooms include piped-in jazz music and a safe place for toiletries so the smell does not attract bears.
When guests aren’t rafting or hiking, the chef is preparing meals that have become as much a signature of the backcountry lodge as the setting and activities. Beer and wine is available on the honor system—beer is kept ice cold in a “water refrigerator” in the small creek behind the lodge.
After appetizers and drinks, a family-style dinner is served in the main lodge. The menu varies, but favorites included stuffed mushrooms, crab cakes, pork Wellington and fresh salmon or halibut, all accompanied by bread baked on the premises and garden-fresh salads and vegetables. A hearty breakfast is served each morning, along with homemade granola and fresh fruit. Guests make their own lunches and use reusable water bottles, which are packed into hand-sewn lunch bags made from unsold lodge T-shirts.
“Think of it as pampering with a purpose,” Hoessle said. “We throw out a security blanket of just enough comfort to open the door for adventuresome and responsible ways to interact with wild Alaska.”
For videos on wilderness camping go to Click Here for the three-minute video of Bear Camp. Or go to Alaska Bear Camp, Click Here , for a quick review of the camp. Also check them out at www.alaskamagazine.com.
BIO: Heidi Bohi is a well-known freelance writer who specializes in luxury-travel writing.