"Adventure with a Soft Pillow" takes travelers kayaking lodge to lodge in the Southeast Alaskan wilderness. For gracious quarters before and after the feat, check out these favorites.

By Susan Haynes
February 13, 2003

Wearing neon-yellow, tropical-print cotton shirts, Carol Light and Tom DeBusk step off the jet and feel Alaska beneath their feet for the first time. On the airport tarmac in Gustavus, the marine air chills, even in June--and the couple's attire inspires some laughs. "We just ran out of leis," says the baggage attendant. His welcoming smile tells the pair their fashion joke is appreciated. After all, Carol and Tom are here to have good times. The fun started when they dressed themselves, back in Virginia, some 12 hours and three planes ago.

Over the next several days they'll join my husband, me, a photographer, and two guides on a Spirit Walker Expeditions paddle trip. We'll sample remote settlements and land- and seascapes that surpass our imaginations. At the end of each day, the adventure's "soft pillow" awaits: hearty home-cooked meals, firm mattresses, and down comforters--in rustic inns run by local Alaskans.

Meanwhile, we need tasty food and a good night's sleep before we leave Gustavus behind and set out for the wilderness. Ditto when we return to this Glacier Bay National Park gateway community for a night or more before heading home.

Annie Mae Lodge

At the Gustavus airport, a few steps from the plane, lodge owner Lesli Sirstad piles luggage and our small group into her muddied maroon van. After a short drive, she turns from the town's only paved road. On a stretch of packed earth rutted by yesterday's rain, she laughs. "These holes are speed bumps," she says. "They keep you goin' slow so you don't miss seeing a moose or a porcupine or a bird." Wistfully, she notes that Gustavus is growing. "We're up to about 400 now," she says. "And that's just people. We don't count the dogs and cats anymore."

Through thick growths of Sitka spruce, the two-story, 12-room Annie Mae Lodge soon comes into view. Its golden pine beams seem to wink at the still-bright, early evening Alaskan sun. Horses munch in a meadow of yellow dandelions, deep-pink shooting stars, and indigo lupine. Just beyond, the wide band of Icy Strait makes an island out of the Chichagof Range. The Fairweathers climb to the west, the Chilkats to the east.

Strolling from the meadow toward the Annie Mae, summer chef Kelly Gucwa brings Alaskan spunk and resourcefulness to life. She cradles long stalks of deep magenta rhubarb that will reappear in a tangy cobbler tonight. It will follow Kelly's tomato and goat cheese terrine, grilled halibut with olive tapenade, saffron risotto, and sautéed fresh spinach.

We gather family style in the dining and living areas of the 13-year-old Annie Mae. As sunset finally takes hold, a yellow glow sweeps across the dining room's pine walls. Near dinner's end, Kelly passes a bowl of Sitka spruce tips for us to try, apologizing that she'd meant to sprinkle our salads with the wild morsels. "At least you can sample them," she says, not wanting us to miss out on the local delicacy. The tender evergreen shoots have a citrusy flavor and look somewhat like a green strawberry squeezed into the shape of a cayenne chili pepper. "They make a great syrup, too," she says. "Just boil them in water and sugar. It's delicious on ice cream or sourdough pancakes--and in tea." (birchboy.com sells Sitka Spruce Tip Syrup.)

Kelly's breakfasts compete with her dinners. Next morning she spreads the table with a colorful platter of peeled, fresh fruits--papaya, kiwi, pineapple, oranges, and melon--cut to maximize juiciness. In addition to homemade granola and toppings, there are eggs (order them any style), rashers of bacon, fried potatoes, and abundant stacks of hot toast with plenty of butter and jam to slather on.

After breakfast, Leslie's daughter Rachel Parks, the inn's manager, leads us on a tour of the meadow, where she deftly names the wildflowers. She also introduces the (seemingly required in Alaska) big ol' dogs and her then four horses. The black Lab answers to "Duke," the Newfoundland-Australian to "Two-Bit." The horses prance amid lush growth by the Good River on its journey to Icy Strait. Among the hooved gambolers, 34-year-old Nutmeg (who has since died) wins the prize for odd appeal. A Welsh-Shetland mix, "She got the big body and short legs instead of the long legs and small body they were aiming for," Rachel explains.

Bear Track Inn

The six-year-old Bear Track Inn satisfies any desire for a more upscale entrée or finale to the Spirit Walker kayaking expedition. Owners John and Janie Olney, as well as their innkeeper son, Mike, take justifiable pride in this addition to Gustavus lodging. The two-story, 14-room spruce-log lodge sits a few miles beyond the community's post office, general store, and gas station. The property encompasses 97 acres bordered by Glacier National Park to the east, Icy Strait to the south, Tongass National Forest to the north, and undeveloped private land to the west. Like a mural come to life, the lobby's vista pans meadows and woodlands that lead to Icy Strait. A wide, handcrafted log stairway leads to second-floor guest rooms.

Throughout the inn, custom-made pine furniture includes hand-carved drawer pulls in fish and bear motifs. All guest rooms look toward the meadow, water, and mountains and to territory traversed by bears, moose, wolves, and countless birds.

"I wanted to build some kind of log cabin for 50 years," says John. "And now I've got it. There are 250, maybe 275 Englander spruce logs, all way over 100 years old, and all killed by the Sitka spruce bark beetle," he explains.

"We created this lodge to fill a need," Janie says. "We built a lodge that looks like what people expect when they come to Alaska, even though I wouldn't really say this is Alaskan--but it fits an image."

It works. Take guest Claudia King, for example. She's come to the Bear Track three years in a row, and the past two years she's stayed three weeks--her husband joining her for part of the visit. "Being here is like getting a three-week massage," she says. Relaxation mingles with excitement. "Where else can you go for a bike ride and see a bear, a moose, and an eagle?" she asks. "And I saw all three yesterday!"

Seating options in the spacious dining room include being neighborly at long pine tables or quiet time at settings for couples or families. "It's a compromise, since we have guests who want to be alone together, and guests who want to meet other travelers," Janie says.

Bear Track dining also attracts Gustavus locals celebrating special occasions. The food is memorably good, and the wine list offers an ample selection of primarily California and Pacific Northwest bottlings. Appetizer specials may include chef Doug Wood's hand-rolled Alaskan king salmon sushi. His entrées range from rockfish sautéed with fiddlehead ferns to medallions of caribou wrapped in bacon. Pastry and bread chef John Scroulas enjoys raves for his tarts, fresh-fruit strudels, cream pies, and sinfully chocolate creations.

Janie, John, Mike, and the hotel staff delight in helping guests choose adventurous outings. With so much surrounding nature to explore, and so many ways to do it, Janie narrows the options to her absolute favorites. "I tell my guests there are three things they truly should not miss," she says. "One is Spirit Walker's 'Whales' kayaking trip." (This is a day-trip alternative to the outfitter's Lodge-to-Lodge paddling trip, and it leads kayakers to areas often teeming with humpbacks and, sometimes, orcas.)

"The second thing," she continues, "is a fly and fish charter out of Juneau. This is a true Alaskan bush experience that our guests can easily do in a day." (Bear Track arranges the package, including the 20-minute flight to Juneau.) "And the other thing is flightseeing in a chartered floatplane from Gustavus through the Fairweathers and over glaciers."

Another popular day-trip, easily arranged by either the Annie Mae or Bear Track is a Glacier Bay cruise on the Spirit of Adventure. The $165 ticket (2003 price, per person) includes a hot lunch and a full day of nature at its best. Our group observes hundreds of marine birds--horned puffins, pigeon guillemots, pelagic cormorants, black oystercatchers, murres, and bald eagles. Mammals include Steller sea lions, a few whales, and a grizzly bear fishing by the shore. Even more spectacular is "white thunder," the Tlingit tribal name for glacier calving, when the ice meets the sea in a flurry of pop-crackle-snap.

But back to the ample lodging choices the tiny community of Gustavus affords: Among numerous options, a visitor will never go wrong with either the Annie Mae or the Bear Track.

"We've had only one complaint--that it's too quiet here," Janie says. "But that couple lives in New York City."