Alaska: Anchorage, fur real

By Pamela Wade

Wolf, fox, beaver, otter, mink, lynx: take your pick. Alaskans stuff 'em and keep snug in 'em too, finds Pamela Wade.

A summery tourist version of Alaska's famed dog sleds. Photo / Pamela Wade
A summery tourist version of Alaska's famed dog sleds. Photo / Pamela Wade

They do things differently in Alaska. You can get your pilot's license when you're 14, but must wait until you're 16 to drive a car. That might explain the quiet streets in the city of Anchorage, in contrast to all the floatplanes bobbing along the shores of Lake Hood, and fleets of wheeled aircraft parked beside it.

Going most places in this huge state (twice the size of Texas, though they don't boast about it) is an epic journey, with distances so vast and many towns, including state capital Juneau, inaccessible by road.

Even flying has dangers - both the flash new museum downtown and the Aviation Museum at the airport tell astonishing survival stories of stranded bush pilots - but my three-hour flight from Vancouver has, thankfully, been unremarkable. That is, except for the scenery: plus-size mountains, glaciers, icebergs and very little in the way of human habitation. This is serious wilderness country.

No wonder then, that Anchorage, the state's largest city, has a frontier feel.

The streets are wide, the buildings plain, few of them high-rise: it looks hunkered-down, which is no surprise in a place that gets almost 2m of snow every winter, when the temperature rarely rises above zero. Mini-mountains of dirty snow scraped off the roads still haven't melted by June, despite the warm sunshine.

Jaden points them out on my Trolley Tour, a ride on a mock-tram that trundles round the city and out to more distant points of interest, including a stray moose and Earthquake Park, where in 1964, a terrifying 9.2 shake sent 77 houses disappearing down the hill.

Back in town, there's video testimony from survivors at the Visitor Centre, which is riveting and well worth the security rigmarole for entry. That quake was followed by a massive tsunami that swept right along the coast and which the inhabitants, understandably, still talk about.

Even a regular tide is a 9m event, though when I stand at the Resolution Park look-out, all I can see is mud. A local lingering there, a Native American, is thrilled to learn that I've come from so far away, and makes sure I see the distant triangle of Mt McKinley. It's the highest point in North America and almost twice the height of the mountain we named after the man whose statue we're standing under: Captain Cook was here, too, in 1778, looking for the Northwest Passage.

Though it takes some getting used to, it's usual to refer to the original people as Natives, and at the Native Heritage Centre it's a local tribe member who shows me around.

Michelle is proud of her culture, and it's easy to admire the ingenuity and endurance as the tour visits reconstructions of different types of dwelling. Many are underground, and I'm amazed to learn that in some tribal territories there are no trees. That means no timber for buildings or boats - but it also means no fire, with everything that entails. Or, rather, doesn't: no heat, no cooked food, no way of getting dry. It's a mind-bogglingly contrary way to live.

Back in town, one way they kept warm is still very much in vogue.

Furs are everywhere in the shops: bear, wolf, fox, beaver, otter, mink, lynx. From head to foot, there's a furry garment to keep the wearer snug, and though I'd prefer to see the original owners inside the skins, there's apparently no denying their effectiveness in beating the cold. It also follows that taxidermy is popular, and at every turn there are mounted heads with horns or antlers, and bears caught in mid-roar. It's a Peta member's nightmare.

It's a relief then to visit the Aurora Theatre, which shows several times daily a wonderful compilation of Northern Lights footage. It's mesmerisingly beautiful, and easy to disregard the -25C temperatures that must be endured to see it for real. Outside, it's still light at 10.30pm, and the streets are busy with people making the most of the long days.

Humpy's Alaskan Ale House is full of chatter and laughter, but though the Alaskan White wheat beer suits me, the Northern Man beside me at the bar has had too many, and is swapping sad stories with a friend about mean girls.

Over on Fourth Ave, there's a statue of a sled dog: more macho types than those two gather here every March for the start of the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, around 1800km of blinding blizzards and menacing moose all the way to Nome.

It's what Anchorage is best known for; but there's much more to this remote city than husky dogs and huskier men (and women). It even has good coffee.


Checklist: Alaska

Getting there: Fly with Air Canada or Alaska Airlines from Vancouver, drive the Alaska Highway, take a train from Seward or a ferry from Bellingham in Washington State.

Accommodation: There's a full range of accommodation, including chain hotels. Try cute and comfortable Copper Whale Inn.

Further information: See anchorage.net; worldjourneys.co.nz and DiscoverAmerica.com.

- NZ Herald

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