Monday, March 12, 2012

Falling for Alaska // The 49th state offers unusual foliage feast

ANCHORAGE, Alaska It's a new rush for Alaska gold.

The prize is a paystreak of autumn golds stretching from therain forests of southeastern Alaska to the edge of the Arctic.

The colors have been there all along, but tour operators justrecently decided to stake claims to the north country's bonanza offall foliage.

"It's a discovery," said John S. Hall, president ofMinnesota-based Anderson House Tours.

"Alaska, it turns out, has the longest fall-foliage season inthe United States."

Several of Hall's colleagues thought he had been too long inthe midnight sun when first he suggested autumn-colors tours ofAlaska.

"They said the idea was ridiculous, that fall-foliage tours ofAlaska would never sell. Boy, were they wrong," Hall said.

"We scheduled one trip the first year (1990), and ended updoing four. This year we are doing eight.

"Now Alaska outsells New England for our company."

(In fairness, however, it should be noted that Alaska's goldenscenes rarely include the brilliant reds of a New England fall).

Sections of Alaska and neighboring Yukon Territory, Canada,turn solid gold for about seven weeks - from late August tomid-October. That's the time between the last wave of summertourists and winter's northern lights. Alaska's vast size and its range of climate zones are the reasonsfor the long foliage season. It's like a moving paint brush as, region by region, birches,aspens, poplars and willows are gilded by the first nips of frost. It happens first in the deep interior of Alaska, then spills southto the Anchorage area, the Kenai Peninsula, Prince William Sound andfinally the fjordlands of Southeastern Alaska. And best of all, there is no buzz of summertime mosquitoes to annoyvisitors. "We're not selling just fall foliage," Hall said. "We're alsofeaturing totem poles, wildlife and sled dogs. Alaska is like noother place on earth." Anderson House offers two kinds of foliage tours through the northcountry: 17-day air-sea-motorcoach trips that combine coach travel withvoyages aboard Alaska's state ferries. Passengers fly to Anchorage,Alaska's largest city, to begin the tours. Two departures still are available this year - leaving Anchorage onWednesday and Sept. 17. Packages that combine luxury cruising aboard Holland America Lineships and Anderson House motorcoach touring through the northland.Cruises begin in Vancouver, B.C. Four of the Anderson House/Holland America trips are planned in1997. Fall travel in Alaska has advantages. Ferries are uncrowded. Staterooms - always sold out in the summerseason - are available for most passengers. There were only 193 travelers on the 746-passenger ferry Matanuskalast fall as Hall led a group of Midwest travelers north to Alaska. The ferry coasted through the tall-totem country of SoutheasternAlaska's Inside Passage . . . pausing at Ketchikan, Wrangell,Petersburg, Juneau, Sitka, Haines and Skagway. Whales rolled. Bald eagles soared. Glaciers glittered. Sunsetsblazed. "Nature screams out the presence of the Lord here," said SisterAncilla Russell, of Aberdeen, S.D. Sister Ancilla, a hospital chaplain, and her childhood friend, BettyBeck, a retired telephone employee from Aberdeen, had talked abouttraveling to Alaska 45 years before. Then their lives took separate paths. Alaska had to wait. "But here we are," Sister Ancilla said. "It was worth the wait." Marie Jacobs, a widow, also from Aberdeen, wanted to see the ruggedland where her late husband helped build the Alaska Highway duringWorld War II. "He planned to bring me back so we could see it together, but thatwas not to be," she said. "It's as beautiful as he said it was." Most of the passengers were farm folk in the plus-65 age bracket. "But they have more get-up-and-go than a lot of people half theirage," said 53-year-old John Hall. "I huff and puff to keep up withthem." In Juneau, the travelers checked into a hotel at 6 a.m. (impossiblein peak season) - then went sightseeing. "We can nap later - no use wasting time," said Ruth Thompson, ofGroton, S.D. The main attraction: Mendenhall Glacier, a 12-mile-long river of icethat meanders almost to Alaska's capital city. "I have a sudden craving for a snow cone," joked Mike Heim, a tourguide, as the glacier came into view. It was farther north, along a stretch of the Alaska Highway in YukonTerritory, that the first nuggets of Alaska's autumn gold appeared. The scene was all the more dramatic as golden trees framed mountainscrowned with fresh snow. Ruth Thompson sighed. "I didn't expect anything like this," she said. "I'm glad I came." Sanford and Lois Hrabe, of Chamberlain, S.D., were seeing Alaska'sfall extravaganza for the second time. "The colors were so wonderful that we wanted to come again," SanfordHrabe said. "There's so much to see in Alaska that you can't do itall in one trip." More blazes of gold pointed the way north. Wildlife was on the move. Fall was racing toward winter. A brown bear browsed by a pond, searching for the last of theseason's sweet blueberries. Glossy-brown moose tramped through aspruce forest. There was a bone-jarring stretch of highway as the coach neared theYukon-Alaska border. Blame it on a northern condition called permafrost, Hall explained. The ground just under the road is permanently frozen. Alternateseasons of freezing and thawing sometimes buckle the pavement. Next day, as the group traveled toward Valdez, a mountain-rimmedport on Alaska's Prince William Sound, there was a surprise: aChristmas card in mid-September. An earlier-than-usual snowfall overnight had cloaked evergreensalong the highway. Leaves of birches and aspens flashed like goldensequins against a deep-blue sky. Intermission. Even gold-seekers need a change of pace. From Valdez, the visitors went glacier-viewing with one of Alaska'sfavorite skippers, Stan Stephens. He was one of the first on the scene after the Exxon Valdez hit areef near Valdez in 1989 and spilled its cargo of crude oil. NowStephens is a leader in campaigns for improved tanker safety. "No more tragedies," he vows. It was an average day in Prince William Sound - sea otters cruisingon their backs, bald eagles watching from tree tops, sea lionsbasking on navigation buoys, glaciers hanging like diamonds frommountain notches. Later, on the Glenn Highway, near Anchorage, there was more goldengrandeur. Bands of autumn gold swept across a valley where massive MatanuskaGlacier merges with a silvery river. The pageantry continued all the way into Anchorage. "And," said John Hall, "some people wonder if there really are fallcolors in Alaska." Stanton H. Patty, born and reared in Alaska, is the retiredassistant travel editor of The Seattle Times.

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