Information for visitors to ALASKA
No other region in North America possesses the mythical aura of ALASKA ; even the name - a derivation of Alayeska , an Athabascan word meaning "great land of the west" - fires the imagination. Few who see this land of gargantuan ice fields, sweeping tundra, glacially excavated valleys, lush rainforests, deep fjords and occasionally smoking volcanoes leave unimpressed. Wildlife may be under threat elsewhere, but here it is abundant, with Kodiak bears standing twelve feet tall, moose stopping traffic in downtown Anchorage, wolves prowling through national parks, bald eagles circling over the trees, and rivers solid with fifty-plus-pound salmon.
Alaska's sheer size is hard to comprehend: more than twice the size of Texas, it contains America's northernmost, westernmost and, because the Aleutian Islands stretch across the 180th meridian, its easternmost point. If superimposed onto the Lower 48 (the rest of the continental United States) it would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and its coastline is longer than the rest of the US combined. All but three of the nation's twenty highest peaks are found within its boundaries and one glacier alone is twice the size of Wales.
A mere 600,000 people live in this huge state - over forty percent of them in Anchorage - of whom only one-fifth were born here: as a rule of thumb, the more winters you have endured, the more Alaskan you are. Often referred to as the " Last Frontier ," Alaska in many ways mirrors the American West of the nineteenth century: an endless, undeveloped space in which to stake one's claim and set up a life without interference. Or at least that's how Alaskans would like it to be. Throughout this century tens of thousands have been lured by the promise of wealth, first by gold and then by fishing, logging and, most recently, oil. However, Alaska's 86,000 Native peoples , who don't have the option of returning to the Lower 48 if things don't work out, have been greatly marginalized, though Native corporations set up as a result of pre-oil boom land deals have increasing economic clout.
Traveling around Alaska still demands a spirit of adventure, and to make the most of the state you need to have an enthusiasm for striking out on your own and roughing it a bit. Binoculars are an absolute must, as is bug spray; the mosquito is referred to as the "Alaska state bird" and it takes industrial-strength repellent to keep it away. On top of that there's the climate , though Alaska is far from the popular misconception of being one big icebox. While winter temperatures of -40°F are commonplace in Fairbanks, the most touristed areas - the southeast and the Kenai Peninsula - enjoy a maritime climate (45-65°F in summer) similar to that of the Pacific Northwest, meaning much more rain (in some towns 180-plus inches per year) than snow. Remarkably, the summer temperature in the Interior often reaches 80°F.
Alaska is far more expensive than most other states: apart from two dozen hostels there's little budget accommodation, and eating and drinking will set you back at least twenty percent more than in the Lower 48 (perhaps fifty percent in more remote regions). Still, experiencing Alaska on a low budget is possible, though it requires planning and off-peak travel. From June to August room prices are crazy; May and September, when tariffs are relaxed and the weather only slightly chillier, are just as good times to go, and in April or October you'll have the place to yourself, albeit with a smaller range of places to stay and eat. Ground transportation , despite the long distances, is reasonable, with backpacker shuttles ferrying budget travelers between major centers. Winter , when hotels drop their prices by as much as half, is becoming an increasingly popular time to visit, particularly for the dazzling aurora borealis. (Information by Rough Guides Ltd.)