A natural beauty beyond words in Alaska

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Victor Block

The most immediate, and dramatic, impression Alaska is likely to make on you comes from its sheer size. Alaska has more than twice the area of Texas, and is rimmed by more coastline than all of the other states combined. No wonder the Aleutian people named it “the Great Land.”

MountMcKinley — the tallest peak in North America, at more than 20,000 feet — looms over Denali National Park and Preserve. The park itself is larger than Massachusetts, helping to explain how Alaska contains more than two-thirds of the United States’ total national park acreage.

Not only is Alaska huge, it is magnificent. The unbelievable scenery is what first catches the eye. Row after row of glacier-garbed mountains stretch to the horizon. Some are reflected in the water of lakes dyed a bluish hue by the silt of melting ice and snow.

Braided rivers, which find new routes around ice dams that form during winter, meander through U-shaped valleys that were gouged out eons ago by advancing glaciers.

Whether flying over, driving through, walking in, or viewing it from the deck of a ship, the sheer drama of Alaska’s scenery is difficult to express in words.

Bountiful outdoor pursuits

Apart from struggling to write about it, there are numerous ways to enjoy one of Mother Nature’s most splendid settings. Those who prefer to spend their time just basking in the beauty may think they have found the ultimate in dramatic landscapes — until they round the next turn of the road.

Visitors who prefer engaging in sports and other activities as they take in the views have a seemingly endless choice of alternatives. Popular warm-weather pastimes range from hiking and biking, to fishing, rafting, sea kayaking and much more.

In winter, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snow-shoeing and dog mushing are among activities that induce people to brave the cold.

Opportunities to observe wildlife in its natural setting, sometimes at close hand, are virtually everywhere. Many Alaska itineraries include a stop in Denali, a world of Arctic tundra and soaring mountains known for sightings of the “big five” — grizzly bear, caribou, moose, wolves and dall sheep. This vast wilderness is also home to a menagerie of other creatures.

But those who don’t make it to Denali need not despair. Towns throughout Alaska are never far from the wilderness, and in many places they overlap. Parks often begin within city limits and extend to backcountry landscapes.

Moose, bear and other critters looking for food sometimes wander into urban settings, eliciting little surprise from two-legged residents used to such intrusions. For example, the Far North Bicentennial Park at the eastern edge of Anchorage provides inviting habitat for bears and moose.

People gather along river banks there and elsewhere during spring and summer to observe the spawning run of salmon. As the fish uncannily return to their birthplace, after spending several years at sea, they battle their way up rushing water, leaping to surmount low falls along the way.

Another obstacle they face is the phalanx of hungry bears that congregate to gorge on their favorite food as they stoke up for the long, frigid winter that instinct tells them lies ahead.

Whale-watching cruises offer close-up viewings of those behemoths, if you time it right. Between April and November some 600 humpbacks congregate in waters near Juneau.

Anchoring in Anchorage and Juneau

Population centers in Alaska share a unique rough and rugged history. With a population just under 300,000, Anchorage has an urban setting that resembles other U.S. cities of comparable size, along with its share of chain stores and traffic jams.

But there also are welcome differences. For one, untamed nature is never far away. Chugach State Park, at the edge of the city, has huge stretches of alpine terrain that are visited by more animals than humans.

The Far North BicentennialPark/ Campbell Tract provides habitat for bears, moose and spawning salmon. People hiking or biking on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail can spot beluga (white) whales swimming nearby and come face-to-face with as many as a half-dozen moose during a brief outing.

A favorite stop of mine is the Alaska Native Heritage Center to delve into Native cultures, part of the state’s mystique. The customs and traditions of the 11 major cultural groups are presented through dance, music, art, storytelling and other mediums at this living history museum.

Outside, encircling a pond, stand authentic Native dwellings representing six indigenous groups. Each is staffed by people from villages around Alaska who clearly delight in relating stories of their people.

The population of Juneau, the state capital, is slightly more than 30,000, but that number swells during mid-summer tourist season when cruise ships disgorge hordes of passengers.

Gold was responsible for the town’s location when it was discovered there in 1880, about 15 years before the Klondike Gold Rush began. Visitors today may relive those heady days during visits to several mining sites, or by trying their hand at panning.

Another claim to fame is that the terminus of the most readily accessible of the 10,000 or so glaciers in Alaska, the Mendenhall, is not far outside town. Looming above the suburbs of Juneau, bearing the typical bluish-white glacial hue, it flows about 12 miles from the ice field where it originates. At the lake where the glacier ends, large chunks dramatically break off to become icebergs, in a process called “calving.”

Ketchikanoccupies the site where Tlingit natives set up summer fishing camps near salmon-rich waters, and it lays claim to the title “Salmon Capital of the World.” It also boasts the largest display anywhere of standing totem poles, in three formal collections as well as in front of private homes.

Another popular attraction is Creek Street, a wooden boardwalk over the stream that runs through the heart of town. For about three decades beginning in the Prohibition era, some buildings perched above the water served as brothels.

That time is recalled by a sign welcoming visitors to Creek Street, “Where fish and fishermen go up the creek to spawn.” Those structures now house restaurants, galleries and gift shops.

The setting is very different in Sitka, where evidence remains of Russia’s incursion and effort at colonization, which ended in 1867 with the sale of the territory to the United States. The Russian Bishop’s House (built 1842-43), onion-shaped domes of St. Michael’s Cathedral, and a replica of a Russian fort blockhouse are among reminders of that chapter of history.

Remnants of Russia’s brief influence merge comfortably with constant reminders that the Tlingit, and to a lesser extent Haida and Tsimshain (sim-shee-an) people, have lived in what now is the southeastern corner of Alaska for thousands of years. Everywhere, the rich Native cultures are close at hand.

Native influences

Along with Alaska’s breathtaking natural beauty, constant opportunities to interact with wildlife and colorful history, its people also leave an indelible impression. I found this to be so in part because of the respect accorded the cultures of the Native people, and the extent to which they have been woven into the fabric of life.

One example is that both many Native and other Alaskans continue to use the word Denali — Athabascan Indian for “The Great One” — as their name for Mount McKinley. Another is that representations of totem poles and other traditional images adorn many T-shirts worn by locals.

I was moved by the pride with which an Aleut guide at the Alaska Native Heritage Center described how men from his village hunt for whales from kayaks using poison-tip spears, and how the women weave baskets that are among the finest in the world.

Non-Native residents manifest pride and independence in their own ways. This is evident in the motto on state license plates, “Alaska — The Last Frontier,” and on a sign I came across in a small town claiming, “Where the road ends and life begins.”

It was voiced by Elizabeth Arnett, a 40-something nurse who said she came to Alaska 15 years ago, then added, “It takes an independent spirit to live this far from family and friends.” This spirit was expressed more succinctly by a shop keeper in Ketchikan who, when I inquired why she had moved to the state, replied simply, “adventure.”

Travelers seeking an adventure vacation couldn’t do better than to think Alaska. Others who prefer simply to observe wild animals and equally wild scenery from a distance, combined with a lifestyle different from theirs, also are likely to find much to like about the 49th state.

If you go

Trips may be timed for viewing the wildlife that holds the most interest for you. Because many animals bear their young during June, newborn sightings are most likely then. July and August are the best times to see bears congregating along rivers to catch salmon swimming upstream to spawn. During August, animals that go on an eating binge in preparation for winter tend to be more visible than at other times.

Alaskais a destination best explored by air, land and water. Airline flights between towns provide stunning views of flat tundra, glacier-carved valleys, and snow-capped mountain peaks stretching to the horizon. “Flightseeing” in small planes brings passengers up close and personal with majestic, must-see sites like Mount McKinley and sprawling glaciers.

My wife Fyllis and I chose to join a tour group as the best way to pack as many attractions as possible into a limited time. We selected the eight-day Escorted Alaska Explorer trip, one of a number offered by Gray Line of Alaska.

It combines train and motorcoach travel, tours of Denali park, Anchorage and other cities, and additional sites. Rates begin at $2,439 per person. For more information, log onto www.graylinealaska.com or call 1-888-452-1737.

The tours do not include airfare. United Airlines currently has the lowest roundtrip fare for June, with flights starting at just under $500 from Dulles.

To experience the Inside Passage — the strip of protected waters between Alaska’s southeastern coast and the string of islands that run parallel to it — we chose the Alaska Ferry System over more glamorous, and costly, cruise line vessels. Its 11 ships connect 31 communities in an area where water serves as the highway.

While ferry facilities are not luxurious, they are comfortable and clean. Other bonuses are frequent sightings of both sea and land creatures, and opportunities to meet and chat with Alaska residents, including Native people, who frequent the ferries. For information, go to http://www.ferryalaska.com or call 1-800-642-0066.

For information about visiting Alaska, see www.travelalaska.com or call 1-888-655-4020.­­­

Victor Block is a Washington, D.C.-based travel writer.