Travel Jottings

Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.

Alaska: A Land Where Adventures Can Become Expeditions

Glacier Bay, Alaska, U.S.A.

The term "adventure" appears so often in relation to outdoor activity these days that it is in danger of being overused. When it comes to Alaska, the opposite problem can be true: outdoors excursions can be so adventurous that you are so far beyond your skill level that danger presents itself. It is true that the same could be said for Scottish hill country but mobile phone reception is more widespread and mountain rescue teams exist in all sorts of places. Getting rescued in Alaska is a very different prospect and there are plenty of stories telling how things ended very badly because search and rescue is made much more challenging by the wild and remote terrain with its wildlife, expanse and range of climates.

Giving the wrong signal to a passing state trooper plane when in peril has been known to result in death and the fate of people like Christopher McCandless and Timothy Treadwell acts as a warning of what can happen if you are reckless enough. Thankfully, their stories are exceptional and most visitors do not meet such ends but they act as reminders that you do need to find out about the place before you go and limit your horizons a little in what after all is a subcontinental landmass with a wide range of climates, topographies and wildlife. There is no doubt that much of what is there is vast wilderness in which humanity scarcely has a foothold.

The scale reminds me of a conversation I overheard while breakfasting at a guesthouse in Skipton. The sentiment being expressed was that the speaker felt more comfortable walking in the Lake District than Scotland because the latter felt so large. With Alaska, you could say the very same thing and it is far, far bigger than Scotland. The truth is that you have to select where you want to go in both places and honestly assess your own abilities as well. The consequences could be more serious in Alaska so that should concentrate minds even more.

All the above magnifies some of the sentiments I expressed in the Denali entry on Pondering Car-free Explorations of American Wilderness as much as this article is an expansion of what was written there. Still, there is much more to Alaska than Denali National Park and there remains more to share without any sense of repetition, something that I want to avoid. Hopefully, compiling what is here while reading several books will have helped as well.

Gaining an Overview

While assembling what you find here, I was perusing guidebooks from Insight and Lonely Planet. The first of these granted me a good grounding in what Alaska is like and what its back story is, always a handy thing to keep in mind when going somewhere. That there also were some pleasing photos only sweetened the read. The second book surprised me since I associate Lonely Planet guides with practicalities and activity options but this one went further than those to grant a comprehensive sense of the place and the reality of exploring it. Both styles are very different but such a contrast only can help.

Given what you can read in books, it is pertinent to ask why I added this page to the website. For one thing, website details in a printed book can go out of date and companies may cease to exist. While there are regularly published magazines with more up to date information, you need to be an equally regular reader to catch any of these. Towards this end, a title like Alaska Magazine with it focus on the American state in its name has to do things that others do only occasionally. After that there is official website at Travel Alaska and more unofficial ones like Unseen Alaska. Each of these can do things that three year publishing cycles cannot.

Places to Explore

European settlers may not have been associated with Alaska that long but the passage of recent centuries has left Russian, British and American influences along with those of the indigenous people Eklunta Historic Park in Anchorage conveys a sense of the native and Russian heritage of this part of Alaska. Most conurbations are found in the south and they really thin out the further north that you go. It is not only the dramatic geography and the abundance of wildlife than draw cruise liners operated by the likes of Cruise Norway or Holland America Line for there is a variety of calling points with associated excursions that can be booked.

Not every place in southeast or southern Alaska will be a calling point for cruise liner traffic but the list includes the state capital of Juneau and other spots such as Anchorage, Gustavus, Petersburg, Seward, Valdez, Whittier, Wrangell, Yakutat, Haines, Ketchikan, Sitka and Skagway. Some itineraries even extend as far north as Nome while larger liners are restricted to larger ports. Though the quantities of emissions and waste are a concern, going on a cruise can be a way of seeing more of Alaska in a single visit than otherwise would be the case.

Of course, there are other ways to explore a place as vast in scale as Alaska if you do your research ahead of time and use that to pick and choose where you go. As an independent solo traveller by inclination, that certainly would be my preference. Often, it is better to gain a lot from a little instead of having things the other way around.

Like renowned Scottish conservationist and naturalist John Muir, you can devote plenty of attention to the Inside Passage with its Rainforest Islands that include the British-sounding Prince of Wales Island among their number. Some of the communities on those islands already have been mentioned but there are others like Coffman Cove, Pelican and Tenakee Springs to complement the better known Sitka and Wrangell.

Muir also ventured onto glaciers in this part of Alaska and they were all the more substantial in his heyday; we are talking about the late nineteenth century after all. Though much reduced in size, they continue to attract visitors to places like Glacier Bay so it is just as well that there is Glacier Bay Lodge & Tours if you wish to stay awhile in that National Park. It is no surprise that Gustavus prides itself in being a gateway to this natural wonder.

Wildlife lovers will be drawn to the Kenai Peninsula where the summer salmon season more than sates the appetite of many a bear. That makes the presence of a National Park hereabouts all the more understandable with Katmailand being the port of call for accommodation and other services within the park boundaries. Places like Cooper Landing, Halibut Cove, Homer, Hope, Kenai, Miller's Landing, Seldovia (the place also has a privately operated website that could be worth visiting) and Soldotna act as possible bases too for a bear watching visit and going west to Kodiak rewards similar endeavours. Further east, Copper River near Cordova offers similar viewing opportunities along with other activities like fishing.

Coming away from the coast takes you into a wild interior with Fairbanks as the biggest conurbation in the heart of the state. Between there and Anchorage, such locations as Talkeetna and Matanuska-Susitna Valley await exploration and offer hiking opportunities. Denali National Park and Preserve is a big attraction with North America's continental top at its heart. You will need the services of Reserve Denali if you wish to stay within the National Park itself but there also is Denali State Park if you fancy somewhere a little quieter for your outdoor explorations. Locations nearer to Anchorage like Palmer or Girdwood have their own uses as access points to Chugach State Park as do Cordova and Yakutat for the giant Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

North of Fairbanks, the number of communities declines and the landscape turns ever wilder as you meet and cross into the Arctic Circle. It is telling that a junction between major highways like Delta Chamber becomes a major landmark. Facilities within National Parks are scant so this can be a part of the world for adventurers being dropped off and collected by bush planes. It costs more in advance planning and preparation if you wish to see Gates of the Arctic National Park or other parts of the Brooks Range. The financial impact is higher too and so are the consequences if anything goes wrong. Even coastal communities like Bethel in the Yukon delta are equally off the beaten track so the same comments apply to those as well.

Outdoor Activities

With such riches as extensive mountain scenery, glaciers, temperate rainforest and arctic tundra, there is plenty here for any explorer of wild landscapes with wild creatures to match. Of course, it all needs advance fact finding and location selection according to one's abilities. Guidebooks do help but the web need not be discounted either since it can be more up to date, especially when it comes to day to day conditions.

While you can get a sense of what awaits you from a website like that operated by William Finley, there is some sense in learning in a more managed environment before you go any further. After all, it probably is going too far to attempt the Iditarod on a first visit to Alaska; a mid-winter sled race from Anchorage to Nome needs a lot of experience and most of us probably would not even thinking of trying that.

Even without dramatic designs, a little education would not go amiss before any deeper explorations are pursued. That especially to those of us who are not so accustomed to dealing with wild animals or dramatic geology. This is the kind of gap that is addressed by such facilities as Eagle River Nature Centre, the Centre for Alaskan Coastal Studies, the Alaska Volcano Obervatory and the USGS Alaska Science Centre. More broadly, Alaska Geographic supports the same kind of endeavour across many publicly-owned areas of wild land and there also is the state's Wildlife Notebook Series for perusal.

The mention of wild land may remind you of the U.S. National Park Service but other federal agencies also are responsible for such areas. The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which looks after the National Wildlife Refuge System), U.S. Forest Service are others with a somewhat similar remit. All have websites that need consulting in advance of any self-guided outdoor activities and these are augmented by Alaska's own Public Lands Information Centres and State Parks as well as their State Trails Program.

High mountains in high latitudes guarantee the presence of snow at any time of year so websites like Avalanche.org and Alaska's own Avalanche Information Centre could prove invaluable. It is not for nothing that this is venue for ice climbing and the Mountaineering Club of Alaska caters for this and other types of mountain activities with training and other forms of support like maintenance of mountain huts.

Hiking is more to my liking so it is just as that there is an Alaskan Hike Search website though they do warn that you need to complement what is on there with other information sources. These include organisations in the voluntary sector that create and maintain such trails. Thus, we get Matanuska-Susitna Trails & Parks Foundation dispensing grants for such efforts along with organisations like Sitka Trail Works, Southeast Alaska Trail System and Trails of Anchorage. All can serve a use when it comes to finding counterparts to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail elsewhere in the state.

The aforementioned trail is multi-use so that brings us to the subject of cycling, which can be along roads or off them. Even road cycling can take you into wild areas so checking conditions on Alaska 511 can warn you when your route involves more ardour than it otherwise would. It might be intended for vehicle drivers but The Milepost could be worth checking too. Organisations like the Arctic Bicycle Club can help and bikes can be hired from Chain Reaction Cycles Alaska if you cannot bring your own. However, such is the scale and wildness of Alaska that a spot more fact finding is needed before you head away from more civilised areas.

Accommodation

When you start exploring the prospect of finding a place to stay in Alaska, you begin to encounter its Bed & Breakfast Associations. There is one for the whole state along with others for Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and the Mat-Su Valley. After those, you also have Alaska Private Lodgings. Anyone seeking hostel accommodation can look to the Alaska Hostel Association while others might be interested in Alaskan Yurt Rentals with more seeking more rudimentary accommodation could turn to the Alaska Campground Owner's Association or Reserve America. The direction of this discourse has followed a downward cost trajectory from the middle of the market but those with more money top spend can turn to lodge accommodation provided by the likes of Alaska Wildland Adventures, Alyeska Resort, Chena Hot Springs, Denali Mountain Morning Hostel & Cabins and Denali Park Salmon Bake. After all those there are other worldwide websites that direct you to global hotel chains and their kind if you prefer. All in all, there is a spectrum of choice from the relatively domestic to the utterly adventurous and it is for you to decide how to proceed.

Travel

When it gets to getting to a destination and getting around the place, I have preference for using public transport and that is what take takes the travel sections of various location guides that I have been adding to this part of my website. It is a contrast to the fly/drive approach that so many take. Even Lonely Planet Travel magazine adopts the same formalism for many of its feature articles and it quite possibly allows them to fit more visitor attractions into a narrative.

However, Alaska conspires against this since not all places there can be reached by road. The southeastern panhandle is a classic example with air and sea travel required to get to them since their road network is local to their part of the coastline. Northern and western coastal communities are similar in the way that they are much like the islands that surround the Alaskan mainland. Aside from the subcontinental scale of the place, that could be a reason why so many in Alaska own planes and have pilot's licences.

From an American standpoint, it could be seen as something of an island in its own right since it shares no land border with any other state. It makes flying the fastest way to get there and that brings me to the subject of flying into one of Alaska's airports. Only some get their own website with Juneau, Kenai and Ketchikan being among these. Aside from Alaska Airlines, which might seen as a sort of flag carrier for the state, other options include American Airlines, Condor, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue and Sun Country Airlines. From further afield, you may need to go via another U.S. airport and some of the listed carriers do facilitate that possibility as well but you can use different companies if that arrangement better suits your needs.

Naturally there are internal scheduled air services too. Alongside the aforementioned Alaska Airlines, the list includes other operators who are exclusively scheduled service providers as well as those who do this in addition to chartered backcountry flights as well as "flightseeing". The latter is where you undertake a sightseeing trip by air. The first group includes such operators as Air North, Grant Aviation, PenAir and Ravn Alaska while second includes Alaska Seaplanes, Bering Air, Copper Valley Air Service, Everts Air, Harris Air, Taquan Air, Warbelow's Air, Wrangell Mountain Air and Wright Air Service . You may find that some engage in freight carriage as well with passenger services being offered as a sideline to that mainstay of their businesses.

While some of the aforementioned air service providers engage in charter services that facilitate backcountry backpacking trips and "flightseeing" excursions, there are those who offer these and nothing else. Again, there is a selection of companies from which to choose and the list includes Brooks Range Aviation, Coyote Air Service, K2 Aviation, Kantishna Air Taxi, Lake Clarke Air, Pacific Wings, Rust's Flying Service, Smokey Bay Air and Talkeetna Air Taxi. None of these services is cheap and backcountry pick ups need you to be there on time or you get left behind in the wilderness and the authorities informed of what has happened. Given the challenges posed by such an outcome, it does mean that you may have put yourself in considerable peril by doing so.

Sea travel is another solution to the lack of mainland road links and the Alaska Marine Highway System is the backbone of the state's ferry network for anyone not booked onto a cruise. Other local operations like Alaska Fjordlines, Haines Skagway Fast Ferry, Interisland Ferry and Seldovia Bay Ferry complement it while they again are augmented by water taxi services offered by operators such as Ashore Water Taxi, Esther G Sea Taxi, and Mako's Water Taxi. While dedicated water taxi operations have been mentioned, you may find that a water activities guiding company like Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures may offer similar services so it could be worth asking. After all is might facilitate a canoeing or kayaking trip along Alaska's dramatic coastline.

The Alaska Marine Highway System meets with the Alaska Railroad at Whittier. This is but a spur leading from main line between Seward, Anchorage and Fairbanks that sees more passenger traffic during the summer season though there are also some services during the winter. Passing such National Parks as Kenai and Denali mean that the whole route is scenic and tourist pleasing, just like the White Pass & Yukon Railroad extending from Skagway to Carcross that takes visitors into an area steeped in the Klondike Gold Rush story. That railway used to run as far as Whitehorse but bus connections are needed to get that far nowadays.

After considering air, sea and rail travel options, we come to those for going by bus. When you see the list, it may look as if there is a plenty supply of services but Alaska's size and the partiality towards travel by private or hired vehicle means that coverage can be limited. Even in cities, weekend services can be very sparse so it is worth checking in advance even for airport routes. Even so, Ketchikan Transit, Juneau's Capital Transit, Fairbanks' MACS or Anchorage's People Mover could prove invaluable when your needs are not so extensive.

There are interurban services too with many of them getting you into wild scenic areas. Without a single searchable timetable, you need to go to operator websites to find out more and the collection of service providers is an ever changing one. Many have their area of operation in their name but not all do. Operators like Dalton Highway Express, Exit Glacier Shuttle, Flattop Mountain Shuttle, Glacier Valley Transit, Kennicott Shuttle and Seward Bus Line all give you hints as to where they offer services. Some are scheduled services for all while others are intended for recreational users like hikers.

The same comment could apply to those with names that are less linked with a local area such as Alaska Bus Guy, Alaska/Yukon Shuttle, Denali Overland Transportation Company, Interior Alaska Bus Line, Soaring Eagle Transit, Stage Line, Sunshine Transit, The Magic Bus, The Park Connection and Wasilla-based Valley Transit. Many ply their trade between Anchorage and Fairbanks with calls to Denali National Park or Talkeetna and some are reservable shuttle services rather than scheduled bus service providers. Soaring Eagle Transit is one  of the latter and connects Anchorage with Glenallen, Gulkana and Valdez while Stage Line connects Anchorage with the Kenai Peninsula. The latter also is provided on a reservation only basis by The Magic Bus who also go as far north as Denali.

If the Alaskan bus network does not get you where you need to go, then a tour provider or a taxi company like Talkeetna Taxi might be able to help you. There are numerous tour operators that include Adventure Bound Alaska, Alaska Collection, Frontier Excursions & Adventures, Gray Line Alaska, Green Tortoise, Homer Trolley, Juneau Tours, M&M Tours of Juneau, Rainbow Tours or Yukon Alaska Tourist Tours. Between these, you should be able to organise an outing that introduces you to an area. After that, you can decide on your own explorations.