Legendary stories of gold rush men, bush pilots and pristine wilderness draw a million and a half visitors to Alaska each year… more that twice Alaska’s population. Dramatic mountain peaks, ice-sculpted fjords, massive glaciers and abundant wildlife seal the deal. Contemporary Alaskan culture reflects the cherished principles of subsistence and self-determination.
In June, 2015... Fired up over exploring a new place, and checking off our 50th state together, my daughter Rachel and I set off for Alaska. No cruises… and no tour buses… We would fly into Anchorage, rent a car, and tour interior Alaska roadtrip-style. I would return to Alaska two years later with my two sisters. Our siblings-only adventure included a week of roadtrips, before boarding Holland America's ms Noordam to tour the southeast Alaska panhandle.
But before I share my adventures… a little history and background… In 1867, the United States agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for the sum of 7.2 million dollars, or about two cents per acre. Seeing few benefits from the frozen wilderness, critics called the purchase “Seward’s Folly”, after Secretary of State William H. Seward, who negotiated for Alaska’s purchase. However, many newspaper editors and politicians correctly foreshadowed Alaska's great economic potential. A massive gold rush in the late 19th century brought thousands of miners and settlers to Alaska. Discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the subsequent construction of the Alaska Pipeline brought thousands more. Alaska officially became the 49th state on January 3rd, 1959. Today, the petroleum industry and the federal government are the largest contributors to Alaska’s economy. Tourism, mining, logging and fishing also drive the economy. Alaska’s cost of living is 30 percent higher than the U.S. average. However, average wages are significantly higher, and Alaska collects no sales tax and no state income tax. In fact, Alaska’s residents are paid to live there. Since 1976, Alaska has paid its residents to live there with the Permanent Fund Reserve, funded by the state’s oil royalties.
Alaska’s population has grown steadily for decades. But with a population below 800,000, it remains one of the country’s least populated states. In terms of area, Alaska is the largest state by far, with an area greater than Texas, California and Montana combined. An unofficial Alaskan slogan is… “Messin’ with Texas since 1959”… a reference to Texas’ bombastic claims of having the biggest everything and the slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas”. One Alaskan restaurant menu featuring a 16-ounce steak listed the petite 12-ounce cut the “Texas Cut”. Most of Alaska is uninhabited or sparsely populated wilderness. 80 percent of Alaskan communities, including the capital Juneau, have no access by road. Residents of these communities are dependent on air and sea transportation, snowmobiles, and occasionally dogsleds to access the outside world. The Municipality of Anchorage is home to 40 percent of Alaska’s residents. Fairbanks and Juneau are Alaska’s second and third largest cities, respectively.
Alaskan winters are brutally dark and frigid as the colorful Northern Lights swirl brightly in the sky. The colorful summer months are bathed in nearly constant daylight, typically with daytime temperatures that are quite comfortable for outdoor activities.
Our 2015 roadtrip began in Anchorage, with a scenic three-hour drive south on the mountainous Kenai Peninsula to Seward on the Gulf of Alaska. After touring the bays and glaciers, and encountering lots of wildlife, we would spend a night at a ski resort just south of Anchorage. After 4 days of sightseeing and relaxing in Anchorage, it was north to Talkeetna and the Denali / Mt. McKinley area for 3 days. Then we would travel further north to explore Fairbanks, and take a fly & drive tour even further north above the Arctic Circle. We spent our final night in Copper Center between the Wrangell and Chugach Mountains.
During my two Alaskan adventures, I have ridden on 8 jet aircraft, one 8-passenger prop plane, a 4-passenger Cessna, three automobiles, one cruise ship, seven tour boats, one train, one 10-person van, three trollies and two aerial trams. With the exception of our first two days, the temperature topped out in the 80s each day of our 2015 visit... sometimes approaching 90. The temperatures were cooler, but still comfortable in June, 2017. I have captured over 8000 photos, 3 hours of video and fresh, wonderful memories of 'The Land of the Midnight Sun".