Travel NORTHERN DELIGHTS

There’s more to Alaska than Eskimos and Midnight Sun.

Nobody in Alaska was born there. Not the governor, the lieutenant governor, the newspaper publishers or the construction workers. Scratch an Alaskan, and you”ll find a Californian or a New Yorker, a Texan or a Hoosier who came north and got hooked. It is probably this lopsided proportion of first-generation immigrants that makes Alaska such a hotbed of chauvinism. The first question you’ll be asked if you visit the state is, “How long have you been here?” Be forewarned that your stature will grow directly in proportion with your Alaska tenure. So the first tip for visitors to Alaska is this: lie. Tell ’em three weeks. Chances are that is longer than the questioner has been around, and you will be able to steer the conversation to safer subjects.

Alaska is visited by more than 200,000 people a year, and when you figure that only 400,000 are year-round residents, you realize that your chances of bumping into a real-life sourdough aren’t all that great. Learn a few key phrases like “cheechako” (a newcomer, a tenderfoot), “humpie” (a tasty variety of pink salmon), and “mukluk” (a warm, fur-trimmed boot – not to be confused with “”muktuk,” which is whale blubber), and you’ll be able to get along admirably.

When one talks of visiting Alaska, though, he is really only talking about visiting part of Alaska. The state is so huge (if Alaska were sliced in half, Texas would be the third-largest state in the Union), and surface transportation so limited, that it makes sense to get to know part of the state well rather than trying to see it all in one trip.

Southeast Alaska, that finger of land that hangs from the main body of the state, is the fertile crescent, a land of spruce-forested mountains that rise directly out of the Pacific, where early-morning mists often hang around all day. Islands too numerous to count dot the coastline, and fishing villages perched on stilts are home to many of the 80,000 people scattered thinly through the region. Rain, rather than snow, is the normal form of precipitation, but when the sun dances off the inland waterways and snowcapped mountains, there is no prettier place on earth.

Huge, blue glaciers (the Malaspina glacier near Yakutat is bigger than Rhode Island) crouch in seaside valleys and dump icebergs into the ocean. When a glacier releases one of those icecubes – often the size of an office building – it is said to be calving. In this water-dominated world, whales and sea lions are almost as common as beach pebbles. So are ravens, the sacred bird of the Tlingit Indians of the southeast. Carved ravens are a fixture on their totem poles, and live ones a fixture on their telephone poles. Great mimics, they meow like cats, coo like pigeons, squawk like starlings, and occasionally bleat plaintively like fog horns.



The southeast was the first area of Alaska to get much attention from U.S. residents after William Seward paid Russia $7 million for the territory in 1867. When prospectors Richard Harris and Joe Juneau found gold in the mountains overlooking Gastineau Channel, they set the stage for a gold stampede that would eventually touch off the Klondike rush of 1897-98. They also founded a town which has become the center of an intrastate battle that must befuddle most who visit Alaska.

Juneau is the capital of Alaska. Has been since 1906. But it is now far from the center of Alaska’s population, and, in 1974, the state’s voters said they wanted to move the capital. Not to any of the existing cities up north – there was too much rivalry between Anchorage and Fairbanks for that – but to a brand-new city to be built on the banks of Deception Creek about 70 miles north of Anchorage.

The new capital will cost an estimated $3.5 billion through 1994, and the decision to build it has touched off the hottest debate in Alaska since statehood. Juneau, determined not to lose the state government that forms its economic base, is fighting a strong rear-guard action to keep the capital from moving, and Anchorage and Juneau newspapers scream at each other almost daily on their editorial pages.

Anchorage became Alaska’s largest city after World War II, when its population was swelled by military forces primed to defend against a Japanese attack. Now, the city is home to half the people in the state and is quickly developing six-lane highways, smog and Mexican restaurants. But even in Anchorage, some of the rural touches of an earlier Alaska remain. Log cabins lie in the shadow of 15-story office buildings, and homes heated by wood stoves put out their smoke a hundred feet from all-electric split-levels. Supermarkets provide Lower 48 fare (though not at Lower 48 prices – a gallon of milk sells for $3, a loaf of bread for $1), but Anchorage residents – like all Alaskans – still swarm into the hills in August to pick blueberries and still cure salmon in homemade smokers and everyone eats mooseburgers.

The dichotomy of the old and new is even more pronounced in Fairbanks, 350 miles north of Anchorage and 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Fairbanks, the second-largest city with about 60,000 people, has been profoundly changed by the coming of the trans-Alaska pipeline. Fairbanks served as the jumping-off point for most of the workers who headed for the North Slope of the Brooks mountain range, where the big Prudhoe Bay discovery was made, and the construction boom converted the laid-back town into a place where people began to think twice about leaving doors unlocked.

Despite its well-deserved reputation as a winter ice-box (where -40° temperatures freeze auto exhausts into treacherous ice-fog). Fairbanks is a summer paradise, hot and dry, where the sun never sets. The Summer Solstice Festival, held outside town on the longest days of the year in mid-June, is a sun celebration with an old-fashioned county fair atmosphere. The “land of the midnight sun” nickname is one tourist attraction that lives up to its billing- and one that takes getting used to. It can be a little unnerving to see the sun rise and set in the north, with the intervening “night” a brief twilight tinged with red on the horizon.



The flip side of the long summer days, of course, is the brief daylight of the seven-month winters. Visit Fairbanks in January, and you’ll marvel that they didn’t nickname the place “the land of the noon moon.”

North of Fairbanks lies almost half of Alaska, the interior and far north portions that are still largely unsettled except for the widespread, sparsely populated Indian and Eskimo villages. No roads here (except for the pipeline haul road, and it is not open to the motoring public), so if you want to get to Nome or Barrow or Kotzebue, you’ll have to fly. The villages, in transition like so much of Alaska, are an unlikely blending of centuries-old ways of life and modern conveniences. Snowmobiles have replaced dog sleds as the vehicle for hunting caribou, but the caribou are still hunted. Satellites beam “Charlie’s Angels” and “Six Million Dollar Man” into village homes, but many of the residents still speak to each other in the unwritten dialects of their ancestors.

Before you can see as much or as little of Alaska as you want, you have to get there. Driving to Alaska is on the order of driving to Brazil, and there is only one road: the Alaska Highway, 1500 miles of gravel that stretch from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Fairbanks (the last few hundred miles, from the border to Fairbanks, are paved). Gas stations are often 30 miles apart, and the cost of fuel runs as high as $1.25 per gallon. Outfitting for the road requires a little forethought. It’s a good idea to install a heavy plastic or wire screen shield across the front of the car to protect against flying gravel, and toss in a second spare tire.



Don’t count on making 600 miles a day, either. There’s a lot of country to see, and if you average better than 40 miles an hour, you’re going to see more dust than scenery.

Remember that the expedition to Alaska is going to take you through Canada, and you’ll be stopped at the border entering and leaving. If you don’t carry proof of liability insurance that is valid in Canada, you’ll be turned back. And if you take a dog along, make sure you have papers from the vet certifying he’s been inoculated against rabies within the past six months.

The other way to get your car to the last frontier is to float it northward on the Alaska Marine Highway System with you. The state ferry system’s ships sail weekly from Seattle, and a four-day trip through the island-dotted inland passage to Haines will hook you up with the last leg of the Alaska Highway. The ferries have no remaining cabin space for this summer, so if you want to travel by marine highway, take a sleeping bag. (It’ll cost $346 to take yourself and a car between Haines and Seattle, one-way; the passenger fare is $99.)

Two private companies schedule more leisurely, luxurious cruises between Seattle or Vancouver and Juneau, as well, for fares ranging between $650 and $1900. For more information, write Westours Inc., 100 West Harrison Plaza, Seattle, Washington 98119 or the Alaska Travel Bureau, 1030 Washington Building, Seattle. Washington 98101.

The fastest way to put yourself in Alaska is to fly. Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks can be reached by direct flights out of Seattle, and most of the smaller cities have regularly scheduled air service. (Roundtrip coach airfare from Seattle to Anchorage is $246.)

To help you after you arrive, whatever route you choose, here is one man’s list of the Best of Alaska.

Best gambling. You’ll find it at the Nenana Ice Classic. Alaskans are a wagering bunch, and every spring, hundreds of thousands of dollars are bet on when the ice on the Tanana River will break up at Nenana, south of Fairbanks. The winners have to guess the exact day, hour and minute, and buy tickets at $2 a throw. Tickets are available in hundreds of bars throughout the state, and winners in 1978 each collected $13,000.

Best mosquito repellent. Immersion in water to the scalpline. It is not true that the mosquito is Alaska’s state bird, although certain species do use retractable landing gear. If prolonged baptism seems impractical, a good commercial repellent is Cutter’s.

Best bar. Try the Bird House, a tiny log establishment about 30 miles south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway. Drive slowly, though. The Bird House settled nearly out of sight after the 1964 earthquake. The bar itself has a definite list to the starboard, and tipsy patrons may be observed sliding downhill off their log perches. Other entertainment includes a gong, which, when rung by an unsuspecting cheechako, entitles everyone in the house to a free drink, at the cheechako’s expense. Runner-up honors for best bar go to the Red Dog Saloon on South Franklin Street in Juneau, even if it has been discovered by the Coast Guard.

Best cabbages. You’ll see them at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer during late summer. Cabbages grown in the endless sunlight of the Matanuska Valley get to be about the size of a Buick.

Best sled-dog race. The Iditarod Trail Race, a 1049-mile trek from Anchorage to Nome that takes mushers two weeks or more. This annual event is the World Series of sled-dog racing, but it isn’t the best spectator event ever devised. Better for viewing are the North American Championships in Fairbanks and the Fur Rendezvous races in Anchorage in February.

Best train ride. There are only two rail lines in Alaska, so we have two winners here. Best steep train ride is the trip from Skagway to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, on the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Line. In the gold rush days, miners used to follow this route. The best level train ride is the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks.



This is also the best way to get to Mt. Mc-Kinley National Park, leaving the driving to Uncle Sam (the railroad is owned by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation) and watching the magnificent scenery roll along outside the dining car window. A word of caution: In 1975, the engineer stopped to let the passengers take pictures of the mountain, and a freight train ran into the rear of the passenger train, so sit near the front.

Best phony volcano. Mt. Edgecumbe near Sitka. A local prankster scared the daylights out of the town’s residents on April Fool’s Day a few years ago by helicoptering a load of old tires to the top of the dormant volcano and setting them afire. The billowing smoke convinced the townspeople their mountain had come to life, and visions of Pompeii danced in their heads.

Best mountain. Mt. McKinley, hands down. North America’s tallest peak at 20,300 feet, McKinley looms over a sprawling national park that is a mecca for moose, grizzly bears, caribou and ptarmigan. Developed campsites are in short supply, so make reservations well in advance by writing to Park Superintendent, Mt. McKinley National Park, Box 9, McKinley Park, Alaska 99755. Or call 907/683-2595.

For further information on visitingAlaska, write to the Alaska Divisionof Tourism, Pouch E, Juneau, Alaska99811.

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