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No other region in North America possesses the mythical aura
of ALASKA ; even the name - a derivation of Alayeska , an Athabascan
word meaning "great land of the west" - fires the
imagination. Few who see this land of gargantuan ice fields,
sweeping tundra, glacially excavated valleys, lush rainforests,
deep fjords and occasionally smoking volcanoes leave unimpressed.
Wildlife may be under threat elsewhere, but here it is abundant,
with Kodiak bears standing twelve feet tall, moose stopping
traffic in downtown Anchorage, wolves prowling through national
parks, bald eagles circling over the trees, and rivers solid
with fifty-plus-pound salmon.
Alaska's sheer size is hard to comprehend: more than twice
the size of Texas, it contains America's northernmost, westernmost
and, because the Aleutian Islands stretch across the 180th meridian,
its easternmost point. If superimposed onto the Lower 48 (the
rest of the continental United States) it would stretch from
the Atlantic to the Pacific, and its coastline is longer than
the rest of the US combined. All but three of the nation's twenty
highest peaks are found within its boundaries and one glacier
alone is twice the size of Wales.
A mere 600,000 people live in this huge state - over forty
percent of them in Anchorage - of whom only one-fifth were born
here: as a rule of thumb, the more winters you have endured,
the more Alaskan you are. Often referred to as the " Last
Frontier ," Alaska in many ways mirrors the American West
of the nineteenth century: an endless, undeveloped space in
which to stake one's claim and set up a life without interference.
Or at least that's how Alaskans would like it to be. Throughout
this century tens of thousands have been lured by the promise
of wealth, first by gold and then by fishing, logging and, most
recently, oil. However, Alaska's 86,000 Native peoples , who
don't have the option of returning to the Lower 48 if things
don't work out, have been greatly marginalized, though Native
corporations set up as a result of pre-oil boom land deals have
increasing economic clout.
Traveling around Alaska still demands a spirit of adventure,
and to make the most of the state you need to have an enthusiasm
for striking out on your own and roughing it a bit. Binoculars
are an absolute must, as is bug spray; the mosquito is referred
to as the "Alaska state bird" and it takes industrial-strength
repellent to keep it away. On top of that there's the climate
, though Alaska is far from the popular misconception of being
one big icebox. While winter temperatures of -40°F are commonplace
in Fairbanks, the most touristed areas - the southeast and the
Kenai Peninsula - enjoy a maritime climate (45-65°F in summer)
similar to that of the Pacific Northwest, meaning much more
rain (in some towns 180-plus inches per year) than snow. Remarkably,
the summer temperature in the Interior often reaches 80°F.
Alaska is far more expensive than most other states: apart
from two dozen hostels there's little budget accommodation,
and eating and drinking will set you back at least twenty percent
more than in the Lower 48 (perhaps fifty percent in more remote
regions). Still, experiencing Alaska on a low budget is possible,
though it requires planning and off-peak travel. From June to
August room prices are crazy; May and September, when tariffs
are relaxed and the weather only slightly chillier, are just
as good times to go, and in April or October you'll have the
place to yourself, albeit with a smaller range of places to
stay and eat. Ground transportation , despite the long distances,
is reasonable, with backpacker shuttles ferrying budget travelers
between major centers. Winter , when hotels drop their prices
by as much as half, is becoming an increasingly popular time
to visit, particularly for the dazzling aurora borealis .
Getting around Alaska on the cheap can be tough; public transportation
is limited, and many areas are only accessible by boat or plane,
which is quick and convenient but invariably pricey. With little
traffic, hitching is hard work, but is more acceptable, and
safer, than elsewhere.
With the exception of the ferry system, Anchorage is very much
the hub of Alaska with several bus companies running to major
destinations: Seward with Seward Bus Line (tel 907/224-3608,
; $35); Homer with Homer Stage Lines (tel 907/235-2252; $45);
Denali ($49) and Fairbanks ($69) with the Parks Highway Express
(tel 1-888/600-6001, ); and Valdez ($71) and Whitehorse, Yukon
($206) with Gray Line's Alaskon Express (tel 1-800/544-2206,
The expensive Alaska Railroad runs nearly five hundred miles
from Seward north through Anchorage to Fairbanks, with a spur
to Whittier for ferries to Valdez. One-way fares from Anchorage
are: Denali, $125; Fairbanks $175; and Seward $55.
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