MOST post cards from Alaska have an exclamation point following the word - and rightly so. Vast, beautiful, untouched, and awesome are a few of the words that describe the 49th state. There are numerous options for visiting this state, from a guided tour, to a ``do-it-yourself'' trip, to backpacking or canoeing through the wilderness.
If you haven't any friends living here, and if you're not a backpacker, a guided tour may be in order. One of the best kinds of tours combines flying, overland transport by bus or train, and a cruise. Most of these tours start from either Seattle or from Vancouver, British Columbia - cities that themselves offer a great deal to see. Alaska airlines provides on-time arrivals, courteous service, and good food.
What to see in Fairbanks
Visitor here can get the feeling that Fairbanks is the last frontier of the United States. With the pipeline rush of the 1970s now just a memory, the city welcomes tourists as its main source of income. Residents go out of their way to make one's stay pleasant. Downtown Fairbanks, which has only a few stores, a large post office, and a bank, may seem a bit modest. Yet local people are proud of their heritage.
Tour guides revel in stories about 50-below-zero temperatures during winters, of dog mushing, and of the darkness that lasts most of the day in winter months.
If you come in July, however, you won't have to worry about lack of daylight. There are only about three hours a day when electricity is needed; you'll find yourself putting on sunglasses at 10 p.m. In fact, downtown Fairbanks comes alive after 10, when families come out to do their shopping, as if it were early morning. Guided tours are available through the University of Alaska.
And no one can visit Fairbanks without seeing and touching the famous Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which unfortunately boasts graffiti. Et tu, Alaska!
A cruise on the Chena River
From a cruise down the Chena River on a sternwheeler dubbed the Discovery, some of the better Fairbanks homes can be viewed, many with small sea planes tied up in the yards. A highlight of the cruise is a dog-sled demonstration on land, by Mary Shields, author of the book ``Sled Dog Trails.'' Miss Shields came from Wisconsin in the 1960s and has lived here ever since. She became one of the state's first women dog sled racers, and the first woman to complete the famous 1,049-mile Iditarod sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome in 1974.
Exploring Denali National Park
On most tours, a motorcoach will transport visitors to that extraordinary wildlife preserve, the Denali National Park and Preserve, where acres of unsurpassed wilderness surround Denali Mountain (also known as Mt. McKinley) at the park's center. A view of the ``high one,'' as the Athabascan name Denali is translated, isn't always available, though, unless weather and cloud conditions cooperate.
Most tours are booked into the Denali National Park Hotel, which, with its wood-burning fireplace and rustic appearance, makes you feel a part of the surrounding wilderness. Dining room meals are surprisingly good and inexpensive. A large steak dinner with all the fixings costs about $15 per person. Because of the early inclement weather, the hotel is open only from Memorial Day to a little past Labor Day.
For hardy travelers who don't mind riding eight hours in a renovated school bus, a tour of the wilderness is an option, with sights of Dall sheep, moose, caribou, and grizzlies. The hotel packs a box lunch, and most find the ride through narrow, winding mountain passes quite worthwhile. You'll want to bring along a telephoto lens if you plan to take pictures, because you can't leave the bus.
On many tours, you'll get a close look at Mt. McKinley on the following day on the your way to Anchorage, about a four-hour trip. This overland portion of the tour can be made via bus or the famous dome-top McKinley Explorer railroad (see related story, Page B11).
Anchorage: a thriving, modern city
In Anchorage, you'll discover a complete contrast to both Fairbanks and the wilderness of Denali: a large, thriving, modern city. Today Anchorage bears few scars from its severe earthquake of the 1960s. It's beautifully situated, with Cook's Inlet on one side and the lovely Chugach Mountains on the other.
Though just as modern, Anchorage is more scenic than most cities in the ``Lower 48.'' Sightseeing tours not only include the city proper, but Cook's Inlet, Lake Spenard, and Lake Hood. The most unusual sight is the Portage Glacier, not only because of its vast cascades of ice, but also for the train tunnel carved right through the ice and used only during portions of the year.
On the way to Portage, the bus will probably stop at Alaska's famous Alyeska Resort, which affords panoramic views from the sightseeing chairlift, operating year-around. Tasty refreshments are available at the Mt. Alyeska Resort Lodge. And, in winter, there's skiing.
Juneau has a frontier feel
Next on many tours is Juneau, reachable only by plane or ship. Before checking in to your hotel in Juneau, you'll have a chance to see the Mendenhall Glacier, a river of ice that flows from the Juneau icecap, covering an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
This city, with its frontier shops and Victorian houses, is set on hills. An old mine visible on Juneau's mountainside produced $158 million in gold before it was closed. Shopping is a popular attraction here, where one of the most famous emporiums is the Red Dog Saloon.
From Juneau, many tourgoers board ships for a look at the Alaskan coastline. On the first day out of the city, the beauty of Glacier Bay, with its magnificent icebergs, takes center stage. You can watch the scenery from the decks of the ship or from the cozy lounges inside. One of the most thrilling sights is ``calving,'' when large chunks of ice erode from the icebergs and drop into the bay.
On Day 2 of the cruise, tourists can disembark to visit Sitka, a city rich in Russian heritage. Here the National Historical Museum unfolds the history of the Tlingit (pronounced ``Klingit'') Indians, the first settlers of Sitka. One highlight of the day is a performance by the New Archangel Russian Dancers, a sample of the city's Russian heritage.
On the final day, one can relax and enjoy the views of the Inside Passage, flanked by mountains on both sides of the waterway. The ships, of course, offer their own diversions such as heated pools, games, shops, and entertainment.
Although the cruise portion of the fly/drive tour lasts only four or five days, there are other cruises of varying lengths and additional stops, such as Whitehorse and Skagway, frontier towns with the feel of the early gold rushes.
If you go
The tour described above can be accomplished in about 14 days, but longer or shorter trips are available. Unless one is fond of snow and ice, June through September are the months to go. Tours can be arranged on your own, or through a travel agent.