Alaska: places to expect the unexpected

I am fresh from a trip to Alaska and have amassed hundreds of mental and digital pictures of very cool landscapes, lifestyles and landmarks.

It is a minor complaint, but I never seemed to be dressed quite right for the weather. My raincoat was out of reach on a drizzly morning in Ketchikan; I had on a fleece pullover when the hot sun beamed in Juneau. I probably should have worn jeans on the drafty train ride from Fairbanks to Denali; I probably could have worn shorts at the Arctic Circle.

Alaska, the Last Frontier, has so many contrasts and choice topics. Here are a few.

Bear stories: Everybody seems to have at least one. Friends and I heard about bears that destroyed a flower garden, swiped a loaf of bread from a kitchen pantry, mauled a camper who tried to pet a bear cub. We were warned about bears being spotted near visitor centers. We saw an empty oil barrel set up as a bear trap in Ketchikan – no tourist joke.

While visiting, fishing hours were curtailed on the Russian River, called the state’s most popular salmon stream, because of bear cub attacks. “Wildlife officials have been trying to educate them as to the danger of humans by bouncing rubber bullets off their butts,” the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Our own bear story comes from Denali National Park, where a grizzly and her cub roamed about 25 yards from our vehicle. “They graze like cows here,” our guide said.

First line of defense: Each of the six people on our Arctic Circle excursion got one long, white gym sock. Why? To swat mosquitoes, some of which were the size of dragonflies. When we would stop to take pictures, eat or stretch, the skeeters would swarm into the van. Sock snapping didn’t mess up the windows as much as other methods of protection.

I returned to Wisconsin with merely two mosquito welts, still noticeable, almost four weeks after being bit.

One-way travel: The directions to the Arctic Circle and the Brooks Range, from Fairbanks, are easy because there is just one road. The two-lane Dalton Highway is the northernmost highway in the world. It is gravel and 414 miles, shadowing the Alaska Pipeline to the town of Deadhorse, near Prudhoe Bay’s oil fields. “You can’t get lost,” our guide observed.

But you can get stranded. There are few gas stations, fewer tow trucks, drivers with CBs but no cell phone connections. Here and elsewhere, we heard that the state prefers dirt roads to paved: They are easier to maintain, particularly in remote areas.

Gold mine finds: Gold flakes, not gold nuggets, usually are found during mining tours. We were told that mine operators will “salt” the dirt with this paper-thin glitter, so almost everybody is able to find a little bit of gold. Pay to pan for it, then pay to get it stuffed inside of a pendent.

Doggone charming: The annual, 1,150-mile Iditarod sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome isn’t until March. That means this is vacation time for the hundreds of huskies that are born and bred to run.

Alaska is full of places to meet the eager racers – human and four-legged. We visited three-time Iditarod winner Jeff King’s Husky Homestead near Denali park, and a few days later chatted with Ray Redington Jr., a musher who is a grandson of the race’s founder.

Denali has its own set of sled dogs, which help park rangers monitor the grounds in winter. Visitors can visit the dogs daily for free, learn about mushing and watch the dogs get exercised.

Matters of survival: The Alaska Raptor Center, Sitka, has opened a 20,000-square-foot flight-training center, to help rehabilitate the 200-plus bald eagles that it encounters annually. One-way windows allow staff to study the behavior and physical limitations of birds in flight.

There are other raptor rehab centers in the state, but this is the most extensive. Golden eagles, great horned owls, falcons and herons have lived here, too. Permanent residents include 16-year-old Volta, a bald eagle that flew into a power line in 1992. Now he’s the star of the center’s education program, visiting 15,000 children in U.S. classrooms per year.

For more about the nonprofit center’s efforts, go to www.alaskaraptor.org or call (800) 643-9425.

Raptors and four-legged patients take refuge at Big Game Alaska, a wildlife rehab facility that is between Anchorage and Seward. Inhabitants of the 140 acres range from caribou to musk oxen; the latter’s fur coat of qiviut is described as one of the warmest materials in the world.

We judged this to be just another prison for animals until we read a few personal histories: wounded by gunshot, mother killed by stray dogs, hit by a truck, abandoned shortly before winter.

For more about the facility, go to www.biggamealaska.com or call (907) 783-2025.

Money matters: A trip to Alaska is expensive, but there are ways to cut costs. Our seven-day Seward to Vancouver, British Columbia, cruise aboard Holland America cost about $1,340 per person. Then we booked our own airfare from Madison, lodging and train travel within Alaska; that was another $1,250 per person, also including an overnight stay in Vancouver.

We figure this was about $1,000 per person cheaper than booking it all through HAL. Cheaper still – but not a good fit for our group – was the Alaska Marine Highway system, which the locals use to get from one coastal city to the next.

Big business rules: Princess and HAL wield great power economically. They herd through thousands of tourists per day in summer; their packages include hotels, tours, transportation, gift shop stops. Both cruiselines even have their own passenger cars hooked up to the Alaska Railroad line that goes from Fairbanks to Anchorage.

This all irritates business operators who don’t make the cruise-tour cut because they can’t accommodate large groups, and they fight harder to survive because of the heavyweights.

Feisty independents: We are happy to let others know about two long-time Alaska tour operators who do a great job. No, we don’t benefit from mentioning them.

Peggy Buchanan at Trans Arctic Circle Treks, Fairbanks, knows how to entertain and educate with words while doing a four-wheeled dance around potholes, through clouds of road dust and past the smoke of forest fires. For more about the company, go to www.ArticTreks.com or call (800) 336-8735. Our 13-hour excursion was $119 per person.

Kathy Whelchel and the crew at Rainbird Deluxe Tours, Ketchikan, did a fine job of explaining the city’s heritage. It’s a wide swath that includes spawning and prostitution, totem poles and timber stairs that are recognized as streets.

“There’s a lot of us still trying to survive the run over the ladder,” Kathy says in an e-mail, referring to the fish ladders used to help salmon move upstream.

“As you watch the salmon, you notice how many times they don’t make it, and that when they do, they usually get washed back down. They do this for weeks over rocks, nature’s obstacles of fallen logs, wash-outs from heavy rains, landslides.

“Like the bears, eagles and other creatures God has put on this Earth, the logger, road construction worker and fisherman play a role in 
helping this cycle of life. So many people come away from their cruise not knowing the people of Alaska. Thank you for noticing the ladder of life.”

For more about Rainbird, call (888) 505-8810 or go to www.alaskarainbird.com. A two-hour city tour is $30.