Be prepared when exploring Alaska

The Alaska state flag consists of eight gold stars on a blue field - the North Star and the Big Dipper. It was designed in 1926 by a seventh grader of Aleut-Russian and Swedish descent, Benny Benson, as an entry in a contest for the territorial flag.

He described his idea: ''The blue field is for the Alaska sky. . . . The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly of the Union. The dipper is for the Great Bear - symbolizing strength.''

This is the 25th anniversary of Alaska statehood. And Benny Benson's words suggest something more. There is great strength to be learned from Alaska.

But travelers who come here need to incorporate some of that strength, too. Alaska has unpredictable, sometimes severe weather, with extremes of temperature and frequent rain. In the 21/2 months I was there last summer, there was not a single day (with the exception of time spent in the Pribilofs) that the sun did not shine at some point; and on only a few days was there more than a heavy mist.

That is an extraordinary record. Never, however, was there a time - even in a cold downpour on the Alsek - that Alaska was not beautiful nor the light magnificent. Rain is what makes the forests lush and the glaciers alive in ''southeast.'' Take good foul-weather gear (not Goretex), knee-high rubber boots , and prepare to enjoy yourself no matter what the weather.

It is important, however, to allow for weather delays in scheduling flights and hotel rooms. Counting on close connections is not advisable.

The temperature varies greatly throughout the state. The average July reading for Juneau is 56 and for Anchorage 58. For Kaktovik it is 39. Average temperature for Fairbanks is recorded as 61, but there are occasional heat waves in the interior that can send it well into the 80s. It is a good policy to take clothes for a wide range of climates. Even in the Brooks Range, it can be hot on a long sunny day. And it can be very cold next to a glacier face - even on a cruise ship.

The length of summer daylight ranges from 18 hours and 18 minutes in Juneau to 84 full days when the sun never sets in Kaktovik.

For wilderness trips in Alaska, you should choose very sturdy high quality clothes. They will take a beating. Even on a cruise functional clothes will be more enjoyable because of the climate. Most Alaskans dress informally - even in cities. While it is certainly possible to search out trips that do not necessitate foul-weather gear, much of what is unique about Alaska is outdoors, and it seems unfortunate to miss it.

There are 25 species of mosquitoes in the state - concentrated especially on coastal flats and in low forests of southeast and in the bogs of the interior. It is important to pack insect repellent of the most powerful strength available. But just as you will probably get wet, you will almost certainly get bitten. The experience of Alaska far outweighs a few bites.

Alaska is expensive. A rock-bottom hotel in Juneau is $30 for a single without bath, a single in an average hotel is $80, and an ordinary dinner without extras runs about $15. The cost of the packaged trips described in this section should be measured against the cost of traveling alone. Some are bargains. Shopping too is expensive, if you are hoping to find examples of old Indian work or fine contemporary scrimshaw. A beautiful, small undecorated Haida bowl I saw in Juneau was $300.

Alaska is more oriented to ship and plane than to the automobile. Juneau has 41 miles of highway that ends in trees on either side of the city. A car is useful in Anchorage to explore the Kenai Peninsula, but there are also frequent buses and trains. If you wish to drive within the state, I suggest renting a car rather than bringing your car with you.

But even more strongly, I would suggest trying to switch into a different way of thinking about transportation. Roads lead only to a few places in Alaska, and planning in terms of them is very limiting. Walking and boating can show you what a very different place Alaska is.

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