I’m not a country or destination collector. I’ve met people who collect countries like charms on a bracelet that they display proudly to anyone who will pay attention. But I’ve never bothered to count the countries or states I’ve been in because it has nothing to do with the way I travel. If I were a country or destination collector, I could now add Alaska to my list and move on to another place to add to my list. But instead, after an amazing week in Alaska it only whetted my appetite and made me hungry for more…a great deal more.
I could imagine myself being like one of many people I met who were drawn to Alaska for some reason and just never left. You could spend years and years there and never begin to complete your exploration of the state’s beauty and fascination. For one thing it is gigantic, almost inconceivably huge. If you take its entire width from the chain of Aleutian Islands in the west down to the islands in the southeast along the coast of Canada, Alaska is nearly as wide as the entire Lower 48 states.
The state’s north-south dimension is similarly massive. If you superimpose the map of Alaska over the center of the Lower 48 it would stretch nearly from the Canadian border to Jacksonville, Fla. It’s as large as the next three largest states combined: Texas, California and Montana. Anyone who has driven across any of those states may begin to get an inkling of how huge a territory we are talking about with Alaska.
What I experienced in one packed week as a guest of the State of Alaska Tourism Office was a quick sampling, but only a tiny speck of the huge range of what is possible. I visited Southeast Alaska, the area that many cruisers know as the Inside Passage. I went from Ketchikan, which is about 750 miles north of Seattle, north through Wrangell, Skagway and Juneau, about 300 miles further northward. Within Alaska, that area is so far southeast as to be barely noticeable when you look at a map of Alaska. It’s a small strip along the coast of Canada south of where the giant land mass of Alaska sticks out of the North American mainland. The biggest problem with writing about it is where to begin. My list of favorite experiences could fuel a number of articles. But here are a few notes for starters:
The Alaskan Panhandle is mostly islands created by glaciers and cannot be traveled by land vehicle. But there is an alternative to the big cruise ships. The Alaska Marine Highway System is a state-operated ferry network that provides an inexpensive, no-frills way to travel through the archipelago. It’s quiet and extremely affordable. It’s a completely different style of travel compared with the major cruise lines. The ferry system is a fine way to travel the area and you can stay at hotels and lodges along the way, getting a real feel for the country.
The native tribes are experiencing a renaissance, which they are happy to share with visitors. These native cultures of the original Americans have much to offer in refreshing ways of looking at the world. The Tlingit people were there when the Russians, the first white men, came to the area. Their environment produced so much easily obtainable food that they didn’t have to spend a lot of time in toil, so they were able to develop their arts. The missionaries who came to the area forbade the Tlingit people to have their totem poles, erroneously thinking they were objects of worship. But now the Tlingits display their art proudly to fascinated tourists.
The experience of nature in Alaska is tremendous. Seeing whales, eagles, bears, giant trees, mountains, glaciers and more brings you in touch with nature in a way that is extremely good for body and soul. I rode on a dog sled on a mountain that we reached by helicopter, traveled in small planes, watched a live melodrama in Skagway, toured the Alaskan Brewing Company, rode the tram to the top of Mount Roberts, went kayaking, stayed in colorful hotels and lodges, ate in fun restaurants and bars, and toured the Tongass National Forest, which is the largest temperate rainforest in the world, second only to the Amazon as the largest rainforest of any kind.
Alaska has millions of things to turn you on, but there is one element that ties together much of what makes it so exciting, and that is the fact that it is the frontier. Alaska is America’s last frontier and it still embodies much of that wild American spirit that dominated the continent until only a century or two ago. I won’t try to define that here, but that feeling of wildness and possibility of the frontier is truly irresistible. It really seizes the imagination and is surely one of the main reasons people develop such deep attachments to Alaska.
If I were to make a list of countries I’ve traveled to, it would be a very small list and it would only contain places I’d really spent some time getting to know. I wouldn’t count a place just because I crossed over the border at some point and actually stood within its boundaries. I would like to be able to put Alaska on that list, but it would take a very long time to be able to claim I had seen very much of the state. It’s a very big place!
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages for TravelPulse.com.