Finding the 'Real' Alaska

By Travel Writers

May 4, 2014 8 min read

By Doug Hansen

If a moose charges you, run as fast as you can and zigzag. If a bear charges you, never run, just stand still. These warnings serve as your official Alaska greetings, and they make you realize that you're not in Kansas anymore.

Over the years I have been tantalized by Alaska travel posters showing images of snow-clad mountain ranges and abundant bears, moose and bald eagles, so finally my wife and I set out to discover, during 10 days in early June, if we could find these images in "the real Alaska."

Rather than rely on a cruise ship, we chose to fly to Anchorage, take the train to Denali National Park, then use a rental car to explore the area south of Anchorage, all of which resulted in an unforgettable trip.

Some basic pre-trip research revealed some surprising facts about Alaska:

Minnesota's marketing folks brag about their 10,000 lakes, but Alaska has more than 3 million. Alaska is twice as large as Texas, the next largest state, and its 586,000 square miles makes it larger than all but 18 countries in the world. The population of the whole state (625,000) is about one-fifth of the population of San Diego.

The eight-hour train ride from Anchorage to Denali National Park gave us a chance to acquaint ourselves with Alaska from the comfort of our Goldstar dome car with its wrap-around windows and outside viewing deck. This was a great way to travel, and the train trip back to Anchorage gave us our only clear view of the famed Mount McKinley (aka Denali).

The park is famous for its unspoiled 6 million acres of tundra, mountains and wildlife. We stayed at the McKinley Chalet just outside the park entrance and took two of the park-run bus tours (the six-hour "Windows Into Wilderness" and eight-hour "Tundra Wilderness") in order to get acquainted with the park. These bus tours are a necessity since private vehicles aren't allowed into the park past the 15-mile mark; the rest of the 90-mile park road is for park buses only. During our tours we saw wildlife but not in quite the abundance I had hoped for. The hiking options were different from other parks: Visitors can choose one of the few maintained trails or march across the tundra anywhere they want to go.

The tourist season is remarkably short, extending from only late May to mid-September. By visiting in early June, we had no mosquitoes, smaller crowds and not much rain. We experienced weather that varied from cold, rainy and windy with a high of 48 degrees to clear and sunny with a high of 80.

After our train ride back to Anchorage, we picked up our rental car and drove south to Girdwood, tucked away among snowy mountain ranges. Our bed and breakfast (the Glacier View) spoiled us with postcard-type views of the mountains and sumptuous breakfasts, complete with homemade bread and just-picked berry jams, eggs and more.

While we enjoyed the Denali Park visit, we were doubly excited about the region south of Anchorage. The sunshine, spectacular scenery and wide range of attractions made this the highlight of our trip.

For our first excursion, we decided to take the 26 Glacier Cruise's five-hour journey through 145 miles of Prince William Sound. The tour departed from Whittier, a tiny town reached only by a 2.6-mile one-way tunnel through the mountains. There wasn't a boring minute on this tour as we observed myriad glaciers with chunks of glacial ice crashing into the sea and the occasional bald eagle, sea otters, whales (one from a distance) and sea-gull colonies with thousands of birds nesting on the cliffs by a waterfall.

One day while watching fishermen catch large quantities of silvery hooligan fish (a kind of smelt), I met Andy Morrison, who signed us up for his jetboat-kayak tour that turned out to be our favorite outing. We joined the two guides and four other passengers at the mouth of the Twentymile River (not far from Girdwood). If you have never experienced the speed and maneuverability of a jetboat, you have something to look forward to. The boat flies upriver, even in shallow water, and it can turn in an instant. This adrenaline rush was only interrupted when we paused to watch bald eagles or a prickly porcupine. My desire to see bald eagles in Alaska was quenched on this tour — I stopped counting the number of eagles after I reached 30.

Twelve miles later, we reached Lake Carmen, a secluded spot where we leisurely kayaked and ate lunch while taking in the scene. The lake's blue water mirrored the nearby snowy mountains, in the distance a glacier clung precariously high up a craggy mountainside, and a stream plunged down the slope near our kayak and emerged eerily from the underside of an old avalanche snowfield, where it joined the aquamarine lake.

I had mixed emotions as we left the lake and headed back down the river. On the one hand, I loved the adrenaline rush of the aptly named jetboat careening down the river, but at the same time I was sorry to see this tour end after four hours of unforgettable adventures.

During our final days in this area we visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, explored Seward and hiked near a glacier in Kenai Fjord National Park, all of which I highly recommend.

So did we find "the real Alaska"? In most ways we did. We came away with the feeling that while this was a great trip, we had just scratched the surface of what Alaska has to offer. We've already decided that we'll be back for more.

WHEN YOU GO

For Alaska Railroad reservations: www.alaskarailroad.com or 800-321-6518

McKinley Chalet Resort: www.denaliparkresorts.com or 800-276-7234; front desk at the hotel: 907-683-8200

26 Glacier Cruise in Whittier: www.phillipscruises.com/experience.htm or 800-544-0529

Girdwood Glacier View Bed and Breakfast: www.glacierviewbnb.com or Connie LaRose at 907-350-0674

Alaska Backcountry Access tours: www.akback.com or owner Andy Morrison at 907-783-3600

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center: www.alaskawildlife.org or 907-783-2025

Seward Sealife Center: www.alaskasealife.org or 800-224-2525

 Alaska Railroad offers a scenic journey from Anchorage to Denali National Park. Photo courtesy of www.hansentravel.org.
Alaska Railroad offers a scenic journey from Anchorage to Denali National Park. Photo courtesy of www.hansentravel.org.
 Artists capture the beauty of the river that flows from the melting ice of Alaska's Exit Glacier. Photo courtesy of www.hansentravel.org.
Artists capture the beauty of the river that flows from the melting ice of Alaska's Exit Glacier. Photo courtesy of www.hansentravel.org.

Doug Hansen is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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