Chuck Spaulding is one of the original visionaries for guided whitewater rafting in Alaska. He started experimenting with techniques and rafts in the 1970s, little realizing he was on the cutting edge of a new worldwide sport.
His friends set up their guiding businesses near Denali National Park and its captured audiences. But Chuck was inspired by an out-of-the-way location in the Matanuska River Valley. There, the Talkeetna and Chugach mountain ranges create dramatic views like none he’d ever seen. Chuck and his wife raised their family in a log cabin with no electricity amid this extraordinary place.
As NOVA grew, it created fantastic adventure opportunities for locals and visitors who ventured off the beaten path. It opened up the first Class V commercial whitewater run in the state, and was also one of the first to start guiding on glaciers.
Q. What do you do? What’s unique about what you’ve created? Q. What life experiences led you to where you are today?
We run NOVA, an adventure guiding service with whitewater rafting, river floats and glacier hikes and ice climbing.
I arrived in Alaska in 1972, before the pipeline era. I fell in love with the place immediately. Anchorage was so cool back then. I remember walking into a bar and ordering a beer. The guy next to me ordered a beer, pulled out a gun, slapped it on the bar, and slid it down to the bartender. I thought, “This is not Disneyland!”
My wife and I ended up living in the Matanuska River Valley between the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountains. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful place.
As it turned out, it is also home to a number of great whitewater runs, and I was lucky to participate in the early explorations.
I learned how viable river travel could be on many of these smaller and challenging rivers. The equipment and skills necessary to allow access to these rivers had only recently been developed.
We decided to start a family and focus full-time on getting NOVA to support us. We were still young, and we had a strong desire to experience homesteading similar to what we'd read and heard about.
I found affordable property in Chickaloon, where we operated a number of different trips. We built a log home and powered it with a generator for 15 years.
We raised two boys there and had the most wonderful experiences as a family in a little community, with spectacular beauty and a struggling business.
Q. What makes Alaska special for you?
There’s a great sense of pride of place. You feel like you and Alaska can do things differently from elsewhere. The fact is, Alaska hasn’t been tarnished. There’s a sense that we can avoid mistakes made in other places.
Early on in Chickaloon, I saw a huge benefit in land planning. The unprecedented thing we did was to create a 5-acre minimum lot size for any future subdivisions in the community. It allowed a person to build their dream home – be it a tarpaper shack attached to a school bus or a pink Mediterranean – without offending their neighbors. It became a model for other small communities to start from.
Q. What are your favorite places and/or experiences in Alaska? What do you remember most about them? What have you learned from them?
I really love my home area. I feel it rivals many worldly locations for its dramatic scenery. When our clients come up to even rendezvous, they are getting an eyeful of panorama. Then we take them on the whitewater or a glacier, and that’s a whole other level.
Not many people travel this route, which also makes it special. While tourism was exploding everywhere else, our little area stayed quite sleepy.
Along with rafting, I got the flying obsession in the late 70s, when I was introduced to hang gliding. In that era, we really lived through the dinosaur times in terms of equipment. It was virtually like bamboo poles. My friends and I who survived those early experiences ended up enjoying the more advanced equipment that was developed. It took the sport to colossal accomplishments in glider flight. In Alaska, it was especially rewarding.
As we got older, we eventually got into airplanes for our work and fun. Development was making it difficult to find a place to land the gliders. Big fields were disappearing. The gliders were heavier, too, and climbing with them was harder.
Flying also opens up a lot more backcountry options for adventure travel in Alaska.
Q. Tell us a favorite story from an Alaska trip.
On one of my early guiding trips, I took a group on the Copper River from Chitna to Cordova. We camped at the confluence of the Copper and Tiekel Rivers. The group consisted of members of the local Audubon Society.
While cleaning up from dinner, I noticed several ladies decorating a small cake that had been stashed away undamaged.
I thought, “Well cool, someone’s having a birthday!”
It turned out to be a celebration for the Alaska Pipeline oil being turned on that day. Several of those ladies were wives to executives of the construction companies who built it.
Q. How does the Alaskan wilderness make you feel?
There are many wilderness areas on earth. Alaska is unique in that the size of roadless areas is bigger than others. I feel a sense of true privacy and freedom when traveling these locations.
Q. What inspired you to go into the Alaska tourism industry? What feeling or memory or change would you like your visitors to leave with?
Tourism in Alaska had always been very small until the cruise industry made big moves here in the 80s.
Getting rich wasn't on my agenda, but I saw a long, rewarding future for myself – and the state – in adventure tourism. I understood the draw of our special wild locations and the colorful culture of the locals near them.
It grew relatively slowly compared to the industrial cruise and easy-destination affiliated locales.
Q. Alaska.org’s mission is to show visitors a more authentic Alaska experience. What are those qualities? How does it change an Alaska vacation?
The more authentic experiences are not where the travel industry has pasteurized it. Travel the world, and you'll find the same issue at any destination that has a cruise port of call. Places that aren't particularly special end up being successful, because the industry creates the picture and sells it.
I believe this is ideal for a particular clientele that needs the easy experiences. It's not ideal for the locals who call these places home.
There's a great balancing act to successfully managing destinations and tourism with locals. Many famous destinations are now struggling with this issue.
Q. What are 3 words that sum up what Alaska means to you?
Home. Sanctuary. Evolving.