Its March and all eyes are focused on Anchorage, Alaska, the starting point
of the famousor perhaps infamousIditarod Sled
Dog Race, which has become a
symbol of what Alaska is all aboutthe call of the wild.
Most of the people whove relocated to Alaska have one thing in common--they came
to Alaska in search of adventure. Ever since 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska
from Russia for $7 million, men have wondered there in search of adventure and riches. But
more than anything, it's the "call of the wild" that brings them there.
Alaska, perhaps, is simply too big for anyone to get a real sense of the place. It's so
vast that even a year spent exploring the state is but an introduction. For those who
spend ten days to two weeks--the average length of an Alaskan tour--it's but a tease.
As a casual tourist, what can you expect to see in a week or two? What can you discover
about Alaska? Where should you go, and what should you pass up in your search of the
"call of the wild?"
More than any other place, you should see the country--mountains so high they always
hide behind a cloud, salmon streams so thick with fish that they look like red carpets,
valleys so vast that they seem to stretch to infinity. You should see the glaciers that
shimmer blue and white in the early morning sun and the aspens waving sensuously in the
late afternoon breeze. Where else can you come within 20 yards or so of a grizzly bear and
come back to tell about it?
You should also see the "new" Alaska--the raucous massage parlors of
Anchorage, the bars of Fairbanks that mix frontier spirit with that curious sense of
violence that often erupts into vicious fights, the new office buildings with their hard
lines softened by a perpetual curtain of mist. And don't forget the oil pipeline that
turned this state into a modern-day Klondike with black gold replacing nuggets.
It's possible to see both of these Alaskas in a week or two. You might even scratch the
surface and find a little of what this place is all about. You won't come home with a true
picture of Alaska, perhaps, but you'll have had an experience that you'll never forget.
Most visitors from the "Lower 48," as the rest of the U.S. is called by the
locals, take some sort of tour. Usually this includes stops in Anchorage, Fairbanks,
Denali National Park (where Mt. McKinley is located), and a cruise on Glacier Bay and on
down to Seattle through the Alaskan panhandle. Some give you an overnight in Kotzebue, an
Indian village on the Bering Sea above the Arctic Circle, while others give you a ride in
sleek domed rail cars from Anchorage to Denali. But is all this the true Alaska?
For the money, you can't beat the tours, but to really satisfy your curiosity about the
place, you should try to see some of it on your own. Some of the tours offer optional
excursions to such places a Point Barrow on the Arctic Ocean and Katmai National Monument,
a vast volcanic field left from an eruption in the 1920s.
You might also elect to take a shorter tour or a cruise and then rent a car. Alaska has
few roads, so you can easily get around much of the central part of the state in a short
time. By driving yourself from Anchorage to Denali and then to Fairbanks and circling
around back to Anchorage again (the highways make a complete circle), you can linger where
it counts most, in the wilderness park areas.
Anchorage is quieter now that the pipeline has long since been completed. Home to about
400,000 people, it's a giant metropolis in a land of villages, a battleship in an ocean of
rowboats. That's not bad for a city that wasn't even there in 1914 and only had 3,000
people at the start of World War II!
You won't experience culture shock here. Outwardly, it looks much like any other
American city, with highrises, McDonalds, Pizza Huts, and Burger Kings. The hotels are
good and the restaurants provide sophisticated menus and wine lists. Entertainment is also
as varied as any other place.
Spend a night here to get used to the bite of the Alaskan night air and the long summer
days that push sunlight through your window at 4 a.m. As a tourist attraction, it isn't
much. Earthquake Park, a monument to the devastating earthquake of 1964 that nearly
destroyed this town, is about it. Otherwise, it's a place to rest and prepare yourself for
the glories of the Alaska wild that await you in Denali and Fairbanks.
Denali National Park (formerly Mt. McKinley National Park) is as close as most will get
to what remains of the American wilderness.