Doing Alaska in Four Days
Oakland Magazine, July/August 2005
They call it the last frontier – a land so wild, less than one percent has been altered by man. Boarding the plane at Oakland International Airport, I sensed my anxiety. I was going to a place that both scared and fascinated me, knowing only what I’d read – and unsure of even what to pack. I was headed north – to Alaska.
How silly. Oakland was just a few short hours by plane, yet I had this idea there’d be none of the comforts of modern living. Would I need a dog sled to get from the airport to my hotel? Not exactly. In fact the August sun was warm and the landscape awash with flowers with I touched down in Anchorage. With 17 hours of daylight, it was no wonder that blooms were the size of watermelons, and vegetable gardens looked like they were grown by the Green Giant himself.
I was downtown by lunchtime, with a purse full of energy bars in case my only meat options were wild boar and reindeer. I hadn’t tried either but was certain they wouldn’t agree with me. (Later I’d find at least one of them, the reindeer, was delicious when served with grilled onions on a sourdough bun.)
Anchorage is compact. The businesses are mostly tourist-pleasing shops selling knickknacks and Alaskan-made goodies. I bought my daughter some native jewelry and a friend some smoked salmon. There was a wonderful walking tour with historic old buildings and pictures of the gold rush, the entry into statehood and the catastrophic quake that nearly leveled the town in 1964. I rode the coastal bike trail and the original red trolley and wandered down to Ship Creek, where the banks were lined with fishermen. The salmon were running and every few minutes I’d hear a hoot and a holler and see a flash of pink flesh flop onto the shore.
Now I’m going to tell you something that may surprise you . Even shock you. There’s something very different about the people in this 49th state. They’re fiercely independent, incredibly quirky and extremely self sufficient. It’s a well known fact that the men outnumber the women and I was reminded of this my first night in Anchorage. While sitting at the bar, a weathered old woman told me “You know, the odds here are good if you’re a gal.” “Really?” I asked, only half listening since I already had my man. “Yeah,” she continued, “the odds are good – but the goods are a little odd.” Through a haze of cigarette smoke, I gazed at the room full of men and thought I saw someone winking.
In fact, a hilarious dinner show pokes fun at Alaskans and their propensity for strange things, like bear hunting and dining on reindeer and Spam. The live cabaret at Mr. Whitekeys’ Fly By Night Club has grown men dancing with fish, and the Spam – that famous spiced ham that comes gelled in a can – is featured in act after act . Oh, and it’s also on the menu. In fact, I’m certain it was on my hors devour plate, disguised as a coconut prawn.
You see, things are done differently in the land of the midnight sun. They play golf at midnight, and fish next to bears, and travel to places by dog sled or air. With very few roads in Alaska, you have to go airborne to see most of the state. But luckily, Anchorage is home to the world’s busiest seaplane airport, on nearby Lake Hood. It’s as easy as hailing a cab to hop in a plane and go, say, bear watching at Lake Clark National Park.
Just 90 minutes by air with Alaska Air Taxi, Alaska Homestead Lodge is where brown bears lumber freely through forests and meadows, never caring that a band of humans may be following them. Scratching their backs on a Black Spruce tree and digging for grubs in the dirt – they always return to the river. Our guide goes there too, and in minutes hooks a 12 pound spotted beauty. From the icy waters to the smoky grill in under an hour – this is the way to eat salmon.
No trip to Alaska is complete without a visit to Alyeska, the state’s largest ski resort. Even without skiing, there’s plenty to do in summer, like biking and hiking and walking on glaciers. With Red Bull for breakfast, you can accomplish all three and be soaking your blisters by dinner.
That leaves just one day to knock out the number one tourist activity in Alaska – a glacial cruise. You can do that in an hour with a quick cruise to the Portage Glacier, where thousand-year-old ice chunks float all around you. If you’re crazy like me, you’ll even take a taste of this finely aged ice when the captain brings some aboard.
Spot a moose, see spawning salmon – talk to ten guys who like bear hunting and oil drilling. Yep – you really can “do” Alaska in four days. But hang on to those energy bars – you may need them.
If you go:
Alaska Air Taxi
Alaska Homestead Lodge
Mr. Whitekeys’ Fly By Night Club