Discovering Alaska

“The Last Frontier”

by Lydia Brown

The Aleut word “Alyeska” means Alaska, which translates to “The Great Land.” This Great Land was purchased from Russia in 1867 and was awarded statehood in 1959.  Alaska boasts 17 of the highest peaks in the United States (Mt. McKinley being the biggest and most famous). Five percent of the land is covered by glaciers (29,000 square miles) and it has more than 70 active volcanoes!

While oil is the main source of income, tourism has become just as important to many of the towns.  The largest influx of tourists come by cruise ship, including large luxury liners such as Princess Cruise Lines, Norwegian, Holland America, Celebrity Cruises, and Royal Caribbean, to the smaller adventure ships.  No matter what form your trip takes, it’ll be a lifetime adventure. From dog sledding to whale watching, excursions abound. There are no limits in Alaska!

A favorite spot is the Kenai Peninsula in Southeast Alaska.  The Kenai River is turquoise blue like the Caribbean Sea (I am told the color is from the glacial sediment) and boasts some of the finest fishing, horseback riding, hiking tours and wildlife viewing in the world!

Juneau, Alaska’s capital (named for its founder Joe Juneau, an early settler in the 1800s seeking his fortune in gold) will give you the option to board a helicopter and land on a glacier or experience a flightseeing plane over the glaciers with spectacular views.  Whitewater rafting is very popular here as well, and luckily you won’t have to row as they do all the work for you.  You’ll get right up close to the glacier!  Salmon fishing abounds here, canoe trips and kayaking, as well.  If you want to stay landside you can take a cog rail up the side of Mt. Roberts and do some hiking.

Ketchikan is the remnant of a true Indian village….the Tlingits Indians.  Here at the Saxman Village they depict the history with Totem poles and folkloric shows.  You will also find Totem Bight State Park, all of which depict the native culture of the times.  You can see lumberjacks in action and visit Misty Fjords National Park with its two million acres of sheer cliffs and 1,000 foot waterfalls.  Oh yes, and don’t forget to visit the historic boardwalk of Creek Street and its famous “red light” district for a little local color.

Skagway was the gateway to the gold fields for the thousands who flocked to Alaska and the Yukon with the hope of striking it rich.  Skagway was the shortest route to the Klondike, but it wasn’t the easiest.  Over 100 years ago, the White Pass route through the Coast Mountains and the shorter but steeper Chilkoot Trail were used by countless stampeders. In its hay-day, Skagway was Alaska’s largest city with over 20,000 inhabitants. Today there are a mere 1,000 residents.  If you do stop in Skagway, stop by the “Red Onion Saloon” for a pint and some folklore about its days as a “bordello”.

Most folks coming to Skagway arrive by cruise ship and walk across the rail tracks from the dock to board the “White Horse Yukon Railways” and travel over the route followed by the many who sought their fortune in gold.  The train follows the old gold rush route on new tracks but from the viewing platform you will see the original tracks with 2865 foot drops and realize what it took to build this by hand, without the benefit of equipment. This is one of my favorite journeys and I highly recommend it!

Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city is modern and surrounded by spectacular wilderness. Here you can enjoy some world-class attractions, native Alaskan culture, shopping and dining.  The nearest port is Whittier, located about 65 miles southeast of the city.  The old port of Seward used to be home to the major cruise lines but Whittier replaced this about 5 years ago.  The Seward highway links Anchorage and Seward and is a National Scenic byway and of the 15 routes designated as an “All-American Road” in the United States.  Dramatic views of the wild abound.  This area is home to Prince William Sound which has the most tidewater glaciers in the world and boasts a rich marine life due to the depth of the sound.

There are so many ways to experience Alaska and not everyone wants to see if from the comfort of a luxury cruise-ship.  Many prefer the “road less traveled”.  Enter the small ships, able to dock in isolated bays and smaller cities like Petersburg and Wrangell.  They provide a more intense experience.  Life onboard the smaller ships  (about 100 passengers) is far more relaxed. You wake up to the sound of the birds instead of noise from the balcony next door.  Your days consist of kayaking or hiking rather than shopping and taking helicopter tours.  Evenings are spent reading in your room or listening to a naturalist talk.  No need to buy a new cocktail dress, although you may spend as much on outdoor gear.

However you choose to see this vast land it will forever be embedded in your memory. I hope that you will get to experience the beauty of Alaska some day in the near future, so in closing I say to you,  “Go west young man, this is the last frontier!”

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