Navigating the Frontier

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, June 1998

Navigating the Frontier

By Bill Sherwonit

'The civilized imagination cannot cover such quantities of wild land," John McPhee once wrote of Alaska. Indeed, the 49th state can be daunting, its 656,424 square miles supporting a population of less than 608,000, few of them nearby when you need directions. But with the necessary contacts, cautions, maps, and encouragements, you'll soon be navigating "the country" (as its residents call it) like a sourdough.

Getting there: Five major airlines fly to Anchorage: Alaska, Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United. Round-trip fares from New York average about $670; from Los Angeles, $400. You can also arrive by sea: The Alaska Marine Highway System (800-642-0066) offers ferry service from Bellingham, Washington, to Juneau and other towns throughout the summer. One-way fares range from $226 to $386, depending on where you're going and whether you snooze on a deck chair or in a stateroom. Those with time and a reliable vehicle might consider driving the Alaska Highway, which begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, 2,453 miles from Anchorage. Despite its reputation as a car-trasher, the highway is mostly paved.

Getting around: Many of Alaska's roads, especially in the interior, are unpaved and rutted. Driving these routes requires patience and an extensive repair kit. Also be aware that some rental companies forbid you to take their vehicles off the state's main roads and all of them forbid driving on the rugged Dalton Highway. If you wish to do so, you'll need to rent a four-wheel-drive in Seattle and go from there. In Anchorage, Jeeps and other SUVs are available from Affordable New Car Rental for about $500 per week (907-243-3370). Prefer not to drive? The Alaska Railroad (800-544-0552) has stylish, art-deco cars and links Seward, Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks. To get deeper into the bush, you'll have to fly. Air charter services such as Rust's Flying Service (800-544-2299) fly into most wildlife refuges, national forests, and other public lands.

Guided trips: With so many outfitters operating in the state, choosing one can be difficult. The nonprofit Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association can help (907-463-3038). It acts as a liaison for more than 200 companies involved in ecotourism and adventure travel. Or order the Division of Tourism's Vacation Planner (800-762-5275). Organized by region, it has information on lodging, transportation, activities, and guide services.

On your own: As you begin to lay your plans, first pay a visit to Alcanseek (, the official Internet search engine for Alaska and Canada, which provides links to hundreds of pages devoted to the far north. For more specific information about public lands, including hunting and fishing permits and licenses, contact the National Park Service (907-257-2690), the Alaska State Parks headquarters (907-269-8400), or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (907-786-3487). Once you arrive in the state, head for the nearest Alaska Public Land Information Center office, where you'll find maps, brochures, and advice (Anchorage, 907-271-2737; Fairbanks, 907-456-0527).

Readings: Those driving in Alaska should get a copy of the 1998 edition of The Milepost, a minutely detailed description of virtually every highway in the state ($21.95, from Vernon Publications, 800-726-4707). The Alaska Wilderness Guide ($16.95, also from Vernon Publications) includes descriptions of more than 250 bush communities, as well as information on camping, hiking, and other activities. A well-organized primer on public lands is Nancy Lange Simmerman's Alaska Parklands: The Complete Guide ($18.95, from The Mountaineers Books, 206-223-6303). Finally, for an intoxicating sampling of some of the best literature Alaska has inspired, check out Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present, edited by Wayne Mergler ($22.95, from Alaska Northwest Books, 800-452-3032), and of course John McPhee's masterful 1977 rumination, Coming into the Country, one of the most insightful books on Alaska.

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