Off the beaten path at wilderness lodges in Alaska

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Theres no doorbell at the Winterlake Lodge. The honking from a family of loons on Finger Lake lets Carl and Kirsten Dixon know when another group of guests has arrived at their home.

Finger Lake, the birds home, also serves as Winterlakes driveway. There are no roads leading to or from the lodge; most people arrive from Anchorage via seaplane, which sets down on the lake and is tied up at the dock. From there its only a short walk to the front porch, where a few comfortable chairs overlook the lake and the loons.

Maybe one of the lodges resident black Labrador retrievers will come galloping by in welcome. The orientation speech and welcome is given in the lodges comfortable front room, where fresh-brewed coffee and Gruyere cheese puffs are on the table.

Lodge-keeping is an Alaska backcountry tradition. Anchorage does not have a Four Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton, and Hilton has only four hotels in the state.

What Alaska does have, however, is small lodges and inns (some of them offering as much personal attention as a five-star resort) that celebrate the best of what the state has to offer -- outdoor activities and camaraderie between guests and hosts, as well as between guests and guests.

Alaskans call their freeways and roads the road system. Thats important, because in many cases the lodges are off the road system, which requires guests to take a boat or a plane (or in winter, a snowmachine) to get to them. Dropping by via seaplane is called a fly-in.

In many respects its the road less traveled. Its worth the effort to get there, said John Kreilkamp, the vice president of Alaska land operations for Cruise West.

Wilderness, defined

Although tour operators use phrases like off the beaten path, and road less traveled (or, in many cases, no road) to describe wilderness lodges, theres no clear definition of the term.

Winterlakes sister property, Redoubt Bay Lodge, for example, is a wilderness lodge. Redoubt is located near Lake Clark Pass, and its primary attraction is a local bear community. The lodge itself is a small log cabin. In total, fewer than 20 guests sleep in the adjacent cabins.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Princess Wilderness Lodges. The Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge, for example, can hold more than eight times as many guests as Redoubt Bay. Its within a 200-acre site near the Glennallen and Copper River area, has rustic details like a giant stone fireplace and offers guests attractions like hiking and dog sledding.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association counts 55 members under the Wilderness Lodges/Resorts category on its Web site, but the number could be far greater. Winterlake and Redoubt Bay, for example, are included under one entry, Within the Wild Adventure Lodges.

My definition of a lodge is usually a place thats a little more remote than a hotel or an inn. Its not an urban property, said Michelle Glass, director of marketing for Alaska Unusual. In Alaska, its [usually] someplace off the road system.Theres no room service, no parking; not a lot of the typical things. Usually meals are included [and] activities are included. Its really more of a getaway experience than just a place to spend the night.

According to Bill Pedlar, COO of Knightly Tours, lodges got their start when hunters and fishermen came through Alaska. Today, there are several types of lodges: those built for a specific purpose like fishing, hunting or bear-watching, and those built just as exclusive getaways.

But Pedlar was adamant about one point. In my book, if three meals a day arent included, its not a lodge, he said.

He gave one example. Glacier Bay Lodge just reinvented itself, and it is marketing itself as a lodge experience ... Its all inclusive, he said. Theyre trying to get [into] that true lodge aspect. While they called themselves Glacier Bay Lodge in the past, I now consider it a true lodge.

In an e-mail, Kirsten Dixon, one of Winterlakes proprietors, said, A wilderness lodge is located in a unique geographic area that offers unspoiled nature opportunities.

Fly-in to Winterlake

My fly-in to Winterlake started early in the morning with a trip to Rusts Flying Service at Lake Hood in Anchorage. Rusts is like a taxi service -- not in the sense that you can just stick your arm in the air and hail one -- but around here, flying is as natural as driving. Hop in the Cessna, strap on your headset and go.

It takes about 45 minutes to fly to Winterlake over beautiful, scenic hills. New Age music piped into the headset from the dashboard CD player added to the sense of wonder. When we glided down onto Finger Lake, the pilot guided the plane over to the grassy bank and tied it up to a nearby tree.

Winterlake is a lodge, but its also the Dixons home, and it serves a variety of year-round guests.When I arrived in late June, it was hosting heli-skiers: a souped-up helicopter picks up the skiers each day and flies them to the Tordrillo Mountains (cost: $6,750 for the six-night trip).

In the winter, when Rusts exchanges the waterskis on its planes for snow skis, the lodge is a stop on the annual Iditarod sled dog race between Anchorage and Nome. Dog teams take a break on straw beds on frozen Finger Lake as mushers pop in to the lodge for meals. Winterlake has its own team of Alaskan huskies, and guests can take turns mushing with them during the winter season.

Once the helicopter and skiers had left for the hills, a calm quiet descended on the property. Mosquitoes buzzed around (the Dixons have extra-heavy-duty bug spray for guests) and the lake sparkled.

Among the activities for guests are kayaking on Finger Lake and canoeing on nearby Red Lake. Guests can hike the Wolverine Ridge, which provides views of

Denali (Mount McKinley) and Mount Foraker. If the mosquitoes arent too annoying the Dixons host picnics on the ridge. Theres heli-fishing, where the chopper flies ahead and spots the fish.

And then theres just plain-old relaxing in the main lodge, which is full of comfortable, overstuffed couches and rustic touches. A book, a glass of wine and a view of the lake round out the last scenario.

The Dixons also built an extension on the lodge which is used for morning yoga.

And theres no question that Winterlake is a true lodge as Pedlar defines it. Not only are meals included in the price (as well as coffee and snacks) but cuisine is a major focus of the experience. Kirsten Dixon is a renowned chef.

In her cookbook, The Winterlake Lodge Cookbook, she recounts how she traveled to France and marched up to the famous etched-glass doors of the Cordon Bleu and knocked bravely.

In her big, homey kitchen, a cluster of bar stools surround the counter, so guests can pull up a chair. The lodge offers cooking-class-themed weekend packages.

Large, wood dinner tables, with cheerful, comfortable floral-print chairs, are a focal point of the lodges main rooms.

In her e-mail, Dixon called it perhaps one of the top exclusive lodges in Alaska.

Rates start at $987 per person for a one-night stay; see www.withinthewild.com for more information.

But Alaska Unusuals Glass said that a one-night stay usually isnt enough time to explore a wilderness lodge.

Talking to agents, a lot of time theyll say, I want to do a lodge for a night, she said. Youre going to want to spend at least two nights, if not more. We usually recommend a week. Its really a way to slow down and get out of the mill, whether its daily life or the mill of tourism. So many of these package tours are going, going, going. And you see a lot but dont get to understand life of Alaska.

What price wilderness?

Wilderness lodges arent inexpensive or easy places to run. The season is short; many lodges are only open four months, between June and September. With only a handful of beds, some places cant, or wont, buy into the volume business.

Logistics are intense: At Winterlake, for example, things like lumber, fuel and foodstuffs have to be flown in -- and garbage has to be flown out. Then there are the natural elements: Winterlakes staff was, by turns, amused and exasperated by a bear who was an occasional visitor.

And then there are guest expectations.

While people these days say they want to rough it, those who really want to rough it probably wouldnt stay at those lodges, Knightly Tours Pedlar said. People who are staying there really want some creature comforts. Those are expensive to do.

But Pedlar pointed to lodges such as Glacier Bay Lodge near Gustavus, the Denali Backcountry Lodge near Kantishna and the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge on the Kenai Peninsula. According to their Web sites, these establishments offer per-day rates of $394, $380 and $659, respectively.

Lodge prices bounce all over the place, he said.

To contact Rebecca Tobin, managing editor of the print edition of Travel Weekly, send e-mail to [email protected].

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