On the move in Alaska

Way up north by plane, train and husky sled

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KEITH BLACK­MORE

EVENfly­ing to Alaska is an ad­ven­ture. Four hours af­ter leav­ing Ice­land, a glance out of the win­dow re­veals an­other ice land — of floes and glaciers, moun­tains and val­leys, and end­less miles of daz­zling un­touched snow.

Nor was this just a glimpse. On a flight that takes us as far as the Thule Air Base, 1200km north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, the wilder­ness of Green­land and then Alaska it­self rolls past that win­dow for hours.

And then as we near An­chor­age, seven hours or so af­ter leav­ing Reyk­javik, Mount McKin­ley, the tallest moun­tain in the US at 6194m, ap­pears ma­jes­ti­cally to the north. This newish route is a real al­ter­na­tive to vis­it­ing Alaska by cruise (80 per cent of tourists ar­rive by ship).

Planes are the real story here and if you’re not on a cruise there is go­ing to be a lot of fly­ing, of­ten in very small aero­planes or helicopters. Alaska is a place whose whole ex­is­tence owes much to fly­ing; one in ev­ery 85 res­i­dents can fly a plane. A school­teacher tells us that in one of her classes of teenagers only two stu­dents could drive but 11 had pilot’s li­cences.

Just out­side An­chor­age there is what seems to be a gi­ant com­mu­nal back gar­den be­hind a line of houses. It is only when you see the small planes parked like cars be­hind ev­ery home that you re­alise you are look­ing at a fully work­ing airstrip.

We­take off our­selves from An­chor­age in a six-seater Cessna a cou­ple of days later and our thrilling two-hour flight gives us a closer look at McKin­ley. It is hard not to feel like In­di­ana Jones as, in a se­ries of swoops and climbs, we thread our way through the val­leys of the lower slopes and then glo­ri­ously through the clouds and around the sum­mit. Back on earth, An­chor­age proves to be a pleas­ant, small Amer­i­can city, best seen by vis­i­tors as the place to start their wider ex­plo­ration of the US’s largest state.

And so we join the Alaska Rail­road to head through breath­tak­ing wilder­ness to the port of Se­ward on the Ke­nai Penin­sula. It is a tourist ser­vice, tak­ing an im­prac­ti­cal amount of time to travel a com­par­a­tively short dis­tance (four hours from An­chor­age to Se­ward) but the car­riages are de­signed with sight­see­ing in mind and have view­ing plat­forms out­side. Weare just too early, in May, to see bears but we see por­cu­pines, bald ea­gles and moose among the many crea­tures that have grown used to the daily in­tru­sion of our stately train.

We clock up more wildlife at Se­ward. Al­though our grey whale cruise is a bit of a mis­nomer, with no grey whales mak­ing an ap­pear­ance, we see two pods of killer whales ca­vort­ing, heed­less of us, along the shore­line of Res­ur­rec­tion Bay (which is ac­tu­ally a fiord); sea lions bask­ing in the weak spring sun; por­poises; a pair of sea ot­ters, pad­dling along on their backs side by side; and many va­ri­eties of birds.

Then we come across some feed­ing hump­back whales; one of which, sens­ing food be­yond our boat, sud­denly per­forms its char­ac­ter­is­tic ‘‘fluke’’ dive, whip- ping its mighty tail out of the wa­ter and plung­ing un­der our boat.

The next day we try some­thing al­most as ex­otic. Dog-sled­ding is a big sport in Alaska with the an­nual Idi­tarod Race (from March 1 next year) be­ing some­thing like an Alaskan cup fi­nal, start­ing and fin­ish­ing be­fore big crowds. The Seavey fam­ily has won three Idi­tar­ods and have been breed­ing the hardy, speedy dogs that pull the sleds for gen­er­a­tions. A visit to their ken­nels not only al­lows you to see how th­ese dogs live but pro­vides the chance to take them for a sprint. Our team of 16 runs us round their train­ing route with bound­less en­thu­si­asm.

Then back to An­chor­age and on to Juneau, the state cap­i­tal. Barely 30,000 live in this com­mu­nity squeezed be­tween the moun­tains and the Gastineau Chan­nel. Much of its busi­ness comes from the cruise ships that visit in sea­son (four a day while we are there) but be­yond the wa­ter­front is a delightful town nes­tled against the moun­tain­side, with the feel of a mini San Fran­cisco.

We take the Mount Roberts Tramway 610m up the peak for a fab­u­lous view of the city and the chan­nel with the moun­tains be­yond, be­fore set­ting off for the Men­den­hall glacier. This as­ton­ish­ing river of ice is one

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