Alaska: Anchorage. Mural in downtown
Alaska: Anchorage. Mural in downtown
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Anchorage Alaska – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Anchorage is the gateway city to many of the travel adventures available in Alaska. In Aleut, the word Alaska simply means “the great land.” Except for travelers who confine themselves to the “panhandle” of Juneau, Sitka, and Glacier Bay in the southeast corner of the state, Anchorage is the main entry point.

About 301,000 people of the state’s total population of about 735,000 live in the Anchorage mtro region. Many of the dreams and realities of the state first become apparent here to the visitor. While some visitors quickly pass through Anchorage, it is enlightening to spend some time here, especially if the culture of Alaska is of interest to you.

As you fly in, you’ll see the city framed by mountains, set on a plain a few feet above the ocean. When you taxi down the runway, purple fireweed is the visually dominant wildflower, especially in late summer. As the fireweed blooms successively from bottom to top, sourdoughs say, you can see the brief calendar of summer disappearing. Snow may fall by September 1.

Most of the annual 2 million visitors come to Alaska in summer and about half pass through Anchorage. On your first night in Anchorage, the long summer daylight period will become apparent. At 11 p.m. the twilight continues to persist. The flip side of summer light is winter darkness, which prompts some Alaskans to seek a winter home “outside,” meaning in the lower 48 states. February rest-and-recuperation flights to Hawaii recharge the internal solar energy of those citizens who can afford such mobility.

Flying is the main way that visitors get to Anchorage. Some drive along the inland Alaska Highway, which is a month-long adventure, and some take cruise ships to Seward and then ride into Anchorage. Half of all visitors come from California, Washington, and Oregon.

Planning an Anchorage Visit

Anchorage (and Alaska) is unlike other travel destinations because the amount of time the average visitor spends here is long. The length of stay is partly due to the immense size of the state. Alaska Airlines is one of the main carriers reaching Anchorage, especially from Seattle.

Once you arrive in Anchorage, getting around is an issue. The city is spread out, so a city tour to orient yourself is helpful. Tours are offered from all the hotels. There are several major downtown hotels, such as the Captain Cook, the Marriott, and the Hilton. Consider renting a car after a guided tour to go around on your own for a day to look at the sites missed.

When moving beyond Anchorage to the “interior,” you’ll need a plan for your transportation and firm reservations for lodging. The distances are vast, lodgings are limited, and nothing exists in between except spruce forests. The gigantic size of the state of Alaska will become gradually apparent to you. Alaska is larger than all of California, Oregon, and Washington together. If Alaska were split in two, Texas would be the third largest state. The 49th state added fully a fifth more terrain to the country of America. In 1984 Alaska celebrated its silver anniversary of statehood. Roads penetrate only a small portion of this vast area. The rest is unexplored territory, viewed only occasionally by bush pilots. The lack of roads is suggested by the tendency of Alaskans to refer to their main highways by a name rather than a number.

Many visitors take tours arranged by companies that have the transportation, lodging, and dining arrangements organized. Two of the more active of these tour companies are Westours and Princess. Travel agents will have information on providers of Alaska tours. Independent tour operators, especially in the adventure travel field, abound.

You could also rent a car in Anchorage and drive yourself to Denali Park and to Fairbanks. However, the roads are only fair, due largely to frost heaving the pavement after each hard winter freeze. A better plan would be to take a train to those areas, either on the Alaska Railroad or on the luxury dome cars managed by Westours and Princess.

Before coming to Anchorage, think through your itinerary. For a grand tour, which would sample much of the state, consider a plan that would land you in Anchorage, take you up to Denali Park to see the wildlife, and then to Fairbanks to see the interior and the trans-Alaska pipeline. Then fly to Juneau to see the capital, with a side trip to the gold rush town of Skagway. Back in Juneau, catch a cruise ship south to Vancouver, taking you through Glacier Bay National Park and down to Sitka, originally a Russian town. Such a grand tour would take about two weeks and would be a memorable travel adventure. It also could be done in reverse.

The human record in Alaska goes back some 30,000 years to small groups of Athabascan Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos, whose ancestors originally followed the woolly mammoth and caribou herds across the Bering Sea, when it was frozen, or who crossed from Russia in small boats.

A Dane sailing for Russia, Vitus Bering, first set eyes on the area in 1741.

Anchorage Perspectives

In Anchorage, at Resolution Park, you will find a statue of Captain James Cook, who sailed his boats in 1778 into the inlet near Anchorage that now bears his name. Cook was searching for a northwest passage trade route.

Anchorage originated as a camp and transport site in 1912 for the developing Alaska Railroad, located at the edge of the Cook Inlet. Fairbanks was then the main Alaska town, due to its proximity to the gold mines. Anchorage was merely a railhead until World War II thrust it into prominence. Anchorage developed quickly during the war as a military defense against the Japanese threat. Elmendorf Air Base near Anchorage still hosts a large fleet of military aircraft. Today Anchorage is one of the main air cargo cities in the United States as jumbo airplanes used by Federal Express and other couriers carry goods between the United States and Japan or other Asian destinations. Due to the curvature of the earth, the shortest route for the long journey is the flight north with a fueling stop in Anchorage.

On a city tour of Anchorage you may see salmon-spawning streams within the city limits. You’ll also see the lush gardens and lawns of the residential sections, plus the Earthquake Park that commemorates the Good Friday quake of 1964.

Several types of salmon can be found entering Alaska streams for their fatal mission to reproduce in the same waters where they were born. The salmon species are the king or chinook, whose red and oily meat is most highly prized by gourmets; the chum or dog salmon, which was the main food for sled dogs; the fall chum; the silver or coho salmon; plus the red and pink salmon.

A culinary explorer in Alaska will want to sample salmon, which may be white-fleshed as well as pink. The other appealing fish is halibut, which is caught in the hundred-pound range off the coast. King crab, whose succulent claws yield a white meat of unsurpassed delicacy, is another gourmet pleasure coming from these waters.

Anchorage citizens so appreciate the summer light, as an antidote to many months of winter and darkness, that they take pride in their lawns. There is a Lawn of the Year contest. Hanging-baskets of flowers adorn almost every house. Greenhouses are popular, giving ornamental flowers and vegetables an early start in spring and prolonged growth in autumn. Ironically, the hours of summer light are so long that the total light falling on plants approximates that found in Illinois or other breadbasket states. However, all the growth must occur in a four-month period from June through September. In the Matanuska Valley, near Anchorage, farmers grow 70-pound cabbages in this bright summer sun. Depression-era migrants from Minnesota populated the valley in the 1930s and established one of Alaska’s most viable agricultural areas.

Anchorage Attractions

Several stops on an Anchorage tour list are as follows:

*The Anchorage Museum of History and Art tells the story of the state’s art on the first floor and history on the second. Among the art pieces, the painting not to miss is Sidney Lawrence’s epic depiction of Mt. McKinley. On the second floor you get a good orientation to the five native peoples of the state and the recent growth of Anchorage, which had only 11,000 people in 1950.

*The Alaska Native Heritage Center is another critical stop. There you can see a movie on Alaska natives and watch dancers performing. Walk around the small lake on the property to see dwellings of the main cultural groups in the native Alaska mix, ranging from an Athabascan log cabin to a Tlingit board house. There is much to learn about how the native Alaskan culture enlarges our sensibility. The potlatch tradition, for example, celebrated the art of giving things away, meaning the more you gave away the better. The coming of age ceremonies for a child are different–for a girl it might be gathering her first bucket of berries, and for a boy it might be shooting his first ptarmigan, a bird, with his .22 rifle.

Beyond these two blockbuster sites, there are many other intriguing attractions to savor:

*In Anchorage, a hospital also happens to be a major art venue. At the Alaska Native Medical Center, take the elevator to the top floor and then walk down, perusing in the public areas and along the steps some of the finest native art you will see in Alaska.

Alaska: Anchorage. Mural in downtown

*Another special museum is in the local Wells Fargo Bank building. At the Heritage Library Museum you can see artifacts from the 200 B.C. Bering Sea Culture, plus a recent Bering Sea kayak. The museum also displays numerous paintings of Alaska. A woolly mammoth tusk on display alerts a traveler to these large and extinct mammals, which flourished here as recently as 10,000 years ago.

*The Oscar Anderson House near downtown in Elderberry Park shows the typical 20th-century life of urban settlers in Alaska.

*The Log Cabin Information Center in the downtown is a good place to stop for brochures and directions. Walk around in the adjacent blocks on Fourth Street and its offshoots to see a range of art and memento shops. Some of the quality shops are Aurora Fine Art for Alaska native work and the Alaska Glass Gallery for exquisite glass. The Fourth Avenue Theatre is one of the landmark buildings.

*The Alaska Zoo is one place where you are certain to see the major mammals of the Great Land, meaning moose, black and brown bear, Dall sheep, polar bear, caribou, wolf, and musk ox.

Try to allow time for a walk or a bike outing on the Tony Knowles Coast Trail, which snakes along the water and offers good views. The best place to look back on the city skyline is from Airport Park. Catch the sunset at Point Woronzof to see the sky lit up over the Chugach Mountains around the waterway. Also near this area is Earthquake Park , which has the Coastal Trail running through it. Earthquake Park is a subject in itself (see below).

There are some fun downtown dining options, such as Snow Goose, where the home-brewed beer, a burger, and the outdoor deck are a treat. Another downtown eatery is the Glacier Brewhouse, where craft brewing and inventive entrees draw in the patrons. With a car, you could drive out to Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant and be greeted by a mounted grizzly bear in the dining room. The reindeer sausage and king crab can’t be replicated easily elsewhere. Gwennie’s is the antithesis of the chain restaurant.

A car would also allow you to drive along Turnagain Arm to explore the trendy, small town of Girdwood, home of the Alyeska Prince Hotel, a major lodging in a scenic rather than urban setting. Alyeska is the main Alaska ski resort in winter, but its tram also operates in summer, taking visitors to the top of Mount Alyeska for a view of the Turnagain Arm waterway and the surrounding Chugach Mountains. Restaurants at the top of the tram offer a welcome dining experience, possibly another indulgence in salmon, halibut, or king crab. On the drive to Girdwood, stop at Beluga Point to watch the tidal surge pass by and possibly see one of the large white whales for which the point is named. Dall sheep are commonly seen on the hillsides above the road in the vicinity of Beluga Point.

Inquire also if special events may be occurring during your visit.

For example, the first Friday of each summer month in Anchorage is called First Friday and it features open house at the art galleries. Start at Snow City Café, where you’ll find a local band and a gallery show, as well as food and drink. Pick up a map there of all the local gallery venues. A short walk away, you may find a nature photo exhibit, for example, at Side Street Espresso.

You may be able to glimpse an only-in-Alaska event if you happen to be in Anchorage during the summer. The annual Alaska Native Youth Olympics is open to all Alaska youths. What is special are the unusual feats of skill for this Olympics. For example, the One Hand Reach requires that a person balance the body off the ground on one fist, then reach up with the other hand to touch a ball hanging in the air, then maintain the body balance position for another couple of seconds. Hundreds of young people compete in an unusual range of sports events, which evolved from the survival needs of the native cultures.

Quake of 1964

People in the lower 48 states may have forgotten the Alaska earthquake of Good Friday 1964, but Anchorage citizens remember it well. On the Richter scale the quake was first measured 8.6 and then revised upward to 9.2, greater than the San Francisco quake of 1906. But the duration was equally impressive, with the earth heaving for a full five minutes. Anchorage, at the epicenter, was left a shambles, with 10-foot drops in soil level in many places as the ground under the city liquefied and sank. A hundred people lost their lives and 4,000 were left homeless.

Anchorage residents of an advanced age divide all events into those before and those after the Quake. Earthquake Park attempts to portray the force of the quake. However, now that vegetation covers the ground, it is difficult for the layman to appreciate fully the impact, especially the drop of several feet in the soil level. The view of the skyline from the park is worth the trip out, however.

Portage Glacier and Prince William Sound

Two of the best tours from Anchorage are water adventures to see the Portage Glacier or to venture out on a tour boat on Prince William Sound.

Portage Glacier is a short ride down Turnagain Arm. A boat, called the Ptarmigan, takes you out for a close-up inspection of the glacier. Travelers often witness the “calving” process at the glacier. Calving refers to huge chunks of ice falling from the glacier, with thunderous sound, into the water, creating mini tidal waves.

If you drive, the Seward Highway road follows the shoreline and leads you into a region of dramatically retreating glaciers. The Begich-Boggs Visitor Center, near the Portage Glacier, tells the geological story in detail, expounding on the realities of the 6,000-square-mile Chugach ice fields.

Although this area is close to Anchorage, wild game abounds. Dall sheep and bears may be seen during the drive. Eagles and white beluga whales are common along the water’s edge. Scenic views of the mountains on the Kenai Peninsula across the waterway greet you at every turn. The Kenai Peninsula is the playground of Anchorage, where anglers have caught world-record salmon (97-1/4 pounds) and halibut (404 pounds).

Stop at the Potter Marsh, along the route, to witness many species of migrating waterfowl. The marsh, created by the quick drop of land in the 1964 Quake, hosts more than 130 species of birds. Intriguing among these creatures is the Arctic tern, which makes the longest migration of any living thing. The tern summers in the Arctic and then proceeds in “winter” to the Antarctic. The tern spends more time in sunlight than does any other creature.

A traveler with a full day’s time for a trip on the water should consider a boat excursion on Prince William Sound. Tour boats on the Sound take you out for a day of major sightseeing and a tasty fish lunch. The boats depart from Wittier. Getting to Wittier involves riding through a tunnel cut through the mountains.

Shortly after the boat leaves Wittier, you pass next to a major nesting ground for thousands of black-legged kittiwake birds. The birds nest on the bluffs in huge numbers and provide a symphonic background of music. Beyond the kittiwakes, you are sure to see eagles sitting in the trees, easily visible with their white heads, and sea otters resting on the ice floes. The scenic views include many perspectives on the Chugach Mountains and several glaciers, such as Surprise Glacier. For the traveler who comes to Alaska for scenery, wildlife viewing, and glaciers, this is one tour that offers it all.

The adventure traveler can sea kayak in Prince William Sound, experiencing the kittiwakes from water level without the sound of a motorized engine.

Anchorage is the gateway city to the state, and there is plenty of Alaska scenery and adventure within day-trip distance from the city. Also, to experience the culture of Alaska, from heritage museums to art galleries, Anchorage has an importance place on your potential itinerary.

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Anchorage: If You Go

For tourism information on Alaska, see the website of the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.

The Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau is at http://www.anchorage.net.

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