An Alaskan Family’s Mission to Preserve the Soul of Adventure

Some people fear the unknown. The Claus family celebrates it at their remote wilderness lodge, Ultima Thule, in Wrangell-St.Elias National Park.

Ellie Gray, the oldest of the 3rd generation of Alaskan Claus family, grew up with a backyard roughly the same size as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Switzerland combined. Her family home is deep within Wrangell-St.Elias National Park, the largest protected reserve in the United States spanning 13.2 million acres of wilderness.

Her grandfather, John Claus, moved to this untouched corner of Alaska in 1958 and he and his wife Eleanor became some of the last beneficiaries of the Homestead Act extension, which granted land to U.S. citizens if they settled in the 49th state. Their 5-acre home started out as a no-frills base for trophy hunters, whom John would help guide. When Wrangell-St. Elias became a national park in 1980, the family homestead was grandfathered into the land. In 1982, his son Paul—Ellie’s dad—turned the property into a comfortable lodge with five cabins and named it Ultima Thule. 

Ultima Thule, Credit: Arturo Polo Ena

Ultima Thule, Credit: Arturo Polo Ena

The ancient Greeks used the word ultima thule to describe the unknowable realm beyond the northern bounds of their maps. And the opportunity to experience the unknown on a daily basis is at the heart of the Ultima Thule experience. Paul Claus is known as the king of the Alaskan bush pilots and the family’s fleet of ultralight, Piper Super Cubs have fat, bouncy tires that can land almost anywhere, from alpine ridges to the middle of a calving glacier.

Paul and his wife, Donna, raised their three children– Ellie, Jay and Logan– alongside lodge guests and to this day the lodge is still a family affair. Donna oversees the two massive greenhouses and outdoor gardens, which supply most of the produce for the lodge. Ellie’s grandmother, 87, still bakes cookies every morning and once a week treats guests to her famous pancakes. Ellie and her sister Logan handle the business and logistics side of things while Paul still relishes his role of head adventurer. He’s spent a lifetime exploring this vast untamed wilderness and still hasn’t lost his awe. In an age where everything feels discovered, this is a place that affords a rare opportunity to walk where no human has walked before—a true last frontier. Pure discovery, however, takes effort. And in a world of modern-day convenience and comfort the stamina for true adventure is a fleeting quality in travelers.

Ultima Thule Credit: Arturo Polo Ena

Ultima Thule, Credit: Arturo Polo Ena

“The word adventure has been bastardized in the travel industry,” laments Ellie. “No one understands that at the root of adventure is an element of discomfort.” While the lodge itself has unfathomable comforts considering its off-the-grid location 100 miles from the closest road, the adventures Ellie and her family execute are truly unscripted and require a degree of trust and patience. 

“A lot of our guests have been to Africa and come to us with the same wildlife expectations,” she says. “We can almost guarantee you will see animals if you book a four-night stay, but we don’t have a bear migration similar to what you see in the plains of Africa.” The iconic imagery of the grizzly catching a fish jumping up from a waterfall, explains Ellie, happens in one specific place in a state twice as big as Texas. 

Ellie was born with adventure in her blood and has spent the past few years brainstorming new activities like toting collapsible kayaks in planes so guests can paddle glacial lakes. A new mom, she and her husband, Ben Gray, a pilot with Alaskan Airlines, use their downtime as a family to scout new adventures. “We put our camping gear in the plane, fly 700 miles along the coast and have no agenda,” she says. “It’s our version of car camping.” Those expeditions inspired Ultima Thule’s newest Cessna offerings.

Ultima Thule, Credit: Arturo Polo Ena

Ultima Thule, Credit: Arturo Polo Ena

“We have lost the ability to be ok with what we don’t know,” she says. “You can’t ask for what you don’t know exists. You have to be willing to give someone the freedom to take you and show you. We are not a tick-the-box Alaska experience kind of lodge. We are a let us show you the best we have to offer and we know it will be a great experience.” The Cessna experiences can access almost any experience in Alaska. If you want to see the caribou migration or the famed photo place where bears catch fish leaping from waterfalls, the Claus family can make it happen. 

But it’s not a day trip, nor is it five-star luxury. “Some of these places are so remote you won’t even find a Best Western,” says Ellie. “You’re sleeping on school room floors in a village or in the guest room of our friend’s house.” These new trips are truly an all-access pass to Alaska, but they aren’t for everyone, she says. “We can literally take you to any national park in the state and arrange almost any experience, but it is a true expedition and that requires flexibility as we’re dealing with weather and huge distances and off-the-grid places. But if you have the patience and trust and curiosity it will be a trip unlike any other. A trip that will make you rethink the phrase, life-changing.”

Inspired to make your own journey to Alaska? Take a look at our sample itinerary: Adventures on the Kenai Peninsula

 

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