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Adventures in Nature

text and images by
Paul Otteson
Avalon Travel Publishing
All Rights Reserved

AlaskaJourney Home

1—Why Alaska?

2—Alaska: An Overview

3—Conservation and Responsible Tourism

4—Wildland and Wildlife

5—Special Interests and Activities

6—North to the 49th State

7—Southeast Alaska

8—Southcentral Mountains and Prince William Sound

9—Anchorage and Cook Inlet

10—The Kenai Peninsula

11—Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula

12—Aleutians and Bering Sea Islands

13—Denali and the Alaska Range

14—The Interior: Fairbanks and the Yukon Valley

15—Western Alaska

16—Far North


1) Why Alaska?

To travelers from more populated areas of the world, Alaska can seem like another planet. It is otherworldly in its difference, with its vast wilderness, free-roaming wildlife, and splendid scenery. But the call of the wild is also a call to our roots—to a rich fabric of nature that speaks to our primeval past. That other world is also an ancient home. All it takes to answer the "why" question is a visit to the state. There is simply no comparable travel destination on Earth.

A more important question might be, "What’s the best way to see Alaska?" Tourists make a mistake when they treat the state as they might treat Washington, D.C., or Yellowstone. In Alaska, it is less appropriate to carry a "must-see" destination list and drive from sight to sight or viewpoint to viewpoint. The state is so richly endowed with stunning mountains, awesome glaciers, and impressive wildlife that, in a way, there’s no place to go—you’re already there!

If you’re wise, you won’t come to Alaska to collect snapshots and T-shirts, but to seek experience. Head into the wild country. Feel the power of a land that is geologically violent, climatologically raw, and biologically inhuman. Nose your kayak into bergs of a Kenai Fjords glacier, hoping you’re not a little too close to the calving river of ice that sloughed them off. Listen to the motor of a floatplane fade into the distance, the pilot having promised to retrieve you a week later from a lonely gravel bar, 50 miles away across the Brooks Range. Leave your tentsite for a sunset hike in the Wrangells, knowing that a grizzly sow and her cubs might be trundling silently through the alders just over the next rise. If your Alaska visit is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, come not as a tourist, but as an explorer.

Then again, major wilderness adventures are not for everyone; most Alaska travelers will want access to civilization for some or all of their time in the state. If a less ambitious course suits you, the shift from tourist to explorer can involve safe and comfortable decisions. Maybe you stay at a backcountry lodge instead of a bus-tour hotel. Perhaps you take a smaller tour boat into a less-visited fjord. You could see your bears on the secluded Katmai south coast instead of booked-solid Brooks Camp. Opt for a two-hour raft ride on the Nenana instead of browsing the gift shops at Denali. Enjoy a morning walk in the White Mountains on your way to Circle Hot Springs. Even if scaling Mount St. Elias or canoeing the Yukon is not for you, find your personal explorer’s edge and step toward it.

More than anything else, it’s important to extend your vision beyond a normal frame of reference—Denali is a perfect example. How do you "see" the mountain that ranks as the largest in the world from base to summit? It really isn’t enough to have the clouds lift so you can snap a picture from an overlook. I’ve observed that mountain from various angles, at different times of the year, from great distance and near its base, but I still can’t quite "see" it—it’s just too big. It cannot easily be translated from vast reality into mental image. I know it’s there, though—looming and presiding, spilling glaciers and rejecting climbers, seizing the atmosphere and wrapping itself in brooding mists. Hundreds of square miles cower under its sway.

The wise visitor remembers that Alaska is not a convenient collection of Kodak moments. It’s a vast wild country where the miles are long and expensive, the conditions sometimes a challenge, and the best features hidden far from bus and cruise-ship windows. For a guaranteed good view of bears, eagles, whales, the northern lights, and calving glaciers, you’ll need to buy that $30 video in the gift shop. If that bothers you, rethink your trip. Better yet, open your eyes a little wider, grab your paddle or lace up your boots, and leave civilization behind.

All of the advice in this book is geared toward those who seek a deeper experience, who want to be filled with the strength and spirit of the natural world—who, in other words, are coming home to Alaska. Answering the "why" question is intellectually easy. Following up that answer with a well-designed journey is the challenge.