May 22, 2009

Vacation / Travel Supplement

North to Alaska: Largest state is beautiful vacation destination

A native woman demonstrates the art of sewing beadwork on clothing in an Athabasca Indian village. Her beaded chief’s coat is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (Submitted photo)

A native woman demonstrates the art of sewing beadwork on clothing in an Athabasca Indian village. Her beaded chief’s coat is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (Submitted photo)

By Cynthia Dewes (Special to The Criterion)

Alaska was admitted as the 49th state in 1959, and is the largest state in the Union.

My husband, Ed, and I flew to Alaska in June, arriving in Fairbanks in early evening—but night by Indiana time.

The sun was out and it was a pleasant day, what we would call sweater weather.

The terrain resembled that in the northern part of the continental United States, with pine forests, streams and stark but grand open space.

At 3 a.m., the sun was still shining!

Welcome to a point about as far north as you can go in North America, except for the Northwest Territory.

After what seemed like an extremely short night, we took a bus to the University of Alaska campus, which is set high overlooking the town and its surrounding wilderness.

It was still sweater weather to us, about 65 degrees, but the natives must have thought it was a heat wave. They wore shorts and halter tops, and not just the kids.

The university has a wonderful museum of Alaskan culture, history and art. We learned about the Native Americans, the settling of the state and its major industries, including mining, commercial fishing and tourism. We even saw a grizzly bear up close and entirely too personal—but it was stuffed, thank goodness!

As dutiful tourists, we went to a salmon bake and attended the Golden Heart Revue in the saloon. It turned out to be charmingly unsophisticated and fun.

We also took a ride on the riverboat Discovery down the Chena River as far as its junction with the larger Tanana River.

Along the way, we visited an Athabasca Indian village, where a native woman demonstrated the art of sewing beadwork on clothing. This lady made a beaded chief’s coat, which is now displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

We also took a daylong tour of Denali National Park in the northern-most range of the Rocky Mountains. Mount Denali—formerly Mount McKinley—is the highest peak in North America, and is often obscured by mists and clouds. We were lucky enough to be there on a beautifully clear day, and we could see this mountain all the time that we were in the park.

Only tours by park service school buses are allowed, and we had a great driver and guide. Like many of the folks we met, she is not a native Alaskan, but said when she visited the state she liked it so much that she stayed. Now she lives on Kodiak Island and trains sled dogs for the famous Iditarod race.

Our guide was full of funny stories as we went along admiring the sights.

She told us that the wooden sign marking Sable Pass is replaced constantly because bears chew on it. When we went around a hairpin turn called Polychrome Pass for its multicolored rocks, she said it’s also called Poison Point because one drop will kill you!

She also told us that she and her neighbors are on a government “road kill list” to be given fresh moose meat taken from car accidents or confiscated illegally killed moose.

We visited the Husky Homestead of Jeff King, a four-time Iditarod winner and trainer of sled dogs. These dogs are Alaskan huskies, not the standard husky dog, and are smaller, lighter and friskier. They are friendly and love human companionship almost as much as they love to run.

King described the grueling, 1,150-mile Iditarod race. The driver starts with a maximum of 16 dogs and stops every six hours so the dogs can rest and eat. He said nine or 10 dogs are enough to race, but some of the huskies must drop out along the way because of injury or exhaustion. The driver gets little or no rest, and learns to sleep sitting up while driving the sled.

After completing the land portion of our trip, we took the train to Whittier and boarded our cruise ship for a high point of our trip, a tour of Glacier Bay, where huge glaciers run right down to the sea.

Our ship was too big to get up close, but the captain steered it slowly in a circle so that we could see the entire bay, which is about 10 miles wide at the glacier end and 50 miles long. It was truly an awesome sight, with a little humor added in seeing flocks of puffins and gulls basking on ice floes and looking like sunbathers at the beach.

In Skagway, we visited the Red Onion Saloon and its former brothel upstairs.

Like our friends, St. Luke the Evangelist parishioners John and Marie Fink of Indianapolis, we enjoyed the train ride over the White Pass into Canada and back. (See John Fink’s story here)

We also went to Mendenhall Glacier and Ketchikan, where we learned about the significance of totem poles and portable lodges of the nomadic clans of Native Americans who lived along the waterways.

Before that, we toured Juneau, where the state government buildings look much humbler than those in other states. After oil was discovered in the Bering Sea, Alaska began receiving a financial windfall. As a result, the state has no income tax or sales tax. In addition, every man, woman or child who is born in, or who has lived in Alaska for two years or more, receives a couple thousand dollars annually.

Some of us went whale watching, others soared down the mountainside on a zip line, some watched logging demonstrations, and some observed moose, caribou, mountain sheep and other wild critters.

We ate salmon galore, rockfish chowder, caribou sausage and reindeer chili, and drank Moosehead beer.

The people were friendly, the atmosphere was casual, and my overall impression was that Alaska is one of the last really wild, free and beautiful places on Earth. It was a memorable trip, and we recommend the 49th state as a vacation destination.

(Cynthia Dewes is a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, and is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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