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The Thrill of Alaska

This spectacular state proves that bigger can be better

By Annette Fuller

Vacations Magazine: The Thrill of Alaska
State of Alaska

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

Think of a massive, snowcapped mountain. Now unfold your brain and think of one 10 times bigger. Now imagine a landscape with hundreds of mountains that big.

This is Alaska -- the only place I've ever traveled where I gasped upon descent in the airplane. The mountains alone were enough to cause a respiratory reflex, but to top that off, I saw between two peaks a perfectly arched rainbow. "Am I actually seeing this?" I wondered. A mirage, maybe? Then I heard the woman seated behind me exclaim, "Look at that rainbow!"

By the time we landed, the sameness of my everyday life had skittered away.
Thank goodness the United States purchased Alaska in 1867 and made it a
territory in 1912 and later a full-fledged state in 1959. Because if Alaska was
not a part of the U.S. today, we'd have to find a way to woo it into statehood.

Alaska is ours, and that is outstanding.

The majority of us live in the Lower 48, as Alaskans like to call the contiguous mass of the U.S. Our lives are dominated by urban and rural, night and day, and water, desert and mountains. But those patterns and stages are different in Alaska.

As a denizen of the Lower 48, I thought Los Angeles, Yellowstone National Park and Texas were as big as it gets. Alaska makes you recalibrate how you assess size. And it gives a few lessons in the conservation and resourcefulness departments, too.

The time had come for me to think -- and travel -- outside the Lower 48 box. Spend a week in Alaska, as I did, and enthrallment is yours. I can't
promise a rainbow on your trip, but I guarantee you'll find a pot of gold in your experiences.

Perspectives shift in Alaska -- and isn't that what travels should do?

Global destination
"We in Alaska like being slightly exotic," says John Quinley, who works for the National Park Service in Anchorage. Many people see Alaska on a cruise -- in fact, nearly 1 million a year do -- and then return later, sometimes venturing to more off-the-beaten-path locations and experiences.

Visitors arrive from all over the U.S., Japan, China, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia, to name a few. Most people come between May and September. Some find good deals, especially cruise bargains, in the "shoulder season" -- the first and last few weeks of prime time.

A trip to Alaska does not necessarily mean roughing it, although it's quite easy to get in some strenuous activity. "We understand plenty of people want creature comforts," Quinley says. The state of Alaska promotes and partners with businesses that aid in tourism. The state, for example, charges small seaplane companies only $100 a year to provide service to the National Park System.

"The guest here has to like adventure," says Neil Darish, owner of a hotel, restaurant and saloon in the tiny town of McCarthy. "It's a soft adventure, true, but they need to be reminded that much of Alaska is wilderness."

A few fast facts
Here's what visitors find in Alaska:
> The state is a snowcapped mountain wonder, with waterfalls, lakes, rivers and spruce tree forests.
> Alaska is by far the largest state in the U.S. at 665,384 square miles. (By comparison, the next biggest is Texas at 268,597 square miles.) The population is 736,732, making it the 47th lowest.
> You'll see glaciers, many of which are retreating, and a few of which are thriving. (More on that in a minute.)
> Light and dark patterns take some getting used to. Lots of light shines in the summer, with only a dusky dark from 1 to 4 a.m. Conversely, winter days are cloaked in black, with some sunshine breaking through between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. "Every day is different," Darish says. "It's always changing."
> The state's major cities are Anchorage, Juneau (the capital) and Fairbanks. To some degree, most Alaskans' lives revolve around one of these cities.
> Transportation is via ferry, boats and small planes, in addition to cars and trains.
> Plentiful wildlife has space to roam or swim, including moose, brown and black bears, polar bears, porcupines, mountain goats, bald eagles, whales, sea otters, puffins, harbor seals and porpoises.

No fewer than 23 national parks, preserves and monuments are here, including the country's largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias.

The National Park Service is preparing for its centennial next year. On Aug. 25, 1916, a law was passed to create the federal agency and save untouched wilderness across the country. In the following years, parks and monuments were established from shore to shore. When Alaska became a state in 1959, much of its land was designated as national park acreage.

In honor of 100 years of national parks, come along and visit three in Alaska, all worthy of life moments and lasting memories.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
About 250 years ago, Glacier Bay was not a bay at all -- just solid ice. Today, it's the National Park System's largest protected marine area, its waters butting up against glacier upon glacier. The expanse is in southeastern Alaska, accessible by only boat or plane, a few miles west of Juneau as the crow
flies. Planes land in the tiny town of Gustavus.

Tom VandenBerg, chief of interpretation for the park, says scientists here study glacial thinning. The Grand Pacific Glacier, one of many in the bay, is 2 miles wide and 35 miles long, but it is thinning by 1 to 4 feet a day, according to the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.

Cruise ships make their way through the bay so folks can get up-close looks at the massive glaciers. Park Service employees often come onto the vessels to explain a bit about the science behind glaciers as well as the biology and zoology of the area. "We bring an Alaska visitors center on board," VandenBerg says.

Scientists also have been studying whales here for 30 years. Glacier Bay is an excellent site to catch glimpses of humpback whales, and our group was not disappointed. As we rested on the shores of Bartlett Cove after kayaking, a whale appeared right on cue. It broke the water's surface again and again, for nearly 10 minutes. The slaps of its gigantic tail on the water reverberated against the mountains, giving us a three-second delay in hearing the echo.

Tours, charters and excursions for seeing the glaciers and the whales, and also for hiking, kayaking and fishing, are readily available in Glacier Bay. Fishing trips result in mighty catches of Pacific halibut and others. The Fairweather Dining Room at Glacier Bay Lodge serves a tasty, crunchy halibut fish-and-chips.

We ate dinner later at the charming Gustavus Inn, run by David and JoAnn Lesh. While many of us in the Lower 48 have a grocery store down the street, the Leshes must do a bit more planning to feed their guests. "Every Sunday night, I make a list and fax it over to Costco in Juneau," JoAnn says. The supplies arrive via ferry a few days later. She orders stock pantry items, such as flour and sugar, once a year.

The starter she uses to make her delicious sourdough rolls has been sitting in a jar on her kitchen counter since the 1980s. Our meal, served family style, was freshly caught black cod, rice with chives and a vegetable medley of bok choy, carrots and kale, followed by rhubarb pie with homemade vanilla ice cream.

We loved hearing this good, small-town Alaska story: Every Christmas, JoAnn sends each Gustavus household a holiday card with a listing of everyone's phone number. The 2014 roster had 373 on it, and that includes businesses. People call her and let her know of any corrections for the next year's Christmas card. "We pretty much all know each other and help each other out," JoAnn says.

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve
This 4-million-acre wilderness, just 100 air miles southwest of Anchorage, is known for its bear viewing. The park is accessible primarily by small aircraft; no roads lead in or out.

"The door of the airplane is the gateway to the park," explains David Coray, owner of the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, nestled in the forest surrounding the massive lake. Running almost entirely off solar power, the lodge is open May to September.

He and his staff led our group to a nearby field where we immediately saw a mother brown bear and two cubs grazing. A solitary, older cub foraged nearby. Once, when it sauntered in the mother's direction in search of a fresh patch, she stopped eating and stood straight up as a warning: Don't come too close.

We were disconcerted at first to be so close to the bears, but they paid absolutely no attention to our small group, standing quietly a few hundred feet away. "Bears eat 20 to 30 pounds of grass each day," Coray explains. "They also dig for clams. Sometimes they kill other bears, as they are highly territorial and compete over food."

We watched as the solitary cub left the grassland and lumbered over to the beach, where it began searching for clams in the sand.

While we observed the bears, up walked Kara Lewandowski, a backcountry ranger for the park making her usual rounds. She said she appreciates people like Coray who help her and the park system every day with their conscientious care of the land and their feedback if something seems amiss. Visitors also come to Lake Clark for hiking, fishing, kayaking and clam digging. The park is open year-round.

Back at the lodge, after a delicious lunch of blackened fish, rice, vegetables, sourdough rolls and homemade cookies, we saw a laptop video that a staff member had filmed of a 2- or 3-year-old cub on the beach bellowing for its mother. The mother bear aggressively attacked her howling cub, growling for it to go away -- forever. The cub ran off, clearly getting the message, but with one look back at the mother.

As I nearly shed a tear over this sad scene, Coray tells me: "Don't anthropomorphize. This is the way she can have a new round of cubs." We learned that while mother bears fiercely protect their young for the first two or three years, they somehow flip a mental switch and aggressively push them away after that.

When we left that day, we had learned to respect this life cycle on the Alaskan plains. It was -- and is -- as it needs to be.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
OK, here's a few bogglers for the mind. This 13.2-million-acre preserve between Juneau and Anchorage -- the largest U.S. national park by far -- has four mountain ranges, nine of the 16 highest peaks in the U.S. and the largest concentration of glaciers in North America.

Why are glaciers so important? They provide freshwater for earthly beings and the "essential nutrients that form the basis of the food web: nitrogen, phosphorus and unique ancient organic carbon," according to a brochure from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Good to know the science. Now, for the awe!

We flew into McCarthy, one of only two settlements in Wrangell-St. Elias. (Two gravel roads lead to the park, but the majority of people fly in on small planes.) Our glacial walking tour started by attaching crampons to our shoes. After a few hesitant steps on the crunchy ice, we quickly learned that the spiky crampons work well: no falls this day!

Photos of glaciers can't compare to seeing one in person. Stand on a glacier and the cold air wafts up from the ice under your feet, blowing cool across your face. The surface looks like masses of white cotton quilt batting. A few feet away, a silent-running rivulet of water flows through an icy blue crevice. How can ice be blue? Because that is the one color in the spectrum that ice transmits instead of absorbs.

"Being able to walk on a glacier is an unparalleled experience," says Mark Keogh with the National Park Service, who works in Wrangell-St. Elias. "Nobody's checking on you at Wrangell. It's one big adventure, with no check-in, no permit. It represents a real untouched ecosystem."

Still woozy from the exhilarating glacier walk, we hiked back to McCarthy for a tour of something completely different: the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark. Producing more than $200 million of copper from 1911 to 1938, the site now is a ghost town, as if the men walked off the job and left everything in place. The mine project was a massive effort, requiring the construction of a railroad that took laborers four years to complete, working in below-freezing temperatures much of the time.

When the operation closed, the town left behind had a general store, post office, school, recreation hall, power plant, machine shop, bunkhouses and more. The complex now is part of Wrangell-St. Elias and the Park Service, which is carefully restoring the buildings; many have deteriorated to ramshackle near-ruins.

Back in the day, the hardworking men found their way to McCarthy's downtown for some suds. The Golden Saloon still draws the locals, tourists and guides for a cold brew, open mic and relaxation. Neil Darish owns the bar as well as Ma Johnson's Hotel and the McCarthy Lodge Bistro, which has a gourmet chef and menu that one might not expect to find in such a small town.

'Incredible sense of community'
Alaskans are special people. They put up with us from the Lower 48 (and the rest of the world) as we come and we go. They are used to our amazement, our curiosity ... and our respect.

But, please, just a few more questions before we return home.

No, Alaskans do not fear or dread the winters.

"I love the darkness," Darish says. "It's cozy and comforting."

Alaskans know how to prepare for the cold and snow. The typical low winter temperature is below freezing, but extremes do happen. "When it's 40 below, metal shatters," Darish says. "We have no control when nature says, Hey, look at me.'"

And yes, winter does mean a bit of hibernation. "Out here, you have
to know the difference between what you need right now and what you want right now," Darish says. Wants sometimes have to wait.

March is the best month of all, he thinks. "We celebrate, because we made it through another winter. We have shown once again that we are self-reliant and resourceful."

The tourists soon will be coming -- another life cycle in this great state.
Darish claims that everyone he knows is happy to live in Alaska. "We have an incredible sense of community here," he says. "This is the Alaska I was searching for. Travelers should pick a destination worthy of getting to know, and that is Alaska, for sure."

Visiting Alaska
Alaska's dazzling sights await, whether you choose to explore by land or by sea.

Cruises of the Inside Passage provide a great introduction to the stunning scenery, abundant wildlife and native cultures of southeastern Alaska. Most travel from Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia, calling at coastal communities as far north as Skagway in a weeklong, round-trip sailing. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a star attraction on many of these trips. Cruise discounter Vacations to Go offers the best markdowns on 2016 departures -- save up to 60 percent or more on many voyages.

For an inland adventure that includes exploration of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the biggest park in the U.S., turn to tour operators that specialize in land-based vacations. These itineraries spend time in Wrangell-St. Elias: the 15-day "Grand Alaska" from Tauck and the 13-day "Wild Alaska" from Intrepid Travel.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in November/December 2015. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.

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