This is follow-up to my post last Thursday on Alaska, sort of a different take on visiting America’s most untamed state. First a disclaimer: I’m not discounting a cruise up the Inside Passage, or an RV-based road-trip to Denali and the Kenai Peninsula. Depending on who you are, those may be good options for your first trip, or if you happen to be elderly. I just know what’s out there, and if I wanted to tour the state in a memorable way I would work in some more adventurous options along with more standard destinations. So here’s my very biased take on visiting the Great Land.
When to Go
This is a fairly simple question. If it’s your first time go in summer, which is May through September in the Southeastern Panhandle, mid-June through mid-August in the far north, and something in-between in the rest of the state. Summer is in full swing throughout Alaska by late May. In June come the longest days, with no real nighttime in most of the state.
You can have rain, clouds and cool weather at anytime during the summer, but it’s a little more likely late in summer into fall. Make sure you have good rain gear. Waterproof hiking boots are worth having as well. Autumn, though short, is very beautiful in Alaska. September is a time when wildlife is very active, and the tundra turns a beautiful gold and red. The mosquitoes are mostly gone, and the few late hatches feature big and slow skeeters.
If it’s your second or third trip consider winter. Especially if you want to see the northern lights. I recall seeing them as early as the beginning of October. If you ski you’ll love the later winter when days get a bit longer. But in the southern part of the state you’ll have plenty of daylight to ski or snowshoe at any time of year. The world-famous Iditarod sled dog race happens in late winter. But a more spectator-friendly race (actually a series of them) happens during Fur Rendezvous. “Fur Rondy” is a fun winter festival in Anchorage that takes place each year in late February. The rest of this post assumes a summertime visit.
Visiting the “Real” Alaska
In order to really see Alaska you need to fly. A helicopter obviously allows you to land in many more places than does a fixed-wing. But it’s amazing how many unlikely landing spots exist for bush planes. If money is truly no object, I recommend hiring a chopper and pilot for several days to a week. If you’re like the rest of us you can probably only afford a scenic flight on a helicopter. Some even land on glaciers, at predetermined spots.
But this isn’t the same as having control of where a chopper goes and where it lands, having the pilot wait for you or pick you up somewhere else. That sort of freedom takes real money for someone whose work doesn’t make it necessary. For most visitors to Alaska, I recommend saving up and budgeting for at least one trip on a bush plane. This gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
I got to fly with an older bush pilot my first summer there. He flew a Caribou and was well-known among pilots and long-time Alaskans. The Caribou was a tail-loading cargo plane used heavily in Vietnam. It had a very short take-off distance for its size. His wings would skim the tops of spruce trees on many landings. In the fall after the field season was over, he crashed and died in the resulting fire. He must have been somehow trapped, unable to walk away (as many bush pilots do) when the plane caught fire. He was mourned throughout the state. Bush pilots: they’re worth their own post.
But you shouldn’t worry. Given the number of flights there is no significant added hazard to flying in a bush plane compared to jets. Just hop into one and see Alaska. Chartering bush flights can be expensive on your own, but the cost can be mitigated by combining with other people. Even independent travelers have the option of inquiring at the plethora of companies operating out of the sea-plane base at Lake Hood near the Anchorage Airport. You could hook up with like-minded people to organize a charter trip. Whether you do it off the cuff or plan ahead of time, take at least one journey into one of the state’s roadless areas. Don’t skip it.
A Non-Touristy Experience
If I did a trip into bush Alaska, I’d give serious consideration to the southwest. While you’re thinking of joining all the tourists to watch bears fishing at Brooks Camp, think about other options too. The whole region is chock full of wildlife, and because of the marine influence the mosquitoes tend not to be as abundant as the rest of the state (the interior is where mosquitoes hatch in countless numbers).
One great option for a wilderness experience in SW Alaska is to organize a fly-in camping/fishing trip to Tikchik Lakes (see image). These are a series of lakes, elongate east-west and strung out in a north-south direction along the front of the little-known Wood River Mountains. I worked in the region for a couple months and it was some of the wildest country I’ve ever been in. It also had the best fishing I’ve ever done, hands down.
Camping for a week would allow you to decompress in total wilderness. The lakes to the north of the Tikchik chain have very little tall vegetation surrounding them. You could roam the mountains, full of wildlife, no trails necessary. Take a can of bear spray. Fish to your heart’s content. Lunker lake trout oblige you anytime of day.
All it would take is a flight from Anchorage to Dillingham, then a bush plane to the lakes. If you get a group together, hire a Beaver (largish float plane) or Otter to take your group plus camping gear & an inflatable raft. If it’s just you and one other, maybe a Cessna would do the trick. The pilot will drop you off and then pick you up on the appointed day. If you want to double-down on the experience, you could paddle down the length of the lakes, connected by spectacular rivers, through huge Wood-Tikchik State Park, all the way back to Dillingham. A few companies do guided trips if you don’t feel confident in organizing your own.
There are so many places I can recommend during a visit to Alaska. A drive along the Denali Highway is a great side-trip. It’s not the paved road to the national park; that’s the Parks Hwy. Denali Hwy. is a graded gravel road that takes off east of the park with stupendous views of the Alaska Range (see image at bottom). Also a trip to McCarthy in the Wrangell Mountains is well worthwhile. Visit the old copper mine, situated right along a glacier.
On the Kenai Peninsula, do a halibut fishing trip out of Homer. (Don’t drink too much at the Salty Dog Saloon the night before!). A classic Alaskan experience is sea kayaking out of Seward or Cordoba. Consider a short cruise in Prince William Sound to see the state’s incredible marine life. The Kenai Fjord day-trip out of Seward is inexpensive. And speaking of worthwhile tourist things to do, don’t miss a flight-seeing trip over the Alaska Range. Drive to the small town of Talkeetna to arrange one in a small bush plane.
Hiking in Alaska is unlimited. On the way to Denali, consider a hike into Denali State Park before you get to the (relative) tourist mayhem at the national park. And a hike up into the mountains above Anchorage is a great way to stretch the muscles after your long flight in. Flat-top Mountain, while extremely popular, is a great introduction to Alaska right off the plane. It’s a short but steep climb. There are superb hikes and climbs that take off from the highway south of Anchorage along Turnagain Arm.
A Republic of Rivers
A book called A Republic of Rivers: Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Alaska and the Yukon features poems by Robert Service (The Shooting of Dan McGrew, Call of the Wild). I read it when I lived up there. Reason I mention it here is that while Alaska is a land of mountains, it is even more a republic of rivers. Before the plane, rivers were the main way to travel into remote areas of the state, and they remain so in the interior (along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers especially). Boats in the summer, dogsleds and later snow machines in winter. (Snow machines are called snowmobiles outside the state.)
Once I took a boat trip up the Kuskokwim River out of McGrath. It was a totally different experience from any other I had in Alaska. More like traveling upriver in the Amazon or Congo Basins than in the far north. It was a very “Heart of Darkness” experience.
If you like river trips, specifically paddling downriver, Alaska has a life-time’s worth. In the western Brooks Range, the amazingly clear Salmon is a gorgeous river. I worked along the Salmon for a summer. It’s one of the only places I’ve been where you could walk up to a big river, dip your hands in, and drink cold refreshing water with no worries.
In the NW Brooks Range, the Noatak River drains the largest undisturbed watershed in North America. It’s a great river for canoes. In the central Brooks, the John, the Kilik, Hula Hula and that true gem, the Alatna, are all great arctic wilderness floats. Research all of these and consider a guiding company; there are several.
In Lake Clark National Park in the southwestern part of Alaska, you can do combination hiking/rafting trips that will take you into wildife country with great fishing and few mosquitoes. The hard to pronounce Tlikakila is fairly short but extremely scenic.
Combining Alaska and Canada on a river trip is a fantastic idea since at least two of the world’s greatest river floats cross the boundary. The Alsek runs through Kluane in Canada and ends in Glacier Bay, Alaska. It is serious business, involving real skill (and $, a helicopter portage is involved). The Firth is an extremely remote river trip that starts near Alaska’s border with the Northwest Territory in Canada. It ends in the Beaufort Sea.
There are guided trips to all these places; do the proper research and pick a company with a good reputation. Many of the state’s rivers (and most of the above) lack many big rapids. They’re suitable for beginning paddlers and perfect for canoes or touring kayaks. If you just want an easy to access but rollicking whitewater ride that does have big rapids, check out the Nenana on the way to Denali National Park. No planning required; just stop at one of the companies along the banks and go rafting! Aside from that there are plenty of whitewater options for kayakers and serious rafters.
I really hope you can visit this place one day and experience some of the fun and adventure I had up there. Or if you’ve been before, I hope you can go back and see more. Because there is always more to see. Alaska never stops surprising you, never stops knocking your socks off. So next spring when you hear that familiar sound and look up, when you see that V-shaped formation of geese flying, stop and think a minute. They must know something. Go north!