Paul Claus, quintessential Alaskan bush pilot

Monday, February 22, 2010

Paul Claus, the 52-year-old son of John Claus, has been flying in Alaska since he was 13, and had logged some 15,000 hours (by 1998) of flying in some of the roughest, most remote territory on our continent.

In some 39 years of flying he has earned the respect and admiration of his friends and colleagues -- the Alaska Bush Pilots, some of the most daring and skilled flyers of small planes of anyplace on the planet.

The stories of Paul Claus and his exploits on land, sea, and in the air are the tales that make up legends -- to the extent that you might think they were describing Paul Bunyan, instead of Paul Claus -- or Superman.

In 1960 Paul's father, John, established a cabin site in the Wrangell Mountains region in Southeast Alaska -- 150 miles from the nearest road. Soon after that the National Park Service established the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, an area which included John Claus' cabin site.

After that time permanent buildings of any sort were outlawed inside the park. The Claus land and cabin were allowed to remain, under a grandfather clause, giving John and his family a 38.8-million acre backyard of the most scenic, rugged, stunning terrain on earth, with virtually no neighbors, aside from moose, bears, and sheep -- that's an area larger than some states, even some countries!

John Claus may have established the first homestead, but John is very definite when he says that it was his son, Paul and Paul's wife, Donna who have developed Claus' Ultima Thule Lodge, a posh (for wilderness Alaska) destination for serious (and well-heeled) outdoorsmen, who come from all parts of the globe to take part in the adventures of that remote part of Alaska.

(Note: The term "Ultima Thule" was used by ancient Greek geographers to denote "unknown regions, far to the north of the known world," which some say pretty well describes the vast country surrounding the Claus Ultima Thule Lodge.

Guests must be flown in to the Lodge via small planes. Each guest pays $5,400 for a week's stay at the Lodge, which includes all transportation, room and board, and guide service for hunting trophy Dahl sheep, and bear, fishing in remote lakes and streams, climbing one of several 16,000'-plus peaks, or "Ultimate Skiing," where guests land high up in the mountains, skiing miles down, often dangerous mountain slopes that have never been tried before. Definitely not for the amateur or the "faint of heart," yet guests return year after year to repeat experiences that are unavailable anywhere else.

In speaking about their Lodge, John mentioned that even though their prices are steep, neither he or Paul has been able to accumulate much money. "Everything we take in goes back into the business."

"But you know what, I think we've got the best life there could be. I wouldn't trade it for the world! I know Paul feels the same way.)

In the evening, at Ultima Thule, guests share stories about the day's adventures, and come away with tales about the exploits of Paul Claus -- and there are many.

Most of the stories about Paul deal with his flying feats. But Paul has many interests, and seems to be multi-faceted talent-wise. Reudi Homberger, the noted Swiss mountaineer says that Paul could be a world-class mountain climber, "If he only did not have so many other interests."

Still, he has climbed all the major peaks in the Wrangell Mountain range, and has practiced hang-gliding and para-gliding among these same peaks. He has also been a pioneer in rafting and kayaking the wild Upper Kianga River.

Claus is the three-time captain of the top-earning salmon boat on Bristol Bay. A few years ago he hooked a 1,000 pound marlin while fishing off Kona. The fish swam, pulling Claus, chair and all, into the water, and pulled him under. It was some time before Claus was able to wriggle free of his harness and the chair, and swim to the surface, where his boat picked him up. A close call, but Claus' only regret. "It's too bad, I'm sure that it would have been the largest fish caught off Kona that year!"

One time Paul flew a big New York executive to land on a glacier. They had just landed, and before Claus could stop him, the fellow got out of the plane to take a walk, "like he was strolling in Central Park." Three steps and he started to slide into a moulin -- a slippery, deep melt-water cut in the glacier that "goes so deep they don't bother to look for the body."

Paul reached out and grabbed the fellow by the hair and pulled him to safety.

"That fellow didn't even tumble as to how close he came to dying that day."

Paul Claus combines unconventional flying methods with an uncanny, inborn ability to land on tiny, postage stamp size snow fields, boulder strewn ice shelves, and hanging glaciers -- spots so tiny and so steep that he has to tether the plane with a rope to keep it from rolling down the slope. Upon take-off he leans out the plane and cuts the rope with his knife, then hurtles down slope for his take-off.

Sometimes Claus makes his landings on mountains, so steep that he must use full throttle while landing. Often his take-offs are incredibly short, to avoid an abrupt drop off, or a crevasse. Once at an air-show at Valdez, Paul won a contest when he made a take off with his Super Cub in just 19 feet of runway, a feat he has repeated many times on the mountains or glaciers, when there was not much more space than that available.

Of course, Claus has had his share of close calls. Once, a broken crankshaft forced a landing on a gravel strip in a river. He was forced to rip out the insulation of the plane, and stuff it into his flight suit to keep from freezing. Three days later a search party found him. The following day he and his father flew back to the spot -- he fixed the plane and flew it home.

Claus keeps one Super Cub for flying skiers to high altitudes. This plane has been stripped of all electronic gear, to lessen the weight, and it must be hand-cranked each time to start. One time he was flying this plane when he encountered an up-thermal. He allowed the updraft to take him to 24,000 feet, 5,000 feet higher than a Super Cub was supposed to fly. Why? "I just wanted to see how high it would go," said Claus.

Alaska has few roads, and relatively few people, yet it has 10,000 planes and nearly that many pilots -- nearly one out of every 58 Alaska citizens is a pilot.

In a land of aviators, Paul Claus is a hero. Yet, some of his fellow bush pilots are skeptical, even critical of some of the things that Claus does. Says one, "He's a good pilot and he's willing to do the things that give you a name, and he's lucky. Of course, a person can only have so much luck."

Says another, "Paul gets a kick out of flying on the edge. His skill level is the highest -- but I'm not sure that he can continue at that level."

Paul Claus, himself, seems to feel that his destiny is not to die in a plane crash. Says Paul, "I'm not religious, but I do believe in fate."

"I think accidents have a lot to do with your divine time -- my time is not up yet. I can't explain it, but it's true."

In the meantime, Paul Claus keeps flying, and adding to his legend. He has been the featured flyer in a number of very popular documentary films about Alaska and the role that Bush Pilots play in the mystique and economic Alaskan scene.

Hopefully, Paul Claus can successfully counter the old cliché‚ "There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots."


Daniel Coyle in Outside, the online magazine. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

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  • Quite often the legend is bigger than the person. I don't say this to diminish the deeds of Paul Claus, or any other bush pilot, including myself, in the State of Alaska.

    Most of us are not daredevils, but very careful pilots with a good working knowledge of our limits, and the limits of our aircraft, therefore, the adage still holds true: There are no old, bold pilots.

    Good column, Walt, keep 'em coming...

    John Trail

    Aniak, AK

    -- Posted by j_trail on Mon, Feb 22, 2010, at 5:03 PM
  • I know some real bush pilots but they are about 40 years older then me at 51.. It's an Era that is over what we do now is land off airport. The FAA back in the 80's tried to get use Alaskan Pilots to stop being Bush pilots at the time I thought yea right. Older and a few more hours I get it. But they keep making TV shows and writing about Bush pilots......... sigh

    Pilot but not Bush.....

    Fairbanks, Alaska

    That book was written "The Last of the Bush Pilots"

    -- Posted by greb on Sun, Jan 16, 2011, at 1:30 AM
  • I spent a week with Paul and his family at Ultima Thule lodge. I flew daily with Paul, his son Jay or one of the other pilots in the Otter with 1,000 hp turbo, in a Cessna 185 or those sweet little Piper Super Cubs. These folks are not Dare Devils. They are competent, skilled and experienced pilots who are aware of their limitations and abilities and the performance capabilities of the aircraft. They are always acutely aware of the "Alaska Factor". That is to say the weather which can change quickly and impact safety in the air. The airplanes are maintained to the highest standard and I will fly with any of them anywhere every day and twice on Sunday.

    -- Posted by LWest on Thu, Aug 16, 2012, at 10:07 PM
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