Tuesday, August 09, 2005

No Trip To Alaska Can See Everything, But I Saw A Lot In 38 Days

Written from Fairbanks, Alaska--

The only thing I wish I had done in Alaska that I didn't get a chance to do was to visit the Katmai area, where brown bears akin to the grizzilies abound, snd at this season, are fortifying themselves for winter by dining on as many as 80 salmon a day. The gigantic bears capture the fish themselves by swiping at them as they come up streams to lay their eggs.

The people who get to see this unforgettable sight are those who visit ultra expensive fishing lodges and take the costly flights from Anchorage southwest to the right side of the Cook Inlet. They also can be seen on the remote side of Kodiak island and in some streams elsewhere in the state depending on time. Different varieties of salmon have their runs in various spots at different times.

But in taking the state ferry to Dutch Harbor far out in the Aleutian chain, visiting the Kenai Peninsula for 10 days, staying four days each at two wilderness lodges, flying to Barrow on the Arctic Ocean and visiting the bigger cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks, driving the Alaska Highway, I feel I had a comprehensive Alaska trip, longer in duration than most visitors to the state.

Coming on a cruise up through the southeastern Alaska peninsula, which I had done in 1969, is not as desirable a way to see the state as driving on your own. Many of the cruise lines are too glitzy. Some of the smaller ships, however, are better.

The wilderness lodges are unique experiences in and of themselves, but very expensive. The Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge, on the opposite side of the Kachemak Bay from Homer, run by Diane and Michael McBride, has opulent lodgings and a $2,800 price tag for five days per person. Camp Denali and Northface Lodge in the Denali National Park cost about $400 a day per person. Both have excellent food. Camp Denali has propane lighting in the cabins and collective bathrooms. Its drawback is long bus travel to see the animals in the national park -- grizzily bears (I saw seven), moose, wolves, beavers, cariboo, birds, etc. Kachemak has more of an actual wilderness atmosphere right out its door. I saw two bears there two miles away by boat. Both camps give extensive guiding as part of the cost. If I were to choose between the two, I'd choose Kachemak. although Camp Denali did have the added benefit of lectures by a leading Alaskan, former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer.

Reservations to the wilderness camps and the ferry to the Aleutians should be made months in advance. Other than that, I had no problem finding good hotels on arrival the day of the visit. I particularly recommend the Regency Hotel in Fairbanks and Westmark Hotels where they can be found in Canada and Alaska. Some Westmarks tend to fill up early, so a reservation a day or two in advance might be advisable there. The best food I had outside the wilderness lodges was at game restaurants in Seward and Anchorage.

The summer weather in most of Alaska is cool. Expect temperatures in the 60s, and some, but not a lot of rain. In the Aleutians and Barrow, it is cooler. Layered clothing is advisable. I wore as many as four jackets and sweaters at a time.

People in Alaska are friendly, outspoken about the environmental and other political issues here, and helpful. There are many small boat trips to the glaciers, so you do not need a full cruise to see those. Indeed, one of the best daily adventures was the small boat cruise out of Seward to the Kenei Fjords National Park. There were only five passengers on this highly individualized tour of nine hours. I also would recommend the Sea Life Research Center outside Seward, the easily accessible Exit Glacier there, and the Laree Animal Research Facility operated by the University of Alaska outside Fairbanks.

Fishing is wonderful in the Aleutians and off the Kenai Peninsula, but getting the fish home safely is another story. One of my two shipments went awry, with Federal Express claiming it had lost the fish for three days at the Oakland Airport, allowing it to spoil, and it was never delivered. The other halibut shipment of 40 pounds reached Orange County safely.

The libraries along the way give free internet access, as do many of the hotels. Hotel and food costs, other than the wilderness camps, tend to be a little higher than home, but not prohibitively so.

The highways are good, with the exception of some highways that are being repaired. These are generally in a dirt, rough state. The highway from Whitehorse in the Yukon to the Alaska border has many of these rough patches. Whitehorse, by the way, is well worth a stop.

Would I recommend Alaska to others? Yes, definitely. I probably will be back myself, health permitting.

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