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Heli-Hedonism

Heli-Hedonism

Travel
By Susan Reifer
posted: 08/31/2000

At the height of summer, the Alaskan sun does not set. It simply spins around the horizon like a whirling top clinging to the edge of a round table without falling off. And that is why at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night in July, the sunlight on the deck of the Regal Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage was strong enough to give sunburns and bright enough to make the topographical maps unfurled in front of us seem no more daunting than a ghost at noon. If I had given the maps some harder thought¿like about how our adventure would be taking us to places where no known human had set foot¿the daunt factor might have gone up a notch or three. But worry was not, at that particular moment, a top priority. Summer was too busy hitting a high note of sweetness. Float planes were landing and taking off from the lake at our feet. The Alaskan wilderness was beckoning. We were bathing in sunlight, drinking cold beer, and getting ready to ski.

Remarkable juxtapositions¿nighttime and sunlight, summertime and serious skiing, a wilderness environment and gourmet cuisine¿are what "Kings & Corn" is all about. The weeklong adventure, run by Chugach Powder Guides (CPG), melds Alaska's great fishing-lodge tradition and annual king salmon frenzy with CPG's heli-skiing expertise. Lead guide Mike Overcast, tail guide and Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe, and 825 gallons of helicopter fuel ensure barrels of fun. Overcast, 30, is a diehard Montana-bred outdoorsman who leads CPG in winter and operates a whitewater rafting business¿which he co-owns with Moe, his longtime friend¿for most of the summer. The two met at age 12 while ski racing and often head into the backwoods of Alaska together to kayak, hunt, and fish. While Kings & Corn was the brainchild of Dave Hamre, the founding partner of CPG and Alaska's premiere avalanche expert, it is Overcast and Moe who show clients the fine art of savoring Alaska their special way.

By noon Sunday, the assembled group of 30- and 40-year-olds¿Bob from northern California, Steve from Park City, Chris from L.A., Ritchie and Jane from Whistler, and me¿stood atop a shale-encrusted ridgeline peering down a long, steep tongue of corn snow. Wilds stretched for miles in every direction: Cavalcades of peaks rose above lush river valleys. Sheer granite spires towered in the distance. Tiny wildflowers bloomed underfoot. The only sign of civilization was the Eurocopter A-Star helicopter that waited some 1,500 vertical feet below us, where the snow petered out and the mossy tundra began. Despite being only 100 miles northwest of Anchorage, the 8,000 to 11,000-foot-high Tordrillo Mountains are so slimly traveled and hard to access that they have never been charted from the ground. For now, every run is a first descent.

The strip of snow below us was flanked on either side by rock formations, waterfalls, and fields of shale. Overcast dropped in first, cutting the slope and setting loose a thin surface layer that rippled away like a receding wave, leaving a smooth, corny surface in its wake.

"This time of year the snow gets like cream cheese," Moe said, dispatching us one by one for our first turns of the trip. He was right: The summer surface was slick, surpercarvable, and easy to ski. G-force acceleration added to the visual stimulation of the landscape, making for an intense, heady rush. We reconvened with wild grins on our faces and clambered back into the bird.

Later, Overcast discovered a wide, north-facing escarpment striped with steep, snow-streaked chutes. As we landed in a saddle not far from the face, a half dozen Dall sheep poked their heads over nearby rocks. We slung our skis over our shoulders and walked gingerly along the ridgeline's precipitous razorback, getting into position above the thrillingly steep chutes where the snow proved to be as good as great corn gets. We dubbed the escarpment Dall Face and picked off the chutes one by one for the rest of the day. >"I think I was a bit ignorant of Alaska's majesty," said Chris, who lived in Jackson Hole before moving to L.A. "I'm in awe of nature anyway, but this punifies most things I've experienced. It's a mind-expanding, sensory and experiential overload, and that's what I wanted out of this trip: a respite from my normal world."

At day's end, we flew to Winterlake Lodge, our home for the week. Winterlake's main building and three cabins are scattered across a grassy expanse on one bank of an otherwise untouched crystal blue lake. As we touched down at Winterlake, Moe caught sight of our chef for the week, Timothy Bartling (who otherwise lives and cooks in Manhattan's Greenwich Village), and hooted with delight. "You forget you're in the bush when you start eating Tim's cooking," he explained.

Monday morning, the heli ferried us to a sandbar in the Talachulitna River, an elite mecca for those infected with king fever. We rafted downriver to the Talachulitna's junction with the Skwenta River, where we dropped anchor, kicked back in the hot sunshine, and commenced fishing. Lolling on the river was quiet and static compared with skiing until one of the 30- to 45-pound monsters hit. A paddle-raft version of Twister ensued as everyone scrambled to stay clear of the angler with a "fish on," who would be engaged mightily, playing the creature running at the end of the line like an outboard motor gone berserk. By day's end everyone in the group had landed a torpedo-sized fish.

The week settled into a steady pace of alternating heli-skiing and heli-fishing¿with the exception of the day we went heli-accessed white-water rafting on the Happy River, where Class III waves rolled through a curving canyon blooming with thickets of wild marigolds. Each day began and ended with swims in the glassy lake and big meals under the animal heads of the onetime hunting lodge. Chef Tim regaled us with gazpacho and polenta, sockeye salmon and Swiss chard, surf and turf, even kings and corn. After dessert, we would retreat en masse to Winterlake's ample front deck, gaze at the magnificent view of water and peaks, and engage in spirited tourneys of croquet.

On Friday night, we heli-picnicked on the high mountain shoulder behind the lodge. Chef Tim served a sumptuous crab-leg supper. The boys played heli-croquet. And we all wandered the tundra's expanse in a state of protracted bliss as Denali towered like a specter in the distance, white as the misty cumulus building in the pale, sunwashed sky.

This is not, I thought as I stood on the edge of the vastness, the Alaska one would witness by cruise ship or bus tour, though I'm sure those experiences can in themselves seem sublime. The adventure of Kings & Corn is all about taking Alaska's wilds head-on¿and yet not roughing it. Oh, yes, and being¿for one sweet week in midsummer¿the only people heli-skiing on earth.


CPG KINGS & CORN ADVENTURE
Info And Reservations: 907-783-HELI; www.alaska.net/~skiheli/kc.htm

Cost: $4,900 per person, includes floatplane flights from Anchorage, helicopter support, guide fees, seven nights' lodging, and all meals. Fishing licenses, liquor, and gratuities are not included.

Getting There: Fly to Anchorage, Alaska, arriving no later than the afternoon before the trip begins. CPG staff will meet you either at the airport or at your hotel.

Lodging: Both the Regal Alaskan Hotel (800-544-0553) and the Courtyard by Marriott (800-321-2211) are within a five-minute shuttle ride of the airport and are equally close to Lake Spenard, where the floatplane to Winterlake departs. Travelers with an extra day or two will want to stay in Girdwood at the luxurious Westin Alyeska Prince Hotel (800-880-3880) or in the stunning log-lodge environs of Winner Creek B&B (907-783-5501).

What To Bring:
> All your ski and fishing gear and some summer basics.
> Lightweight, waterproof-breathable outerwear to use both skiing and fishing. Mosquitoes are attracted to darker colors, so go for lighter tones.
> Polarized sunglasses (which enable anglers to see fish underwater).
> Very strong bug juice is essential. Anything with deet is effective. Try a bug repellent¿sunscreen combo.
> A mosquito net to hang over your bed is key for a good night's sleep.some summer basics.
> Lightweight, waterproof-breathable outerwear to use both skiing and fishing. Mosquitoes are attracted to darker colors, so go for lighter tones.
> Polarized sunglasses (which enable anglers to see fish underwater).
> Very strong bug juice is essential. Anything with deet is effective. Try a bug repellent¿sunscreen combo.
> A mosquito net to hang over your bed is key for a good night's sleep.

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