Travel: Bear necessities; IF YOU WANT TO CHILL OUT, ALASKA IS THE RIGHT PLACE, SAYS JANE KERR.
ALASKA is the place where people come to live their dream," tour guide Jennifer Jolis says as she points out new hotels in Fairbanks, the state's gateway to the Arctic.
"No one tells you that you can't do it," she adds, "They just support you."
Such in-built optimism seems to run through all Alaska residents like a vein of gold in rock. They're just so enthusiastic about everything that you can't help but share their excitement.
There are any number of historical reasons for them to feel this way. It was less than 100 years ago that a young Italian prospector called Felix Pedro hit gold north of Fairbanks, a discovery which brought thousands of dreamers to the surrounding hills to pan and sluice.
Over half a century later, it was black gold - oil - that made people rich in Alaska.
Today, modern-day adventurers are discovering that America's 49th state has further untapped treasures - and they're not nearly as difficult as gold or oil to find.
The awesome beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, its spectacular mountain ranges, the wildlife, the limitless outdoor activities on offer and, of course, the friendliest people I've ever met make it my idea of a perfect holiday.
The other thing that Alaska is famous for is the Northern Lights, the phenomenon of the aurora borealis which takes place in the northern winter sky.
I'd like to say that I saw this light spectacular, if only to tick it off on the list of 50 Things To Do Before You Die, which was compiled by the BBC last September.
It was number 10 after whale-watching, sky-diving and flying in a hot-air balloon - incidentally among other activities you can do in Alaska.
But every time these lights filled the sky, I was either fast asleep or had my back turned.
EVEN so, there's plenty of reasons to head for Alaska. One of them is that it's now far easier to fly there than ever before.
British Airways flies to Anchorage via Seattle and it's worth checking out a new direct service from Frankfurt, Germany - a short hop from any UK airport - to Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Almost a third of Alaska is north of the Arctic Circle. At Point Barrow, Alaska's northern-most point, the sun never sets between May and August.
But against these conditions, Alaska is filled with people living their dreams. People like Mike and Pam Nickols, who moved into a once-derelict cabin in the Talkeetna Mountains, 22 miles from the nearest town and accessible only by float plane or snowmachine.
"I spent 15 minutes looking at the broken windows and dilapidated doors and roofs of what had been a hunting camp... and the rest of the time surveying the most beautiful country I had ever seen," said Mike, recalling the moment he hired a bush pilot to fly him to the isolated spot 11 years ago.
Since then they've had to deal with grizzly bears and wolves at the front door, winter snows up to the eaves and windchill factors of minus 68. But up at Bear Point, so called because Mike, Pam and nine-year-old son Aaron saw five bears from up here on their first day, it's easy to see why they stayed.
It was September when I checked into one of the cosy wooden cabins at Mike and Pam's property and the snow was less than a few weeks away. But a richly-coloured blanket of fireweed, alder, berries and fiddle-head fern still covered the hillside.
"When it snows and it's all white up here, a moose is like a bean in a flour sack," said Mike, who has a curious way with words, as he nodded at the panoramic view which stretches west to Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range.
When it comes to living so close to nature, Mike's motto is "Use not abuse, conserve not preserve, share not hoard."
And so, in the evenings, after a candle-lit feast likely to include sock-eye salmon and homemade bread, Mike entertains visitors with wonderful stories of living in the bush and might even be persuaded to get out his guitar and sing.
A three-day stay at Caribou Lodge (www.cariboulodgealaska.com), based on double occupancy, includes all lodging and meals, daily guided hiking and use of all facilities and costs $795 plus $7.50 bed tax per person.
Understanding the attraction of this way of life comes from learning about Alaska's rich history. Until the Gold Rush in the 1880s, Alaska was largely unexplored.
One of the first stops for any visitor should be the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage (www.akaskanative.net) which brings alive history of Alaska's first settlers.
Much of their culture is based on the idea of sharing, rather than hoarding their food and possessions - a trait I found in many Alaskans.
In the week I travelled around Alaska I had the opportunity to fulfil some of my own ambitions. My first was to see whales and sea lions in the wild. My second was to lead a team of Alaskan huskies.
In Judy Currier's backyard there are 23 pure-bred Siberian huskies and 50 Alaskan huskies, among which are the team which led her in the 1999 Iditarod Trial, the legendary dog-sled contest dubbed the Last Great Race on Earth. Next year, it starts in Anchorage on March 6.
Visitors can now learn the basics of dog mushing from Judy and husband Devan during a visit to their Paw Print Bed and Sled farm at Two Rivers, near Fairbanks. (email Judy at firstname.lastname@example.org). And any aches and pains from the sled ride can easily be soothed away by a visit a short distance away to Chena Hot Springs, one of 124 geothermal pools in the state(www.chenahotsprings.com)
It's easy to imagine the vastness of Alaska on the 115-mile route between Anchorage and Seward, a scenic highway which winds through lakes so smooth they reflect the glacier-covered hills that tower above them.
It was in Seward that I fulfilled my second dream. On a windswept day, we set out on a cruise through the Kenai Fjords National Park, 607,805 acres of unspoiled wilderness on the south-east coast of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula.
Over the next eight hours, from the bow of our ship, I watched in awe as the ranger pointed out wildlife I'd only ever seen on TV - sea otters, bald eagles, Orca whales, Dall's porpoises, Steller sea lions, mountain goats... the list goes on. But I will never forget the Aialik glacier cracking and moving in front of my eyes. Glaciers aren't the colour you expect - they're a luminous blue because of the light refracting through thousands of tiny bubbles.
The Alaska Sealife Center in Seward helps to explain Alaska's complex marine eco-system. Although it is a marine research centre, dedicated to understanding and rehabilitating stricken marine life, visitors are allowed to get intimately involved in the project.
BUT I lost my heart to a town called Talkeetna, a settlement in the shadow of Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak at 20,320 feet, which has become a mecca for backpackers, climbers and hikers.
Here is a true taste of Alaska, a glimpse of what early settlers and gold prospectors found at the turn of the century.
A single ribbon of wooden detached shops now replaces what used to be a tent city when the prospectors poured into Talkeetna and nearby Dead Horse. A sign on the door of Nagley's store, states it accepts Visa, Mastercard, Amex, cash - and gold.
Bill, who reckons to have escaped death four or five times, has a good line in bear stories and bear jokes. One of the favourites has two hunters who are suddenly confronted with a grizzly bear. As one of them quickly straps on his trainers, his companion says: "What are you doing? There's no way you can out-run this bear."
THE BOTTOM LINE
ALASKA Travel Industry Association has an excellent website - www.travelalaska.com - which will give details on everything above, answer additional questions and help plan your holiday itinerary.
REMOTE lake and river fishing trips by plane - www.Alaskabush.net or ring 001 (907) 733 1693.
ALASKA Native Heritage Center - www.alaskanative.net, or (907) 330 8000.
BILL Royce's Birch Pond Lodge (email@example.com) ring 001 907 863 0086.
KENAI Fjords National Parks Cruise (877) 258 6877
ANIMAL MAGIC: Polar bears, brown bears and whales can all be found in Alaska; BLUE YONDER: Alaska wilderness is truly awesome
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Dec 20, 2003|
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