Looking out at the East Coast's massive snow storm, my prior Alaska trek immediately came to mind. It was there that I expected to see constant snowfall with no escape from the chill. Surprisingly, even in early June alongside icy landscapes, there were many sunny days reaching sixty degrees.
America's fiftieth state, only admitted in 1959, Alaska is brimming with wildlife, rugged terrain and an independent spirit. Whatever the temperature, Alaskans still find a way to be hearty outdoorsmen. The famed Iditarod Sled Dog Race started in 1973 with an Alaskan woman, Susan Butcher, the best-known contender, having won four times. More than twice the size of Texas, its population is less than 1 million. From the state's largest city, Anchorage, at around 300,000, the population quickly drops to about 30,000 in Fairbanks and the state capital, Juneau.
Alaska has a colorful history. In the 1800's, a wide and colorful influx of fortune hunters overran the state during the Gold Rush. A different kind of "Gold Rush" recurred in the 1960's with the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay. Alaska still has a pioneer flavor of the Old West.
With its rugged terrain, many areas can only be reached by air or sea. If you plan to drive to the capital in Juneau, you will quickly discover you may need to catch the ferry since there are no direct roads from points such as Anchorage. With a limited highway system and wide distances to cover, many Alaskans opt to fly their own planes. Having flown in small planes only under clear African skies, I was not too confident how they fare in a sudden Alaskan blizzard.
In planning to see as much of Alaska as possible, I ruled out driving or flying and chancing weather delays. Although I generally prefer river cruises in small ships, I chose an ocean cruise up Alaska's well-traveled Inner Passage. That solved the problems of navigating in a challenging climate and trying to access remote regions. This route provided daily stops and is known for smooth seas. I decided to balance the week's cruise with an active first week in national parks since there were lots of options from hiking to canoeing, white water rafting, kayaking and fishing.
Flying from the US East Coast to Seattle, my ultimate destination was Fairbanks. I was pleasantly surprised on arrival to find bright sunshine and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. One of the first things I noticed was the long hours of daylight. At around 4-5 AM, I lifted the blackout shade in my hotel room and found sunlight as bright as a day at Miami Beach. At that early hour, I headed to what I assumed would be an empty hotel lobby. To my surprise, it was already bustling with fellow travelers eating breakfast. After getting an early start, I had my first taste of Alaskan wildlife viewed from a sternwheeler. Caribou with velvety antlers like candelabra grazed by the riverbank.
For the remainder of the week, it was off to Denali National Park and a view of Mt. McKinley. I again was surprised by the long sequence of daylight. I had been determined to photograph the sun setting behind "the Mountain". The only problem? Even then, it was still not a true sunset so I have a photograph of twilight only. A local add-on I recommend is a day trip to the small town of Talkeetna. With only a few hundred inhabitants, it is about a short 10 mile trip from Denali. Its local attractions included the fiddlehead fern featured on Talkeetna menus which we dutifully tried. In addition, it provided additional opportunities for biking, hiking, fishing or whitewater rafting.
Although roads were scarce, the local railroads were a great way to make the next leg of the journey ultimately connecting by bus to reach the ship heading down the Inside Passage. Sailing southward towards Vancouver, one of the most memorable first stops was Glacier Bay. In the hours of our approach, the visibility was almost non-existent. When the fog lifted, I watched as small but plentiful icebergs floated by. Having apparently seen the movie the Titanic too many times, I had some concerns but was soon distracted by the glaciers, themselves. They had a blue-green cast and could easily be seen "calving", partially dissolving into the sea. At this the coldest part of the trip, I could not resist going up to the open top deck and jumping into a heated pool. The only other two occupants and I had a lively chat. The bad news was discovering the only way out soaking wet was to traverse a very cold open deck. At the time, it did seem like a real milestone.
As we made our way southward, from a tourist's perspective, the best day was spent in Skagway. The main streets looked like the Old West with colorful stories to boot: The tour of a local cemetery revealed a cast of 19th century characters, including some resting there after engaging in local shoot-outs. However, it was impossible to tell who were the real villains. A very special remainder of the Skagway visit was catching the White Pass. This famous railway which is suspended over a deep gorge connects Skagway with Whitehorse and Canada's Yukon (so remember your passport!)
Cruising once again provided the opportunity for multiple whale sightings. Having slept with one eye open as we made our way through scattered icebergs, I left that vista behind as the ship reached the southern climes of Juneau. There was no gold-domed state house in view. The biggest draw was the nearby Mendenhall Glacier, accessible for once by car or bus. Juneau, itself, is also a hub for day or extended trips to destinations like Sitka which can only be reached by boat.
The last, but very intriguing, stop before Vancouver was Ketchikan. Although totem poles could be seen throughout southern Alaska, Ketchikan had some of the greatest number relocated into local parks with tours explaining their history and meaning. Not to be limited to just one draw, Ketchikan is also the self-described "Salmon Capital of the World". Before leaving Alaska, hardy travelers still looking to spot wildlife can hike the nearby Tongass National Forest.
Surprises I found in Alaska:
• The enormous size of the flowers: The reason? The long daylight hours in summer create extra growing hours.
• The temperature: Although typical photos of Alaska show the glaciers/snow-covered mountains, it was not really much colder, if any, than a summer's trip to Maine!
• The shortage of roads: How could there be such limited access to the capital!
• The length of the sunny days: Rather than a dim twilight in the middle of the night, the sunlight rivaled an afternoon at the beach.
Alaska provides the chance to find adventure while sea kayaking, canoeing, navigating Class III/IV whitewater or flying on to glaciers in small planes. For a more leisurely option, you can view wildlife ranging from Humpback Whales to Bald Eagles, sea lions, grizzly bears, wolves, foxes and the plentiful caribou.