Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Alaskan Safari

Welcome to Planet Endurance

If you liked the landscape you saw in the 2007 Horror Movie - 30 Days of Night, Alaska is the place to be. Nothing in Alaska is easy. The state is colossal. The distances from the towns to tourist attractions are time-consuming and grueling. The roads are hazardous and many are unpaved. Winters are resentfully cold, overcast and stretched, with only two hours of daylight. Summers are short and sometimes absent. Everything is bloody expensive. Travel is a bitch, and there are no major cosmopolitan cities to nourish with world-class restaurants, hotels, the arts or shopping after enduring nature's punishing elements. Alaska is the only state in America where residents are actually paid a stipend to live there. But where there is challenge there is also an adventure. And this is exclusively mine.

In Alaska you take a bush plane like an urban dweller would take a public bus or a call taxi. There are more small planes in Alaska per capita than any other American state. As everything is complicated, everything becomes a mini adventure. So why do Alaskans do it? What's the pay-off?

The answer I got, from pilots to taxi drivers to musicians to road maintenance workers, was pretty much the same - after facing the immense challenges of nature's elements each day, Alaskans feel they have conquered and triumphed by mere survival. Most of us feel we have a hard enough time getting through the exigencies of the day without a daily kick in the ass by Mother Nature but not sturdy Alaskans. There's also a very strong sense that this is a restricted nonconformist realm where citizens can't, won't or have no desire to live in the undesirable outside. (The word "Outside" is always capitalized up there.)

So what's in it for us Outsiders? Lots. Astounding panoramic beauty and superb wildlife, opportunities for both hard and soft adventures and a plethora of wintry sports. The Air is so pure you would want to bottle it and market it. And, most important, a true sense of mankind's place in nature. Alaska's sheer size, the cold silence and majesty is close to a true spiritual experience. You really get to know how minuscule you are in the scheme of it all, and the result is deeply overwhelming.

An extraordinary treat for me was to clamber an observation tower to shoot the 11:30 p.m. sunsets. Autumn color starts to scream in late August along with one Alaska's unique phenomena: the Aurora Borealis, the natural gods’ light show that defies any ordinary description. Denali, formerly Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, reaching 20,320 feet above sea level, is in Alaska, but don't expect to get a great shot with a point-and shoot camera; between the cloud cover, rain and haze, the stately mountain appears only about 25 percent of the time.

When I went to investigate Fairbanks, the base town from which tourists depart for the Alaskan good stuff, I found that one afternoon was more than enough. Most of its old-time architecture had been destroyed for parking lots and McDonald type Fast-food restaurants. Its bland streets teem with infinite and gaudy stores that sell the kind of cheap souvenirs that people buy at consumer fairs, take home, store in a drawer and eventually can't sell at yard sales. Fairbanks has one shining jewel - its beautiful history museum. Skillfully and engagingly designed, lit and presented, the museum is captivating in how it brings alive the past while also maintaining the wild spirit of Alaskan life.

Quirky Coffee shops and rustic bars are many and excess in Fairbanks, people find a place to spin good music; the local military men, of whom there are many, hear about the music and move in; the local women follow; people move to another bar, taking the music...

If your endurance fantasies or your tastes for adrenaline are highly developed, try the Haul Road to Prudhoe Bay. This 414 mile gravel road (really Dalton Highway, developed to bring supplies to the source of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company) stretches from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean. You'll be able to say you traveled an outwardly never-ending gravel road where food and gas stops are 115 miles apart. You'll be able to see the Brooks Mountain Range, the stately and pompous king of Dalton Highway and you'll be able to tell your friends you have been to the Arctic Circle.

However, there is a grueling 12-hour drudge of a road. And there are draconian lodgings at Prudhoe Bay, not to mention punishingly inedible "food", which is a truly supercilious statement to Outsiders- “We’re the only restaurant in town. Eat it or beat it".

Real Beauty? Yes. A surrealistic landscape of ice-cold tundra and absolute desolation, the pipeline buildings in the misty distance, living facilities resembling correctional mental institutions, signs of humanity practically unreal, the only place in the world where you must have a permit to see the ocean-the Arctic Ocean, no less-frankly, all that fascinated me. And it was well worth the price of ticket. For those who require a level of comfort, however, this leg of the tour will not work.

The trip back down the Dalton Highway was highlighted by a stop in Wiseman, a peaceful settlement of log houses (there seems to be an unwritten law that all log houses in Alaska must have moose antlers the state icon) above the front door). Wiseman was established in the American gold rush and in 1898 it was a big boomtown with $200,000 worth of gold panned there. It's reported that half the money was spend on booze and whores. And why not? What else was there to spend it on?

According to one very sexy local, the population swings "between 27 and 30 - depending who's pregnant!" This place is so right in its place, in its feeling of a small community separate in sensibility but unified in case of crisis. The people here are kind, hushed and much attached to nature and to their heritage. Wiseman is a place that contains a real sense of serenity-holding from the last century to this one with loveliness and style.

I next took a bush plane to Paradise Valley Lodge, where true aficionados come from the four points of the earth to pan for gold, not in a tourist attraction, but where gold can really be found. If you have a big hankering for roughing it - this is the place. The cabins are spaced very far apart so you have a real sense of privacy. Essential amenities are almost absent: one room cabin, outhouse, mosquitoes, etc. You stay a half mile from the lodge and must bring your own food or make previous arrangements with the manager. And think about it, when was the last time you checked into a lodge and they gave you a can of bear mace?

My final stop took me right to the Canadian border. The small town of Eagle has 130 people or something like that, a flower-laden landing strip, four museums four, and a general store-motel-gas station all-in-one. That's it. The museums are based on memorabilia from the remains of Fort Egbert, where the army first established law and order in a wild and woolly lawless territory run by power and guns. In the one cafe in town, four men, who look like they are from a movie casting call for grizzly 19th century trappers, meet every day to discuss in dramatic detail how they like to skin animals after they've trapped them. The former town mayor is a large sized woman with mighty arms and a tattoo on her neck who lives with her dainty friend in a log cabin with the only computer in town. The Princess cruise line buses passengers to Eagle from their ships docked downriver. They don't allow them overnight stays. Good. That's how Eagle maintains its purity.

If you are the brave and energetic kind, Alaska offers generous opportunity for real thrills, pristine wildlife and peaceful quietude. Once you take it in, you will never see your world the same. As I read it somewhere, "In life you are not really living. unless you take a chance". Take a chance. Go to Alaska.


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