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Kings and Corn

Kings and Corn

Features
By Andrew Slough
posted: 03/03/2003

You have to rise early to catch the Otter float plane that departs from Anchorage's Lake Hood for the secluded Winterlake Lodge in Central Alaska.

At 7 a.m., my 19-year-old son Andrew and I are standing on the dock helping the pilot weigh our skis and fishing rods. No one in our disparate group of financiers, philanthropists, ski instructors and college students can quite believe that in less than three hours we'll be skiing the remote chutes of the Tordrillo Mountains-or fighting to land one of the thousands of king salmon now flooding up the tributaries of the Skwenta River.

The Otter lifts into the air and turns west. For the next hour, 20,320-foot Denali looms off the right wing, and the 11,000-foot Tordrillos rise off the nose. As we're setting the flaps for Winterlake, a huge bull moose breaks from the forest and trots across the braided Skwenta. Touching down in a spray of fresh water, we taxi to the dock, where we are greeted by Tommy Moe, the 1994 Olympic downhill gold medalist. He is assisting old friends and Chugach Powder Guides owners Mike Overcast and Dave Hamre in leading this five-day adventure they call Kings & Corn. Moe introduces us to Jeremy Nobis, his former teammate and a renowned big-mountain skier, and to U.S. Ski Team member Megan Gerety, Moe's longtime girlfriend.

Perched on a rolling green lawn above a mirrored reflection of the Tordrillos, Winterlake Lodge serves as a rest stop during March's Iditarod dogsled race. A one-time hunting lodge still filled with caribou and sheep heads, Winterlake now offers a quiet, gourmet escape for guests hoping to hike, fish or photograph local wildlife. Unfortunately, for the past two weeks, the wildlife has been black and hungry. Overcast warns us that a family of bears has been dining at the lodge's burn pit. "Make a lot of noise when you're walking on the paths," he says, pointing to the dirt tracks that lead to outlying cabins. "And do not step between the sow and her cubs!"

Dropping our gear in the lodge's loft bedroom, Andrew and I grab our ski boots and hurry to the helicopter. Ten minutes later, we are skimming over a silty white river that rises to meet an enormous blue glacier that in turn assaults the Tordrillos' 11,000-foot pinnacles. Pilot Rudy Rossi eases down on a wildflower-covered ridge above a snow-filled, north-facing bowl, and we unload the skis. The ship lifts off, leaving us in a silent, breathtaking wilderness of rock, ice, greening alder thickets and wildlife.

Named "Bond World" after Ian Fleming's fictional agent, this section of the Tordrillos mixes narrow expert chutes with vast intermediate bowls. The warm morning sun has baked the snow, ripening the corn across a quarter-million acres of unexplored terrain. With Moe leading and Gerety bringing up the rear, we ski an expert face down to a steep ridge that blends into bowls, chutes and a final, gentle glacier run to the waiting ship. Bond World is aptly named. Alternately challenging and rewarding, the combination of perfect snow and vast, unskied terrain would excite even the suave British agent.

While flying toward a high ridge, Moe points out an enormous grizzly that is traversing a bowl we planned to ski. The bear's huge tracks approximate dinner plates with claws, and we move far down the ridge to slip beneath the animal. The snow is perfect; the horizons incredible. I stop Andrew in the middle of a run and ask, "Can you believe this?"

"No way," he replies, while watching Tommy move effortlessly from edge to edge, tracing a safe line in the snow around crevasses, rocky outcrops and glacial ice. He makes it look easy.

Surrounded by the high Tordrillos, Tommy Moe is in his element. Born in Missoula, Mont., he was 16 when his dad flew him to Alaska's Dutch Harbor to work construction. The days were long, the job was grueling, and it wasn't easy working for his father. But Moe fell in love with Alaska's vast outdoors and now divides his time betwween Girdwood, Alaska, and Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Kings & Corn is much more than just descents on perfect snow. That afternoon we return to Winterlake, trade our skis for fishing rods and heli out to a small stream where the salmon form dark schools against a gravel bottom. The rotor has barely stopped spinning before Jeremy hooks a huge buck that drags him around the corner, leaving Andrew and I to watch in disbelief. What follows should be reserved solely for the fishing possessed; the experience will lead the highlight reel of more than a dozen years of fishing with my son.

Salmon do not feed once they leave the ocean's salt water, but the proximity to their spawning beds has made the kings territorial and they snap irritably at the orange, red and white streamer patterns that meander through the school. Retrieving a dark red fly, my rod tip dives violently toward the water. For the next 20 minutes, I am tied by a 15-pound tippet to a 30-pound salmon. The hen could easily break me off by running downstream, but her red color betrays her des-perate need to spawn and she tears up the small pool until she weakens and finally surrenders in the shallows. Removing the hook, I release her to fulfill her journey.

We fight and release kings until we exhaust our flies and can no longer hold our rod tips up. Finally, Rudy tells us that dinner is waiting. Our pleas for half an hour more fall on empathetic but deaf ears, and we reluctantly slip our rods into the chopper's ski baskets and climb into the ship.

That night we fly to a ridge facing Denali for a gourmet lamb dinner. There, with the evening light touching North America's highest peak and Alaska's rivers, forests and lakes unfolding for 360 degrees, we toast the guides and the benevolent forces that control the weather and fishing luck.

At breakfast the following morning, Jeremy is fuming. A bear has run off with a dry bag containing his fishing lures, reels, leaders and flies. "That bag represents a lifetime of gear," he steams. "I had reels, and lures and..." He describes each in loving detail, where it was bought, how much it cost and what it caught. Muttering darkly, he promises that if he catches the bear he'll do such and such with his bare hands. "There won't be enough left to piece a rug together!"

With the exception of Jeremy's lost lures, our luck holds for five days. We ski a hundred perfect chutes and catch and release so many salmon that six months later my elbow still aches. Jeremy's dry bag is eventually discovered in a nearby thicket with all reels and lures intact. "Probably just a curious cub," he says, grateful to have it back.

And now, studying photos of Andrew skiing and fishing with Tommy Moe and Jeremy Nobis, I look back on the value of spending five uninterrupted days with my son. Bears notwithstanding, if you're a skier who loves to fish (or even think you'd like to fish), Chugach Powder Guides' Kings & Corn is quite possibly the world's best heli-adventure.

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