JUST DO IT YOURSELF, OKAY?
[from Alaska magazine February 2003 issue, and one of sixty or so columns and articles I wrote for Alaska magazine, now collected in Alaska Traveler. Click on the cover below to buy your copy.]
[N.B. I try to keep the recommendations and the links current but if I’ve steered you wrong please say so in the comments and I’ll fix it.]
To begin with, plan on a minimum of two weeks. Here’s an exercise in geographical perspective for you: Lay a transparent map of Alaska over a map of the South 48 to the same scale. See, the map of Alaska overlays both borders and both coasts of the South 48. You wouldn’t plan on touring the continental United States in two weeks, now, would you?
So here is one possible, admittedly quick-and-dirty, summer and Southcentral specific itinerary just for you. I’ve personally experienced most of the recommendations I make, and the books came right off my shelves.
Day 1: Arrive in Anchorage. Alaska Airlines can’t be beat for frequency of Alaska-West Coast flights, and nowadays they’re flying in from Boston, Newark, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Minneapolis and Denver, too. As for where to stay, if you like B&Bs, here’s a link to Anchorage Bed and Breakfast. If you’d rather have your own bathroom, we have everything from Day’s Inn to the four-star Hotel Captain Cook.
Day 2: Visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Shop for Native arts and crafts at the gift shop at the Alaska Native Medical Center on Tudor. Rent a bike and ride the Coastal Trail to Kincaid Park. Watch out for moose and the occasional bear.
Day 3: Drive to Seward for a trip with Kenai Fjords Cruises. I have never been skunked on this cruise, I’ve seen killer whales and humpbacks and Steller sea lions and finback whales and puffins and porpoises and otters and seals and pretty much any maritime wildlife you can name at this latitude. And I haven’t even mentioned the glacier.
Stay the night. Dine at Ray’s in the boat harbor and then walk it off looking at Seward’s collection of murals, featuring the famous Fourth of July Mt. Marathon footrace, the Iditarod Trail, Rockwell Kent, and Alaskan wildflowers. You could hike Mt. Marathon, or take the Godwin Glacier helicopter/dog sled tour, too.
Day 4: Visit the Sealife Center, and stop at Exit Glacier on the way out of town for an easy hike up to the glacier’s face. Drive to Homer. Stay at the Driftwood Inn on Bishop’s Beach, or any one of about a thousand B&B’s. Shop at the Bunnell Street Gallery, the Art Shop Gallery, Ptarmigan Arts, and the Fireweed Gallery. Walk the Facing the Elements trail in back of the Pratt Museum and do not miss the sperm whale exhibit at the high school. Take Mako’s Water Taxi on a tour of Kachemak Bay with a visit to Seldovia (take the “triangle trip,” boat to Jackalof, bus to town, fly back to Homer and ask the pilot to sightsee on the way). End the day with gelato from Carmen‘s on the Spit, and a walk and a driftwood fire on Bishop’s Beach. Don’t worry, in summertime we have twenty hours of daylight, you’ll fit it all in.
Day 5: Pick up lunch at the Sourdough Express, which you remembered to order the night before. Take Bald Mountain Air’s bear flightseeing trip to Katmai. Dine at Captain Pattie’s on the Spit (Try to get past the fish and chips. Go ahead, try. I’ll wait.) and pour a libation in honor of the wonderful tour guide who recommended it to you.
Day 6: Get your morning coffee and breakfast pastry at Two Sisters Bakery. Drive to Anchorage. On the way, stop at Summit Lake Lodge for ice cream, and in Girdwood to pan for gold at the Crow Creek Mine and eat the best pepper steak of your life at the Double Muskie. After that you better walk the ridge to the Seven Glaciers, but you can take the aerial tram if you want to.
Day 7: Another day in Anchorage (You can drive straight to Talkeetna if you like but it will be a long day). Visit the Anchorage Museum, especially the Alaska history exhibit. Shop at Cabin Fever at 4th and G. Go to the Whale Fat Follies. Visitors tell me that it is best not to go to the Follies until you’ve been here at least a week, otherwise you don’t get the jokes.
Day 8: Drive to Talkeetna. Stay at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. If you can tear yourself away from the view, take the Hurricane Turn, Alaska Railroad’s six-hour flagstop service to Hurricane, which has great characters and great scenery in equal proportion.
Day 10: Drive to Denali and take the bus into the park. Your butt will hurt, you’ll choke on the dust and the mosquitoes will eat you alive, but you’ll see grizzlies, caribou, moose, marmots, eagles, and maybe even wolves. Oh, and then there is The Mountain.
Day 14: Fly home and get some sleep.
Mind you, this is the easy way to see Alaska, from road and rail and river. If you want to visit the carving shed in Ketchikan, you’ll want to take one of the many cruise ships plying the Inside Passage. If you want to fly into some of the remoter locations like Nome or Barrow, get out your wallet as the farther away you get from the road system the more expensive everything is. Why do you think so many of us practice a subsistence lifestyle?
You could also backpack into the Gates of the Arctic National Park, kayak Prince William Sound, or take deck passage on the Alaska state ferry Tustamena to Dutch Harbor, always supposing the Alaska legislature gets its ass in gear and funds it.
Some suggested reading before, during and after your trip:
Always and ever THE MILEPOST, which has maps, routes, places to eat, stay, sightsee, and opening hours and seasons. We buy it, too. If you’re interested in flowers, it has to be Verna Pratt’s FIELD GUIDE TO ALASKAN WILDFLOWERS. If you’re interested in birds and you should be because Alaska is where it seems like some of every species spend their summers, invest now in Robert H. Armstrong’s GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ALASKA. I have one in my house and one in the back of my car, and binoculars both places, too.
If you’re interested in readable Alaskan history, try CONFEDERATE RAIDER by Murray Morgan, THE KLONDIKE FEVER by Pierre Berton, GOOD-TIME GIRLS by Lael Morgan, and THE THOUSAND-MILE WAR by Brian Garfield. Try the ALASKA ALMANAC for historical and geographical facts and wisecracks by Mr. Whitekeys. Try HOW TO SPEAK ALASKAN by Mike Doogan if you want to come in disguise. If you’re interested in Alaska Native culture, try ALASKA NATIVE WRITERS, STORYTELLERS & ORATORS, a publication of the Alaska Quarterly Review. If you’d like a comprehensive survey of Alaskan poetry and literature, try THE LAST NEW LAND, edited by Wayne Mergler.
What else? My friend Rhonda says you should come for the Iditarod, beginning in Anchorage for the ceremonial start on the first Saturday in March and flying to Nome for the grand finale beneath the burlwood arch. My friend Pati says you haven’t really been here if you haven’t been kayaking, salt water or fresh. My friend Sharyn says no trip to Alaska is complete without driving the Denali Highway from Cantwell to Paxon, and then driving Paxon to McCarthy to tour the Kennecott Mine.
Me, I think if you go home without going to Seldovia, why did you bother coming at all?