Cover Story

North to Alaska

From the Russian River to Mt. McKinley, America's coldest state casts a strong lure for tourists

Issue: "Cool hot spots," May 17, 2003

THE HEAVENS DECLARE THE glory of God, the glaciers display his handiwork. My official reason for travel to Alaska last summer was to give several lectures at a church; I hope that the speechifying honored God, but the trip reminded me that His creation day after day (and daylight lasted past midnight) pours forth odes of praise. Day 1 After flying into Anchorage the evening before, Susan and I woke up shortly after 4 a.m. and drove about 100 miles south of Anchorage to the Russian River, where red salmon (also known as sockeyes) were running. As we passed through mist beside a still-as-glass inlet between snowcapped mountains, the scene seemed primeval, almost as if the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. During winter, avalanches sweep down the steep cliffs along the roadway, sometimes burying people in their cars; Alaskans regularly carry emergency packs of food and other necessities. But in the summer, waterfalls coming down the cliffs regularly tunnel through frozen snow, and we saw lots of wildlife: one moose standing, another swimming, plus a bald eagle, baby Canadian geese, and a small herd of Dall sheep. Then we arrived at a shimmering silver-white river that was surprisingly uncrowded that day. (Alaskans joke about the occasions of "combat fishing," with elbow-to-elbow fishermen required to cast in unison like Rockettes.) Fishing for red salmon is an art well beyond me, so I merely tried to focus on basics, like how much line to let out from my fishing pole. Too much and the line snags on the bottom; too little and the bottom-swimming (although not bottom-feeding) reds swim under the hook and lure. The goal is to cast upstream and let the lure float down, where salmon desperate to make it upstream to their spawning grounds will snap at anything that gets in their way. Hooking a fish is just the beginning of the process; 5-8 pounders fight hard and often wriggle off hooks. This day the fish were running strong and the effect at times was almost cartoonish, with fish leaping out of the water a few feet from where we were standing in our bib waders and boots. My casting technique is so poor that I probably would have done better with one-stop fishing (hit fish over the head with a frying pan as they pass by). But we did catch some that our host quickly filleted, which means cutting in behind the head and taking off all the meat up to the ribs. Fishermen throw the remains in the water to float downstream, which means that it's not unusual to see live fish heading in one direction and corpses in another. Day 2 The next morning we drove about 50 miles north to Hatcher Pass and visited what's left of the Independence Mines. The lure of gold a century ago brought both ambitious people and desperate ones, and Alaskans say the same mix exists today. They say only those with hard constitutions can take the extreme differentials of sunlight and temperature from season to season; winters without sunlight leave some people sullen for months. But Alaskans also note that rewards tend to be performance-based, with those who prove to be hard, responsible workers able to earn good wages regardless of their education or lack thereof. Hatcher Pass was still closed by snow (in the second half of June) but the deserted mine buildings had their appeal; those mines once employed 200 people, with no single women allowed (the schoolteacher had to be male). As late as 1941 miners were taking $1 million in gold ($17 million today) from the mines, but the isolation helped to turn some minds awry. Still, the vistas were and are gorgeous, and marmots -fat and furry groundhog-types-sometimes pose for photographers. In the afternoon I followed my normal tourist agenda and stopped at the Anchorage Gospel Mission, with its cross outside and its message to minds awry displayed inside: "Liquor leaves you breathless. Drugs leave you senseless. Jesus won't leave you regardless." Some drifters hit the end of the road in Alaska, and alcoholism among the native population (about 10 percent to 15 percent of Alaska's 620,000) has long been a problem. The Mission helps all with services nightly but enables some merely to get a day off between drinking bouts; anyone who fails a breathalyzer test is kicked out for 60 days, but anyone who refuses to take one can leave the shelter and come back the next day. Susan, meanwhile, was observing that Anchorage in June is full of outdoor hanging baskets of petunias, geraniums, and other blooming flowers. Flowers and plants thrive in over 20 hours of summer sunlight; waist-high ferns and shrub-sized bleeding hearts are typical, and some folks pay $30 per plant to have nurseries take care of them over the long winter. Day 3 In the morning we drove 60 miles southeast to the port of Whittier, so as to ride out on a friend's boat to view glaciers. (Commercial tours are also readily available.) Along the way we passed through the Anderson Memorial Tunnel, at 2 5 miles long the longest in North America, and maybe one of the thinnest; it's only one lane and includes in that space a regularly used railroad track, but we were told to have faith in a computerized traffic-control system that makes vehicles wait their turn until they can head through at 25 mph. The voyage to the end of Blackstone Bay was awesome. At first, black rock cliffs striated with green moss rose above us. The cliffs became steeper and steeper, sometimes rising almost straight up for many hundreds of feet, as birds roosted on narrow, snow-covered ledges, and waterfalls made partly of ice plummeted into the dark green water of the bay. We were almost mesmerized by the glaciers, enormous expanses of blue ice streaked with black, with long frozen tongues licking the sea. (Glacial ice looks blue because it is so packed in that it absorbs all colors in the spectrum except blue, which is reflected back to the onlooker.) As we approached Blackstone Glacier, the air became cold and little icebergs "calved" by the glacier banged into our boat's aluminum hull. After going eyeball-to-eyeball with terns and other birds resting on ice and nesting ashore, we returned to clear water and heard stories about Alaska's mixture of independence and dependence. For example, breaking and entering is more dangerous in Alaska than in many other places, because most folks own guns and keep them in their bedrooms; gun shows are well-attended. At the same time, even libertarian-leaning Alaskans tend to relish their Senator Ted Stevens's success in bringing in the pork. Enough federally financed construction moves forward during the long days of the relatively warm summers that Alaskans joke about the four seasons of their year: almost-winter, winter, still-winter, and construction. The continuity in weather is matched by the continuity of dress; few Alaskans seem to dress up, and rich and poor tend to look pretty much the same, so the Alaskan wearing rubber boots and coming out of an old pickup may be affluent or almost destitute. Days 4 and 5 On our fourth morning I hitched a plane ride north of the Arctic Circle to see the North Slope oil operation (see WORLD, July 23, 2002) and Susan visited Anchorage's Gateway School, a remarkable attempt to help kids with learning disabilities (WORLD, September 7, 2002). We then reunited in Anchorage and late in the day drove 230 miles north of the city to Denali National Park, home to the tallest peak in North America, Mt. McKinley (20,320 feet). Early the next morning, to get a broad view of the park, we took a shuttle bus to the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 on the park road. At Eielson we had terrific views of Mt. McKinley; its vertical relief of some 18,000 feet is greater than that of Mount Everest. Until we saw them we didn't comprehend how many other beautiful snowcaps the 600-mile Alaska Range contains; 5,000-footers looming above are as magnificent as McKinley seen from a few miles away. Throughout the trip our driver gave a running commentary on surrounding flora; more than 650 species of plants as well as many species of mosses and lichens inhabit the park, which is bigger than the state of Massachusetts and has a more discerning electorate as well. The driver stopped for photo ops when someone spotted ungainly moose (but they are well-made to walk through deep snow), stately caribou, or golden eagles that, like some kings, soar wonderfully but create terror among marmots and ground squirrels. Told to expect extremely variable weather, with average summer temperatures ranging from 33 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, we wore layers of clothing and found ourselves enjoying a cool, sunny day perfect for hiking. After finishing the bus tour near the park entrance we drove our rental car to mile 15, which is as far in as private vehicles are usually allowed. That was fine, because there we could walk a great two-mile trail in the Savage River Canyon, which has wondrous rock formations above and silvery rapids below, all reflecting the beauty and power of their Creator. How to get there, and what it costs Discount airline tickets vary enormously in cost, but about $600 for a round trip might be a good round figure on which to build. Several cruise lines hit the Alaska waterways, with some trips starting in Seattle. The automotive road to Alaska through British Columbia is long but the scenery is said to be good. Fishing licenses cost $10 per day for non-Alaskans, boat trips to see glaciers start at about $125, and Denali shuttle bus passes cost about $25. Commercial flights from Anchorage to several points within the Arctic Circle are available. Gas typically costs perhaps 25 cents per gallon more than in the lower 48 states, and other costs also tend to run a little higher. The Alaska Railroad has daily passenger service to Denali from Anchorage and from Fairbanks (120 miles northeast of the park); intercity buses also run. Lodging ranging from hostels to expensive hotels is available in and near the park; we stayed in a clean and snug cabin for $100.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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