NORTH TO ALASKA, THE LAST FRONTIER
By Peggy Kiefer
Glaciers, wildlife, wilderness and mountains—these are the four most common reasons that vacationers choose Alaska.
My family of five, including two teenage grandchildren, recently experienced the grandeur of our 49th state. We wanted to see as much as possible in two weeks, but it’s a very large state, so this was an impossible task. We used almost every type of transportation, including a cruise ship, narrow gauge railway, scenic domed car railroad, small plane, paddleboat, dog sled, feet and bus.
A cruise is the most popular way to visit Alaska, but some of the most interesting sights are inland, and can only be seen with other modes of transportation.
Most cruise ships visit the Inside Passage, and this is a beautiful part of the state. But it is in the southwest part right next to Canada, so one does not get to see any of the interior of Alaska. Many of the most visible and beautiful glaciers are found in this part of the state. Most cruise lines take their guests into one of the glacier bays, such as Hubbard Glacier, College Fiord or Glacier Bay, which gives you an opportunity to walk on them or take a flight to observe glacier “calving.” This is a wonderful treat, as large chunks of ice come tumbling off the main glacier with a thunderous sound as they hit the water and break into hundreds of pieces. It is here in the Inland Passage that you are most likely to see whales, which return to Alaska to feed for the Summer.
The ports visited in the Inland Passage vary with the cruise line, but the most common are Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Haines, Sitka, Wrangell and Valdez.
Ketchikan is the self-described “Salmon Capital of the World” where it is possible to buy any of the many types of salmon. It is also known for its large collection of totem poles. Unfortunately, it is also one of the wettest places in the Inside Passage, averaging over 160 inches of rain a year.
The state capital, Juneau, has the distinction of being the only one that cannot be reached by car or train. Needless to say, there are many private planes and licensed pilots here. The well-known Mendenhall Glacier is located just outside of town. It is also possible to take a ride on a dog sled pulled by the same dogs that traverse the state during the Winter months and participate in the world-famous Iditarod race.
Skagway is an historic gold rush town. The downtown looks like a movie set. There is a vintage White Horse and Yukon narrow gauge railway, which makes a three-and-one-half hour trip from Skagway to White Horse and back. The scenery on the ride is spectacular.
Haines in known for its bald eagles, which often roost by the dozens in plain sight of visitors. It doesn’t have the charm of some of the other ports, but offers amazing scenery, as it is surrounded on most sides by mountains.
Sitka is in a beautiful location overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Overshadowing it is Mt. Edgecombe, an extinct volcano that reminds many travelers of Mt. Fuji in Japan. It is also the first non-native town where a Russian fort was established, giving Sitka a Russian feel to it with its Russian heritage and culture.
Wrangell is a small, rather old-fashioned town that still clings to some of its old customs. Very few cruise ships stop here. Its claim to fame is the only Alaska fort to have existed under three flags — Russian, British and American. It was also an important port for fur traders and gold miners.
Best known for being the terminus of the Alaskan pipeline, Valdez is the most northerly ice-free port in the western hemisphere. It was named after a Spanish explorer and was a boomtown during the gold rush. In 1964 Valdez was badly damaged by a massive earthquake. The city was rebuilt on a new site on more stable ground.
Many travelers end their Alaskan vacation here and return down the Inland Passage, so they only see a small portion of this magnificent state. A cruise can also take you to Anchorage and then one can venture inland by train or bus to Mt. McKinley (Denali), which is the tallest mountain in the Northern Hemisphere, and then farther north to Fairbanks.
If you choose to spend some time in Anchorage, you will visit Alaska’s largest city. It’s been compared to Alaska’s New York City and has all the amenities of other large United States cities. It has a wonderful museum, an extraordinary performing arts center and a vibrant social life and arts community. It does not give the “Alaska feel” of the rest of the state and could be any city in the country if you forget about the frigid Winter temperatures and long dark Winter days. Of course, the flip side is that you have very few hours of darkness in the Summer. But it also has the traffic jams and fast food restaurants that you won’t find in the rest of the state.
To me, one of the highlights of the Alaska adventure is taking the domed car train from the port where your ship ends the cruise, which is different for the various cruise lines and even different ships from the same cruise line. To travel to Denali National Park, it is about an eight-and-one-half hour comfortable train ride on cars with large dome windows. There you get panoramic views of the mountains and scenery, and if you are one of the lucky 30 percent, you will see Mt. McKinley, which the Alaskans call “Denali,” meaning the great one. Denali National Park is one of the most visited and most loved of all the sites in Alaska. Visitors come away with a feeling of awe and appreciation of true wilderness. If you are fortunate, you may see a moose with twin calves, nesting bald eagles and a herd of caribou.
In Denali there are a myriad of activities ranging from the more sedentary to the very active. The visitor’s center is a good starting place. Not only are there fascinating exhibits about Alaska and the park, but also there are ranger-led talks and hikes into the wilderness. You can also hike on your own after registering with a park ranger. The only complaint most people have is the large crowds who are all trying to enjoy this beautiful place. The campgrounds are reserved months in advance and RVs fill many lots. To escape the crowds, mid- to-late September is a good time to visit as large numbers of tourists are gone. By then, the bugs have pretty much gone as well. Mosquitoes are especially plentiful and hungry in the Summer.
If you have more time, or are feeling more adventuresome, it is a four-hour train ride to Fairbanks, the second largest city in Alaska. In the Summer it has very pleasant weather, with an average temperature of 70 degrees. However, in the Winter it is so cold that the parking meters have electric plugs because vehicles have heaters around their engines. At the end of June, there are 23 hours of daylight, while at the end of December there are 23 hours of darkness. In the Summer a paddleboat takes visitors for a ride on the Chena River, stopping at a dog sled kennel and an Indian village. The University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has an excellent museum with many Alaskan artifacts. One can also pan for gold and keep any that you can find after sluicing dirt around a tin plate.
For the truly adventuresome, private planes will transport you to the remote northern parts of the state, but this is something not usually tried by the average visitor.
It is impossible to do justice to this beautiful and enormous state in one article or in two weeks. But for the trip of a lifetime with magnificent vistas and wonderful adventure, visit Alaska, the “Last Frontier.”