07/31/2008 05:00PM, Published by Super Admin, Categories: In Print
If your impression of Alaska is of igloos and polar bears, then you’re definitely due for an update. Instead, think of ice masses the size of Delaware, the largest mountain range this side of the Himalayas, unimaginable wildlife viewing, and the mystical beauty of the Northern Lights, along with the opportunity to hike on a glacier, get a sunburn at midnight, or be the first to step on land that no human has ever touched before. Sorry, no penguins here, though. You’ll need to head to the other end of the planet for that. And whether you’re traveling with your family, are the honeymooning type, are with the retired set, or just flying solo, Alaska has something for everyone.
With apologies to Captain Kirk and Star Trek fans, it’s Alaska where the locals consider the Final Frontier. And the stats would back them up. Alaska is largely wilderness, with more than 65 percent of the land owned by the government in the form of national forests, national parks, or national wildlife refuges. Barely boasting one resident per square mile, outside of the state’s major cities of Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks, the remaining population would seem to match the number of patrons at the Roseville Galleria on a busy weekend.
Although Alaska might be the best-kept travel secret in the country, it might not be for much longer. The state is beginning to experience a strong surge of tourism, which for travelers, has been left to relative obscurity since it became an American territory after being purchased from the Russians in 1867. Since then, the 49th state has had its moment in the spotlight about once every half-decade. Its economy is known for two “rushes,” including the discovery of gold in the 1890s in the Yukon Territory and the 1968 discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, the latter now responsible for 80 percent of the state’s current revenue.
But the word is getting out. A new economic boom may be looming on the horizon. With cruise revenues taking off, and with more miles of coast than all of the other US states combined, there’s a seemingly infinite amount of opportunity to take in the picturesque scenery. The vast majority of nautical activity takes place around the islands of Southeast Alaska, otherwise known as the Inside Passage. A steady parade of these large ships turn their ports of call, such as Sitka, into instant farmers markets, with the locals offering everything from homemade trinkets to fresh fish, sometimes temporarily doubling or tripling the size of these towns.
Although cruise ships offer the best opportunity to see a wide variety of maritime activities in a short period of time, for the traveler who runs in the opposite direction of pre-packaged vacations, there are millions of acres of vast wilderness and uncharted frontier just begging to be explored. Although Alaska’s largest cities and coastal lands generate their fair amount of tourists, it’s the breathtaking scenic wilderness that sets Alaska aside from anything else in the world. Camping, fishing, hiking, kayaking, mountain climbing, wildlife viewing, and yes, gold panning are favorite activities for tourists looking to get off the beaten path.
But you haven’t experienced Alaska at its most extreme until you’ve ventured north of the Arctic Circle to the coastal town of Barrow, the northernmost establishment on the continent. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were on the moon – no vegetation to speak of, just sand and rocks, and for two months in winter, no sun. With no mountains or other land barriers nearby, there’s nothing to stop the frigid Arctic wind on its way down from the North Pole, creating a never-ending blizzard of dust and ice. But don’t think about driving – flying is the only way in or out, as there are no roads that lead to Barrow, just miles of permafrost as far as the eye can see. And for the ultimate travel buzz, take the tour out of town to Point Barrow, the northern tip of North America, which, on most days, is the coldest spot in the country. Open up that box of Popsicles you bought back in Barrow while sticking your feet into the Arctic, and you’ll have an instant cocktail party conversation starter.
So if you’re in search of a destination to spice up your summer that won’t break the bank, a trip to Alaska is just what the doctor ordered. Not only is it easier (and cheaper) than a trip to even New York City or much of the east coast, but it will also open your eyes to surreal landscape you never dreamed existed – right here in your very own country.