WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Where the wild things are - Luxury Travel Magazine
|By: Craig Tansley, Issue 50 Autumn 2012|
|(Wild, Alaska, wilderness, beauty, Luxury, travel, to do)|
|CraigTansley DISCOVERS AN ALASKA THAT’S EVERY BIT AS WILD AS YOU EVER IMAGINED IT TO BE.|
|IT’S IN TALKEETNA – the quirkiest town in the quirkiest state on Earth – that I finally find him; the archetypal Alaskan. His bushy blond beard overflows a face tanned and weathered to the colour and texture of an old horse saddle. His head’s bigger than two of yours pushed together and it’s fringed by the kind of hair that hasn’t seen a barber’s blade since his father used to have to hold him down to shear it. It’s questionable though he ever had a father (he’s more bison than bloke this one, far more moose than man) but then he’s also as gentle as a squirrel’s winter down. His name’s Joel, but that’s all you’re getting, he offers no surname. In Alaska names have a habit of chasing men down and causing trouble, many of those who moved up here are still running from theirs (Vietnam draft dodgers who never went home), and there’s every chance that Christian name of his is a recent concoction too. “He drinks beer in pitchers, he won’t touch anything out of a glass,” the barkeeper at Talkeetna’s Fairview Hotel, Alaska’s most interesting bar, tells me.|
But he grips that pitcher in his big bear hands like a shot glass and downs the liquid inside it just as quick too. He says he can’t understand why we don’t live with Aborigines in the desert in Australia, his face puckers up just thinking about it. “Why y’all live in Sydney, half your country does. Why don’t you live with them Aborigines in the desert. It makes damn more sense to me than living in a city. That’s where I’d be.” You sense it too, a real Alaskan doesn’t feel right in a town and a city makes him break out in cold sweat. Joel rarely makes the journey into this tiny town in Alaska’s heartland, not even to his beloved Fairview Hotel with its eclectic mix of trappers, hunters, hippies and (the strangest locals of all) mountain climbers with sun-blistered lips peeling right off their faces and into their beers, still high on oxygen after climbing one of the world’s tallest mountains Denali (or Mt McKinley) just outside. And in the winter, when the countryside bunkers down under 15 metres of dry white snow (sometimes much, much more) he won’t come in at all. Towns that reek of people in the summer months nearly shut down over those long, dark days where the light lasts barely two hours and the aurora borealis lingers long in the sky.
Right now its midnight in Talkeetna and the sky is still bright enough that I’m wishing for a pair of sunglasses. The cottonwoods blow across the dirt streets, gathering in gutters like summer snow and the cruise passengers who flock to Alaska each summer are long since tucked up in their comfortable hotel beds – I feel like I’ve found the Alaska I discovered as a child raised on a steady diet of American TV. It’s here in Talkeetna they based the 1990s hit TV series Northern Exposure. All the quirks of Alaskans sure aren’t just imagined for TV, it’s the locals here that live out in the wilderness far beyond this Alaskan town – or any town – that are the real stars of this American state. In January and February it can drop 40 or 50 below zero, people freeze to death in amongst all that snow and no one knows till the big thaw-out starts up around April. In Alaska people love to live where the roads stop; up here they call it living “off the grid”.
|No census counts these locals, no electricity lights up their shack. They seek solitude in the kind of environment most of us would go stir crazy in after a day. “Alaska’s long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who thought the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives,” Jon Krakauer writes in his book about a young American who couldn’t survive even one Alaskan winter, Into The Wild. But don’t presume you’ll meet these “off-the-gridders” when you visit Alaska. Most visitors who come here in summer arrive on cruise ships (about 70 per cent) with specially designed itineraries that offer up bite-sized pieces of Alaska. To get a proper feed of the state – to see the real Alaska – you’ll be best served by extending your stay; take a train ride north from the state’s largest city Anchorage to Fairbanks, stopping at Talkeetna and Denali National Park. Then hire a car and hit the open road south, completing the loop with your vehicle aboard a boat on the infamous Marine Highway back to Anchorage. It’s easy too, for there are very few roads in Alaska. Start your journey with a train ride north from Anchorage. 94 nationalities live here in a place you buy caribou and reindeer sausage right off the street, but locals are more concerned about the animals that don’t come served up in a hot dog. “My cousin’s got a moose set up shop in his backyard,” one local tells me. “He can’t mow the lawn, it chases him inside, the dog plays out the front now.” Take the train three hours north to Talkeetna – it may be a tourist drawcard in the summer but you can find your own piece of wild Alaska there any time you like it – then get back onboard the Alaska Railway and head north past towns with names like Dead Horse and Cold Foot to Fairbanks. This is one of the world’s last great train adventures, and the route traverses some of the world’s most sparsely populated areas across raging snow-fed rivers and past some of America’s tallest mountains. It’s the characters you’ll meet on your journey – even more than the staggering scenery – that’ll make your holiday. In the gritty industrial town of Fairbanks I meet old Tom at a county fete. Tom lives 30 kilometres or so west of town, there are no roads out to his cabin in the woods, and he only makes the journey four times in a year. “I got everything I need,” he says.|
“Got a dog, got my hunting rifles and plenty of bullets for ‘em and more moose and reindeer than I could ever hope to eat in a lifetime. There’s nothing so good about people, they’re antsy, always going some place fast. I got nowhere I got to be.” In Fairbanks I catch the annual Midnight Sun baseball game that’s been running every June without a break for 106 years. “People in Alaska aren’t like people from anywhere else,” a local in the crowd tells me. “We work harder, we play harder and we shoot a heck of a lot straighter.” From Fairbanks take a 4WD south; train travel may remind us all of a longgone era and it’s as stress-free as travelling gets, but in a state as big and free as Alaska nothing can beat the freedom of hitting the highway without an itinerary.
When you leave Fairbanks’ town limits there’s scarcely a car in either direction. Choose your gas stops carefully (they’re few and far between) and ride your gears through a landscape of wild iris, fireweed and Indian Potato where mountains rise up for four kilometres, then drop right back down again. As far as sightseeing goes, Alaska is New Zealand’s south island on steroids, and there’s an overbearing sense of isolation that hits the lone motorist on an Alaskan highway. Nothing can prepare you for it, embrace it; just don’t let it intimidate. Follow the road south, it’s worth taking a detour to the abandoned mining towns of Kennicott and McCarthy in the world’s largest national park – Wrangell-St Elias. You’ll need a plane to access these towns, but it’s well worth the ride; in Alaska the road can only take you so far and with one in 66 Alaskans holding a pilot’s licence finding someone to fly you is easier than finding a properly functioning gas station.
It’s Valdez at the end of Highway Four that speaks volumes about the diversity of the Alaskan experience. Built on the Prince William Sound, Valdez is an old fishing town that’s as perplexing as it is pretty. Truckers pass through here and fishermen live a tough life, unwinding by downing beers at waterside bars with workers from the nearby Alaskan pipeline. But Valdez is a hippie magnet too, it’s where Americans dodging the Vietnam draft came in 1970 and never went home. The contrast is fascinating. Overhead American bald eagles circle the town and on the town’s bushy fringes brown bears keep everyone honest. A local, crusty fisherman tells me to never trust a bear: “They’re a sneaky animal, never trust one that’s not full of lead,” he says. But a 60-something-year old woman with yellow ribbons in her hair and tattoos of rainbows on her neck sees it differently.
“The bears brought me here,” she says. “I’ve seen them close as me to you, they’re our brothers, they’re our sisters, we should lay down our guns.” Alaska is the ultimate choose-yourown adventure holiday destination. Be predictable and follow a safe itinerary and you’ll see the mountains and taste the salmon but somehow it’ll lack the flavour you came looking for. But dare to drift off the road to meet the strangest folk in the strangest state on Earth, and you’ll discover a destination as gritty as any episode of Grizzly Adams.
|Close up view of Alaskan wildlife, a Moose|
|V Australia flies direct to Los Angeles from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Economy class fares start from A$2,055 return and business class fares start from A$11,180. vaustralia.com.au.|
|From Los Angeles connect to Anchorage with Alaska Airlines. Economy class fares start from US$1,286 (about A$1,205) return. Business class fares start from US$1,624 (about A$1,522) return. alaskaair.com|
For more information about Alaska visit travelalaska.com
|WHERE TO STAY|
|Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge A 212-room luxury lodge set on a ridge overlooking the town of Talkeetna. Rates: US$189-379 (about A$177-356) per night. talkeetnalodge.com |
|Sheraton Anchorage Hotel This five-star hotel is in the heart of downtown. Rates: US$129-199 (about A$121-187) per night. sheratonanchorage.com|
|Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge|
There are great views from this lodge-style hotel on the banks of the River Chena. Rates: US$99-199 (about A$93-187) per night. princesslodges.com
|Kayaking in the summer months|
|WHEN TO GO|
|Traditionally tourist season runs from July to mid August when the weather is better but if you are looking for some adventure during winter, December to March is the best time to spot the northern lights or take in a dog sled race.|
|Fares on the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks start from US$167 (about A$157) per person, one-way. alaskarailroad.com|
|Or grab a rental car at Anchorage International Airport. Prices start from around US$80 (about A$75) per day for a premium 4WD. Try avis.com or hertz.com|