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Planning a trip to Alaska's wilderness parks.

Planning a trip to Alaska's wilderness parks

Time, effort, and money are what it takes to plan a worthwhile trip to any of Alaska's 13 new or expanded national parks and preserves (cover story, page 120).

You don't have to be a hairy-chested mountain man. Three of the parks are accessible by car; six have some form of lodging. But almost all these lands are true wilderness. The more remote and wild your destination, the more research and preparation you will need to do.

Last summer, we spent about a month visiting these new parks. Our suggestions may help you in your own plans.

Three "Rs": research, reading, writing

Perhaps the toughest decisio is where to go. We've limited our report to national parks and preserves because they are generally accessible and most have experienced outfitters offering guided trips. All offer spectacular scenery in a variety of climates.

Along with our article, three good books give a broad overview of your options:

Alaska National Interest Lands (Alaska Geographic Society, Box 4EEE, Anchorage 99509, 1981; $14.95), 240 pages heavy with color pictures and park descriptions.

Alaska Wilderness Milepost (Alaska Northwest Publishing Co., 130 Second Ave. S., Edmonds, Wash. 98020, 1988; $14.95), 494 pages of information on bush travel.

Adventuring in Alaska, by Peggy Wayburn (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988; $10.95), a complete revision of an earlier book, is due out this August.

Also request a free Official Vacation Planner, listing guides and air taxis throughout the state, from the Alaska Division of Tourism, Box E, Juneau 99811.

Once you've narrowed your choice to two or three parks, write to each nsee page 123) for wilderness travel information lists, including outfitters and air taxis, a reading list, available accommodations, and equipment you may need.

Getting into the country with a guide

Unless you are an experienced wilderness traveler, most Park Service rangers we interviewed recommend that you join a guided trip. Usually, it makes economic as well as practical sense.

Transportation is the big cost of most trips--and outfitters can often make efficient use of air charter time by scheduling overlapping group pickups and drop-offs. Most provide food and heavy equipment such as boats and tents, leaving extra room in your pack (especially on river trips) for gear.

And the guides know the country well: how and where to find wildlife, best hikes, possible dangers. Many--but not all-- carry firearms for safety in bear country, although few we talked to had ever used them. They also know what to do in emergencies or if you're weathered in.

Choosing the right outfitter

The lists of guide services you'll get from the park will be long. To help narrow it, note which of the services are based in the gateways listed on page 123 or in our descriptions of the parks.

Ask these outfitters for brochures and price lists. Specify what you want to do. Questions to ask include: How many years have you been in business? How many trips did you take into the specific park last season? How many people maximum per trip?

Group size, we found, is very important to the overall tone of the trip. "Larger groups tend to focus more on the people inside the group instead of on what's going on around it," mused one guide. "They lose that sense of being one-on-one with the wilderness, and that is really what the back-country experience is all about. We try to limit backpack trips to 6 or 8 and river trips to 10--incuding guides. If you want people, go to Denali and ride the shuttle bus."

When comparing costs of different trips, be sure they're from same point of departure. Also, ask about discounts or custom tours for your own group of at least three persons as compared to the cost of joining another larger group.

On your own with a bush pilot

While guided trips are recommended for first-time visitors, experienced backpackers can--with careful planning--certainly strike out on their own. In parks without road access, this means air taxi.

Some outfitters and air taxi companies rent heavy gear such as rafts, canoes, and tents. In theory only licensed air taxi services can fly independent travelers, but some outfitters get around this by renting equipment or providing "services."

Rates are based on size and type of plane, location of airport (some Arctic pilots must ferry in their own gas and parts from Fairbanks), and the competition. Plane size used is determined by the combined weight and size of you and your gear. Plane charters are by the hour, including the pilot's return after a drop-off. This summer, expect to pay anywhere from $200 to $400 per hour.

Weight is critical, so no space is wasted. Several bush charters use gear for seating: on one flight, two of us sat on our rubber raft with wedged packs for backrests.

The flight is a big part of the adventure. your plane may have fat tires to allow landings on gravel or sand banks, on beaches, or right on the tundra. Most wheeled craft can be fitted with skis to land on ice caps or glaciers. Floatplanes land on tundra ponds, lakes, rivers--even the ocean.

Biggest danger is marginal weather. This notice posted in one air taxi office speaks to that very real possibility:

Be prepared and forewarned. You may be weathered in up to a week or more past your pick-up day. In this case, those who have been weathered in the longest are first in line for pick-up as weather permits.

Air costs are one area where advance planning can really pay off. Some scheduled airlines working with local commuter airlines can fly you to gateway villages for substantial savings. For example, this summer Alaska Airlines' best published fare from San Francisco to King Salmon is $711 plus tax, up to $100 less than on other connecting flights.

If you can be flexible on departure time, some air taxi services with larger planes will offer individual "seat fares" on nonscheduled flights between Anchorage or Fairbanks and some gateway villages. And if you can time your trip to work into the charter company's schedule, you can often arrange to "share" a charter--that is, to get dropped off at your destination when the plane is scheduled to head in that direction to pick up another group.

Take no more than is necessary

"The trick," insists one guide, "is to travel light but not to forget anything you might need."

Prepare for weather. Throughout our trip it would be 80| and clear one day, rainy the next, cold and windy the third. One day it showed. With bad luck, you could spend your entire trip in cold and rain.

Dress in layers. We found that long-sleeved silk underwear was cool on hot days, wicked dampness from the body, and had a tight weave that helped keep mosquitoes from biting us. Outer clothing, including cap and gloves, should be wool or a synthetic such as polypropylene. Take a rainsuit. Goretex or other breathable fabrics are passable if you have them, but most guides recommend a top-quality coated nylon wind- and waterproof rain-suit with zippered jacket, wrist and ankle fasteners, and drawstring hood and waist. They may "sweat" inside but won't soak through in wind-driven rain. Forget leather boots. We tested a system that worked even better than normally recommended rubber boots: flyweight stocking-foot hip waders over two layers of wicking wool socks and inside a comfortable trail-grade tennis shoe. This setup worked great for river trips and hiking, too. Backpackers who want the support of leather boots should resign themselves to perpetually wet feet. For camp, we carried felt-lined rubber boots.

We packed all our gear in plastic bags inside color-coded waterproof nylon stuff sacks. Put day-glow orange tape or straps on cameras, etc., so they won't disappear in the tundra. An internal-frame backpack takes less space and survives the rigors of air travel much better than an external-frame pack.

Things no one else will tell you

You might keep these notes in mind:

Giardia. For man as for wildlife in the wilderness, rivers are the focus of most travel. Giardia isn't common, but a handpumped water filter is easy insurance.

Getting wet. Bathing is in rivers and lakes--all with icy mountain origins. Rivers we swam in were so cold we got a headache after 30 seconds of thrashing, but on hot days they were refreshing. A plus: after a dip your skin is so cold mosquitoes don't seem to bother you--until you warm up.

Streams and rivers can rise dramatically in just a few hours during hot weather or after rains. Camp well above river level and be certain boats are tied.

Mosquitoes. They are found with blackflies and no-see-ums, and all are hungry. Sometimes they swarm around but aren't that aggressive; a light dusting or repellent works fine. Elsewhere they zero in for the kill.

Repellents with 95 to 100 percent DEET (diethyl-meta-toluamide) worked best but gave us a bad rash. Milder 35-percent solutions needed more frequent application but worked as well without irritation. All repellents act as solvents and will dissolve some paints and plastics (on camera bodies) and optical coatings. We used spray or crayon applicators to keep repellent off fingers and palms.

Bears. Bears are a potential problem, and all back-country hikers and campers should use extreme care to keep an immaculate camp and to store all food and trash in airtight bags and containers kept separate from camp. Most attacks occur when bears are surprised (especially sows with cubs) or deliberately approached.

Keep to open hillsides when possible. If you must cross a willow thicket--where moose can also be a threat--talk loudly, whistle, rattle a can with pebbles in it. Never approach any animal, especially a baby animal that appears to be abandoned. Read the Park Service brochure on bear safety.

Fishing. Contrary to myth, it isn't always good in every Alaskan stream. On back-country trips, lightweight, compact spinning tackle with new 8-pound-test line, a handful of split-shot weights, and a dozen basic shiny trout lures of varying sizes will be enough to catch grayling, char, or trout.

A 14-day nonresident license costs $20.

Alaska's best guides emphasize catch-and-release for all species except salmon. But mosquito repellent rubbed off your hands when releasing fish reacts with their skin and can eventually kill them.

The light factor. In summer the night comes only for a few hours. Airline eyeshades are handy for light sleepers.

Our best light for photography and wildlife viewing tended to be after dinner, and on most trips groups stayed up late. In fishing lodges, many people remained slaves to their watches and missed some of the best of the wilderness experience.

Photo: At gravel bar campsite on Noatak River, canoeists dish up breakfast of scrambled eggs, hot cocoa

Photo: Northern transport: guide Jeff Poor helps load canoe on Noatak River in Gates of the Arctic; floatplane pilot hoists a guest ashore at fishing lodge on Lake Clark
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on Sunset's Alaska book
Date:May 1, 1988
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