Journey Into The Wilds of Alaska

Physician's Money Digest, September 2007, Volume 14, Issue 9

The state of Alaska is big enough to make Texas jealous. It also has the three largest national parks in America, with 70% of the state belonging to the federal government. Everything is big in this state, and it's all there awaiting your discovery if you will only invest the time. That's the catch. Using a tour operator might be the most helpful, and you’ll have additional choices like journeying part of the way by train, motor coach, and/or riverboat.

By Land and Sea

Our journey began on the Holland America cruise line (877-724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com). Holland America's presence in this state can be traced back to the first Alaskan to entice tourists, Chuck West, a bush pilot who married the first Miss Alaska. West started Westours and then Westmark, the first hotel chain in Alaska. His company was snapped up by the cruise line in 1971.

Tourism began with those seeking to explore the Inside Passage to view the state's magnificent Glacier Bay and explore the coast's historic fishing villages, but visitors soon wanted more; they wanted to see the interior, the real Alaska. Tourists can now pursue inland attractions with shore excursions, including dog sledding in Juneau on the Mendenhall Glacier and a wilderness safari in Skagway that ends with a canoe trip to the spectacular Davidson Glacier.

In Skagway we disembarked, as the Klondike Gold Rush prospectors did in 1897, and boarded the White Pass and Yukon Route narrow-gauge train that parallels the dramatic, nearly impossible route the "Stampeders" took to reach Dawson's goldfields.

We arrived to discover Dawson as a brightly painted, walking town with a fascinating museum and a forlorn cemetery beside a cabin once occupied by poet Robert Service and, next door, one inhabited by novelist Jack London. We left Dawson by riverboat then coach, passing Eagle (a former military camp once commanded by the celebrated Billy Mitchell and now a ghost town) and the truck stop of Chicken (originally called Ptarmigan but no one could spell that name). At Fairbanks we floated under the midnight sun on the Chena River, and at Denali we mounted horses for a tundra tour.

Sites Under the Endless Sun

Even tourists familiar with our National Parks system find Denali a revelation. It’s unique: it's larger than Massachusetts, and one sixth of Denali National Park and Preserve is ice, some 10,000 years old and 4000 feet deep. Denali is so far north the sun rises and sets in the north, but for 10 summer weeks perpetual daylight reigns.

Spring trudges in around June, summer (and the mosquitoes) shows up in July, and autumn bows out in August. The growing season lasts only 80 days, so the park's grizzlies become hyperphagic during the brief berry season. Bears attempting to bulk up for winter hibernation will eat 200,000 berries a day.

Denali is a land of contrasts, where miniature carnations, roses, and rhododendrons rise up and Golden Eagles soar with wingspans of 6 feet. It's a place where small snowshoe hares bounce across the tracks of massive moose. It’s a realm of 40 by 40-foot limestone monoliths, 350-million-year-old erratic glacial boulders, and 56-oz gold nuggets.

Alaska is a land that's larger than life. That thought persisted as we eased into our McKinley Explorer domed train for Anchorage, past Palmer, the town that demonstrates how 24 hours of daily photosynthesis can grow oversized summer vegetables like 21/2- lb tomatoes, 39-lb turnips, and 168-lb watermelons.

The state's vastness may seem intimidating to an average traveler, but only by exploring beyond the glaciers will you discover the true beauty of Alaska.