COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Discovering the last frontier in Alaska

Local wags in Alaska, called “sourdoughs,” like to tell you that cutting the state in two still makes Texas the third-largest. That gives a perspective on how vast this northern wilderness compares to the lower 48.

Of course, much of the upper Arctic region locked in permafrost is uninhabitable. The population of the three largest cities of Alaska combined is 353,000, dominated by young and restless permanent residents.

It takes a truly hardy person to endure the cold, long winter of limited daylight. Then comes the midnight sun of summer. For the tourist, it takes adjusting to 24 hours of daylight, while the sourdoughs revel in the long summer days.

That’s the time to visit Alaska. The snow has melted, yielding to bright green meadows tucked into spruce and birch forests. Bright lavender lupine and yellow arctic poppies precede the ubiquitous magenta fireweed of late summer. Vegetables grow to enormous size in the extended daylight.

I chose June for my tour of the interior. The cooler climate and less rain keep mosquitoes at bay. Bring along repellant, as those pesky critters are the unofficial state bird.

Are you looking for wildlife? Alaska has it all on land and sea. Bears, often with playful cubs, caribou, moose, sheep and wolves are seen depending on location and chance encounters.

On the sea, humpback whales and orcas are plentiful in their summer feeding and mating waters. Sea lions bask on rocky shores while exotic seabirds frolic in the shallows. Orange-beaked puffins are especially playful.

There are few roads in Alaska’s interior. Travel by train along the Anchorage-Fairbanks corridor is the best option for superb views of mountains, valleys and rivers from the domed observation coaches.

While in the Denali National Park area, free shuttle bus service gets you anywhere. Custom tours into the Denali tundra wilderness are available by bus and airplane for maximum wildlife viewing and a clear sighting of Mount McKinley (locals call it Denali, the Great One) if you are lucky to have the right weather.

Anchorage is a modern city, mostly rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1964 and decorated with flower baskets along the streets to celebrate the glory of summer. Fine restaurants feature local seafood and wild game. Try Simon and Seafort’s for a good selection and a view of Cook Inlet while dining in the sunlight.

Fairbanks is a university town with a great Museum of the North on the University of Alaska campus housed in a stunning architectural icon evoking the varied Alaska landscape. Once a major gold-mining area, traces of native culture and early prospector settlements are found along the Chena River, now the site of waterfront resort lodges. Take the paddleboat river cruise to hear about Fairbanks’ colorful history clear back to native Alaskan culture.

If you thought Denali was spectacular with its mountain peaks, rivers and vast tundra wilderness, wait until you get to the Kenai Peninsula, about 150 miles south of Anchorage. Your route winds through pine forests with lots of wildlife potential.

The Kenai destination is Homer, a small village at land’s end in Cook Inlet, with a view of offshore islands and snow-capped mountains. A glacial moraine left a four-mile spit projecting into Kachemak Bay. Here the fishing provides record-size halibut while the Kenai River draws salmon sportsmen.

Moving over the peninsula to Seward, a deep-water port on Resurrection Bay reveals even better scenery. This is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, where rivers of glacial ice flow off Harding Icefield into the sea. Daily cruise boats move up close to the walls of blue ice to watch chunks break away and float down the fjord. On the way, you are escorted by dozens of humpback whales and pods of orcas.

Travel in Alaska, a spacious land of few roads, is best served by train, airplane and ship, unless you travel by RV. Camping and trailer parks are plentiful and popular with the locals. A rental car is recommended for touring the Kenai Peninsula. Destination areas offer accommodations ranging from luxury resort hotels to rustic cabins, all amply described for booking on the Internet.

Major cruise lines offer a variety of coastal routes from the lower 48 with tour connections to inland areas by train or bus. Approaching Alaska by sea opens up vast coastal sights not accessible by land. Otherwise, air transport to Fairbanks and Anchorage is frequent.

Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com

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