by Erin Kirkland – It was a cloudless July morning in Southcentral Alaska when the float plane ferrying my teen son and I swooped neatly over a stand of spruce trees and landed with a gentle “swish” onto Judd Lake. I always feel a bit like a long-lost explorer when I travel via Alaska’s primary mode of transportation, for small planes generally mean adventure in Last Frontier, and this was no exception. Judd Lake is the location of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a 40-minute buzz over Cook Inlet from Anchorage and the setting for traditional, and not-so-traditional, Alaska-style family vacation.
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Tordrillo Mountain Lodge was an idea born from local ski legend and Olympic athlete Tommy Moe, who along with co-owner Mike Overcast, decided 20 years ago to create a mecca for backcountry alpine skiers. Not wanting to skimp when it came to lodging, food, or other adrenaline-junkie activities, Tordrillo’s team has become well-known among the adventurous luxury-traveling set, and sees a full calendar of late winter and early spring skiing and riding among the Alaska Range’s massive Tordrillo Mountains and glaciers.
Overcast told me that while backcountry skiing was their bread and butter, Alaska’s summers beckoned, and with the boom of wilderness-based lodge experiences around the state, Tordrillo Lodge began offering a large list of recreational options ranging from “full bore” to “rest and relax.” The Tordrillo Lodge list of summer activities reads like an adrenaline junkie’s finest fix: heli-fishing, hiking, rafting, flightseeing, and, the coup de gras, a via ferrata, or fixed cable climbing route sure to get one’s heart pumping.
Our arrival happened to coincide with a rare few days in which my son, 14, and I had clear calendars, and his willingness to join me was no doubt inspired by a quick look at the Tordrillo website’s “Summer” tab. The biggest problem was what to do first. Toss a line into the Talachulitna River in the hope of reeling in a rainbow trout? Hop on a fat bike and explore the expanse of property? Or take the proverbial bull by the horns and do as Overcast suggested; try the via ferrata, completed in time for the 2019 summer season.
We chose the latter, changing into approach shoes and pulling on climbing harnesses at the gear yurt before meeting our helicopter at the grassy Tordrillo Lodge airstrip. Via ferrata means “iron path,” and was used by intrepid Italians during World War I as a supply chain and to keep an eye on German troops attempting to make their way over the craggy peaks of the Dolomites.
Tordrillo Lodge’s via ferrata is the first for Alaska, and features 1,200 feet of cable and two suspension bridges for 900 feet of total vertical climb. It was challenging, but not enough that I ever felt nervous – the two-clip system of carabiners prevented that – and it was a point of pride to see my teenager scramble with ease up and over rocks and across gorges with jaw-clenching drops.
When we fished the next day, rising early to avoid a very un-Alaska heat wave, I was equally pleased to see the enthusiasm with which my son learned the ways of casting a fly rod. Under the patient tutelage of longtime Alaskan and guide Desi Sherwood, Owen flipped and ripped line across the ripples of Little Talachulitna River, or “Little Tal,” watching strike after strike from glistening rainbow trout. When he hooked a big one, Desi’s whoop could be heard over the rushing water, matching the ear-to-ear grin from my son.
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Tordrillo’s unique helicopter-based activity docket means the usual Alaska lineup of biking, fishing, or hiking are taken to a literal new level, with drops at untracked sections of alpine ridgelines where the only other beating hearts may be those of a mountain goat or the odd ground squirrel. From a fat bike ride around huge chunks of glacial ice to ogling mountains that seem to stretch into infinity, even a lingering Alaska summer day seems to end all too soon.
By the time we touched down back at the lodge’s property each day, our group was tired, sunburned, and a bit overwhelmed at what we’ve just seen. We trailed up the steps, one by one, hoping that a cold beverage would reinvigorate our senses in time for the sumptuous dinner we knew was forthcoming. Tordrillo Lodge maintains a garden out back, and chefs make sure to utilize home-sourced produce wherever possible, furthering an Alaska mantra to “use what you have.”
Evenings at Tordrillo are a laid-back reminder of how vacation should be. The front porch looks out over Judd Lake and a collection of cozy scoop chairs allow for shoes-off-feet-up chillax with a good book or the simple beauty of the landscape below. Occasionally, a moose will wander across the manicured lawns to nibble on tender grasses or swaths of pink fireweed blooming along the shore.
Guests are welcome to play in the yard, too, with Bocce Ball, Frisbee, and a network of gravel footpaths that pass by an explosion of summer flowers. And when the Alaska Midnight Sun finally retreats behind the Tordrillo Mountains, the loons chortle a last, lingering call that seems to say “Good night, sleep well, and don’t forget to play again tomorrow.”
As if we could resist.
Tordrillo Mountain Lodge – If You Go
The lodge: Located 40 minutes by float plane from Anchorage. The main lodge, a beautifully-renovated log structure, houses up to 12 guests, with two cabins available for an additional cost.
What you’ll get: Summer guests receive round-trip air transport from Anchorage; all meals and beverages, including “adventure lunches;” guide service; all equipment for activities; and a complimentary massage.
Best age: Tordrillo Lodge welcomes families, but the kid most likely to truly appreciate the experience is one old enough to fish, hike, paddle, and climb the via ferrata. Children age eight and up are generally the “sweet spot” for enjoying the multitude of adventures, but contact lodge staff for confirmation.
What to bring: Alaska’s fickle weather all but demands attention, especially within the wilderness. Families should pack non-cotton base layers, hats, mittens/gloves, waterproof outer layers, and warmer jackets for on-glacier or windy activities. Sunglasses are a must, even if it’s cloudy, and rubber boots are a good idea for fishing or rafting days. There is wi-fi in the main lodge, but consider not revealing that fact to your kids; they’ll likely be too busy anyway.
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Erin Kirkland is an Alaska-based author and publisher of AKontheGO.com, the state’s only resource for family travel in the Last Frontier.