It is late March and Talkeetna is shrugging off the mantle of winter. Snow still shrouds the village and ice freezes the paths, but the early spring sun is thawing the cold away, layer by layer. Snowmobiles slide about the streets. Dogs romp through puddled slush. In the distance, snow-covered and forbidding, looms Mt. McKinley, tallest peak in North America.
Every year Mt. McKinley draws scores of adventurers from around the world to this tiny, postcard-picturesque town, tucked away 100 miles north of Anchorage. This is an outpost of sorts, a last contact with man's world, for those climbers who take on McKinley's challenge. From here they charter planes to fly them into the base camp where they begin their rugged ascent.
It may seem ludicrous to call such experienced mountaineers tourists, but they are counted among the thousands of visitors who are helping Alaska build a growing and potentially thriving tourism business.
Last year some 630,000 visitors trekked to America's ''last frontier,'' nearly 20 percent more than 1980, and more than double the 285,000 tourists who came in 1975. By 1985, state officials hope to see that number hit 1 million.
''We're moving from the back of the bus to the big leagues,'' says Don Dickey , director of the state Division of Tourism. ''Only two states will have a larger budget for tourism and travel advertising than we do this year--New York and Florida.''
Of the $6 million the state will spend promoting itself in 1982--a sum triple the amount spent last year--$2 million already has been spent on Alaska's first national television campaign, a five-week run that was kicked off with a 30 -second spot during the Super Bowl.
Although some Alaskans grumble about the state ''blowing'' money on the Super Bowl spot, others contend that such money is well spent because it builds an industry that may eventually help Alaska balance out its present oil-dependent economy. Last year, for example, tourists spent $300,000 million in the state. The industry provided employment for some 9,000 to 10,000 Alaskans, according to the Division of Tourism estimates.
Not everyone who comes to Alaska comes to climb mountains, although tourism in Alaska is admittedly what Mr. Dickey calls an ''outdoorsy thing.'' If it's not mountain climbing, there's sport fishing, backpacking, camping, river rafting, skiing, and hunting.
Surprisingly, though, approximately 70 percent of visitors to the state are ''hotel oriented,'' Mr. Dickey says. And for those who'd rather ogle at Mother Nature's wonders than get out and mix with them, cruise ships are becoming an increasingly popular way to see Alaska up close.
''The people who've been coming here are the types who say, 'We've seen Disneyland, we've seen New York City, we're looking for something different,' '' says Mr. Dickey. ''Most are seasoned travelers. It's been sort of a last hurrah for people who have done everything else.''