Tell someone you are going to Alaska and they assume you mean via a cruise.
While I’m told that cruising the Inside Passage is great, it can’t compare to spending 10 days on terra firma in what is arguably our country’s most spectacular state.
In June, we chose to make Anchorage our base as we explored the city and surrounding area.
We began by hopping the Anchorage Trolley for a 15-mile tour. Our driver-docent, a school teacher during the cold months, told of the city’s history, culture and oddities, like the 1,500 moose that live within the city limits; Earthquake Park, where the city dropped 14 feet during the 9.2 earthquake in 1964; and the 135 miles of paved trails within the city limits.
You also can watch anglers fish for salmon a few blocks from downtown at 10 p.m. any summer night — and don’t forget your sunglasses. Though much smaller than many American cities Anchorage (population 301,000) has three must-see museums.
The first, the Anchorage Museum, offers 170,000 square feet of galleries and gathering space within an impressive downtown glass edifice.
One exhibit — the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center — houses 600 rare and beautiful Alaska Native artifacts (tools, clothing and jewelry) from the Smithsonian Institution.
Displayed under glass and low lights, the artifacts are arranged according to the state’s 11 cultural groups, in which 110 different languages are spoken.
The exhibit demonstrates the amazing capacity of the Eskimo to survive in harsh environments and the ingenuity employed in using every resource available. (Consider the waterproof jackets made of walrus intestines and the puffin-beak jewelry.)
Definitely worth the time: the earthquake exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of The Big One, and the Northern Lights show at the planetarium. Visit anchoragemuseum.org.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center, northeast of downtown (public transportation is available) provides a comprehensive overview of Alaska’s native groups through music, storytelling, and song-and-dance performances throughout the day; exhibits of clothing, art and artifacts; and an impressive one-hour guided walking of village dwellings on the shores of a lake.
Our guide (who doubled as a dancer) was a well-spoken native teen who credits the center for enabling her to discover her family’s roots.
“My mother, grandmother and I all grew up in Anchorage, so we had no idea about our heritage,” she explained, “but I’ve learned so much, thanks to the center.”
The tour took us to a complete gray whale skeleton, the remains of a whale that was beached at the Placer River near Portage in 1999.
When I relayed this to my Anchorage cousin, Panu Lucier, she told us that she had been a part of the two-week volunteer effort to clean the bones and make it usable as a teaching tool for school children. Visit alaskanative.net.
Because so much of Alaska is accessible only by plane, bush pilots and their machines were and still are integral to the states’ history and commerce.
This story is told at the Alaska Aviation Museum near the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and Lake Hood, the busiest seaplane base in the world.
The museum “preserves, displays, educates and honors the history of aviation here,” said Mark Ransom, a museum employee, historian and pilot. He also is my cousin’s significant other.
“All of our exhibits are Alaska-specific and meaningful to Alaskan aviation history.
That means that what you see here is likely different from what you’ll see elsewhere … ”
Plus, he added, “it’s a known fact that any time spent in or around airplanes is not subtracted from one’s lifespan.”
Ransom has been operating off that theory for years.
He made his first solo flight at age 17. “With so much wilderness and so little accessibility, flying in Alaska has always been so much different from flying elsewhere.”
The museum is packed with airplanes, artifacts and memorabilia, including a 1931 Pilgrim, “the star of our fleet,” Ransom said. “She was a state-of-the-art airliner 83 years ago, and is fully restored right down to the lavatory in the back. There were only about 26 of them made … and ours is the last remaining Pilgrim flying.”
Don’t miss the excellent film about the little-known-but-brutal Aleutian Island campaign during World War II — the only time Japanese occupied North American soil. Visit www.alaskaairmuseum.org.
We stayed several nights in downtown’s Historic Anchorage Hotel. Charming and beautifully maintained, the 26-room hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and claims ghostly goings on frequently enough to be logged into a journal kept in the lobby. Will Rogers and Wiley Post stayed here just two days before their fateful flight to Barrow in 1935.
If you see no ghosts, you’ll still find the collection of photographs of the city’s past fascinating. A generous breakfast buffet is served in the wood-paneled bar, and many attractions are within easy walking distance. Visit historicanchoragehotel.com.
For a free 100-page, full-color guide to Anchorage and surrounding areas, visit anchorage.net.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at [email protected]