by Aaron Feigenbaum.
Alaska, wedged between Canada and Russian Siberia, is a land of unspoiled beauty and proud traditions. It has some of North America’s most unique natural wonders including the Northern lights, 20-hour winter days, and Mt. McKinley, the highest peak on the continent. Everything in Alaska is big and bold including untamed rivers, soaring mountains, fields of ice as far as the eye can see and forests teeming with some of America’s most stunning wildlife.
As an ideal winter destination, Alaska has plenty of thrilling opportunities for skiing and other traditional winter activities. However, those who are willing to go the extra mile to see what this wilderness really has to offer will want to consider more involved activities such as ice climbing or taking a bush plane ride across the frozen northern tundra. After you’ve explored Alaska’s surreal winter landscape and lain at night under the dazzling colors of the aurora borealis, you can come back again in the summer and go hiking through verdant meadows or fish for Alaksa’s famous jumbo-sized salmon. For a trip that’s the textbook definition of “off the beaten path,” few places offer as much natural beauty and unforgettable adventures as Alaska.
The history of Alaska starts with its native inhabitants, commonly referred to as “Eskimos” which means “snowshoes-netters” in the Montagnais languages. They crossed the Bering Land Bridge of Siberia thousands of years ago to settle in what is now Alaska. Native Alaskans are today divided into several groups: Eskimos, consisting of the Inupiat and Yup’ik, the Athabascans, those who live on the southeastern coast, and the Aleuts who inhabit the huge Aleutian Islands chain.
The first European contact with Alaska occurred in 1784 when Russian trader Grigory Shelikhov landed on Kodiak Island and founded the first Russian settlement. The name “Alaska” comes from the Russified version of the Aleut word for “the great land,” Alyeska. Despite the presence of rival British and Spanish settlements, Russia managed to maintain a monopoly on the Alaskan fur trade for over a century. However, the Czar never fully colonized Alaska as the Russian settlements lost their economic advantage to the British Hudson’s Bay Company. Russia then attempted to ban foreign traders within its Alaskan sphere of influence, as seen in the 1824 Russo-American Treaty, but this proved futile. Russia’s economic misfortune in Alaska and desire to keep the British out of its neighborhood resulted in the sale of Alaska to the U.S. in the Alaska Purchase of 1867, derisively referred to as “Seward’s Folly,” for $7.2 million ($118 million in today’s dollars).
Of course, with the discovery of gold in nearby Yukon, the purchase of Alaska turned out to be anything but foolish. Though not much gold was found in Alaska itself, the Yukon Gold Rush of 1896 brought in thousands of miners and brought Alaska up from the depths of an economic depression. By the turn of the century, Alaska’s gold and fishing industries had taken off and the territory was on solid economic ground. However, there wasn’t much political will to press the issue of statehood. Alaska had a small population that was satisfied with the status quo. It wasn’t until the Japanese invasion in WWII of two of the Aleutian Islands, Attu and Kiska, that Alaska was treated as a strategic military outpost. The Battle of the Aleutian Islands resulted in American victory, but at the cost of thousands of casualties. On January 3, 1959, Alaska was finally granted statehood.
Alaska then experienced a second kind of gold rush with the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968. The oil boom took off over the course of the next two decades until it briefly came to a halt in the infamous 1994 Exxon Valdez disaster, which severely damaged Alaska’s fragile ecosystem. Today, the controversy over Alaska’s oil industry is still raging, with a controversial plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at the heart of the debate.
Anchorage: Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and the most popular starting point for visitors exploring the frontier state. A great sight is the Alaska Native Heritage Center which features not only native Alaskan artifacts, but also traditional dance performances and an outdoors section showing different aspects of native life. The even more impressive Anchorage Museum has over 600 native objects, high-tech video displays with native storytellers and the sounds of wild Alaska, as well as a children’s Discover center.
Then be sure to visit the small, but highly unique Anchorage Zoo. The zoo features animals specific to Northern climates such as grizzly bears, bald eagles, polar bears, and moose. For hiking in the Anchorage area, one of the best trails is the one leading to the peak of Flattop Mountain. A short 3-mile trek rewards with you with awe-inspiring views of surrounding valley and the nearby glacier. Another popular hiking adventure is Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. This 11-mile expedition takes travelers through ancient forests and offers views of surfacing beluga whales as well as the indomitable Mt. McKinley in the far distance.
For skiing, Alaska’s largest ski resort, Alyeska, is located 64 miles south of Anchorage in Girdwood. Alyeska has a variety of terrain for every difficulty level, and its magnificent hotel sits picturesquely on an alpine lake as if it were transplanted right from Switzerland. Last but certainly not least, a museum, located at the Chabad house, details Alaska’s Jewish history.
Fairbanks: As Alaska’s second-largest city, Fairbanks stands at the crossroads of several major Alaskan highways. It is often included on Alaskan travel itineraries for one simple reason: it’s one of the best places in the world to view the Northern lights, visible from mid-August through April. For the full Northern lights adventure, look for companies such as Sirius and Black Spruce that take you on a multi-day dog sled trip to prime viewing spots.
The city of Fairbanks itself is much like a typical American city in the lower 48 with plenty of chain malls and restaurants. However, there’s still no shortage of interesting attractions to see. The University of Alaska’s Museum of the North has great exhibits about native cultures. The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center is dedicated to Alaska’s general history, which it presents in state-of-the-art fashion with an HD theater and over 9,000 square feet of interactive displays. At Pioneer Park, you can enjoy an aviation museum, native village, mining tunnel, President Warren Harding’s car, the S.S. Nenana (an old steamboat that once crossed Alaskan rivers), and other kids’ activities. One of the best tours in Fairbanks is the Riverboat Discovery tour, a narrated trip down the Chena River which stops at an Athabascan fishing village as well as the Chena Indian Village, showing visitors firsthand how life was like for native Alaskans before colonization.
A fantastic family-friendly activity is panning for gold at Gold Dredge 8, an area that once extracted millions of ounces of gold in the late 1800‘s. A narrated train ride recounts the history of Alaska gold mining. Whatever gold you pan is yours to keep.
If you’re willing to go out of your way, enjoy some R&R at Chena Hot Springs Resort, located sixty miles outside Fairbanks. This world-class resort offers an indoor pool, hot tubs, and the Aurora Ice Museum where everything is made of ice including an ice tower and a full-size game of ice chess.
Juneau: Alaska’s capital and third-largest city is located in the state’s Southern Panhandle near British Columbia. The surrounding area is quite different from the rest of Alaska, with rainforest being the norm. Travelers describe this city as a “cooler, even wetter version of Seattle,” yet it’s still, on average, Alaska’s warmest area. The Alaska State Museum has excellent displays covering the state’s history starting with the Bering Land Bridge crossing and going all the way to post-statehood. There’s a tramway in downtown Juneau that connects the city with nearby Mt. Roberts where you can take a fairly gentle hike or, for the more adventurous, climb to the mountain’s summit.
Just 12 miles away from downtown Juneau is Mendenhall Glacier, one of the region’s best attractions. The glacier area boasts beautiful hiking and camping spots, and some companies offer helicopter tours which give you a panoramic view of the area. A nearby visitor center has an informative museum, and is an easy access point to hiking and fishing expeditions. Juneau tour packages incorporate whale/bear watching, glacier exploration, and, depending on the company, rafting.
Ketchikan: This sleepy fishing port is the first stop for ferries and cruise ships coming from the south. Located in the coastal rainforest of southern Alaska, Ketchikan is one of North America’s rainiest towns, averaging about 160 inches of precipitation per year. It was once known as the “canned salmon capital of the world” but has since thrived on tourism. The town’s Totem Heritage Center has one of the largest collections of totem poles in the world. The picturesque Creek Street is one of Ketchikan’s main tourist draws; it features many charming wooden houses and a view of migrating salmon in the adjacent river. Ketchikan is also the perfect jumping-off point for a seaplane tour, rainforest hike, or even a rainforest zipline tour.
Aleutian Islands: This massive chain of islands stretches out from the mainland of southwestern Alaska towards Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, with Attu Island being the westernmost point of the United States. The Aleutian’s largest city is Unalaska where bald eagles are as commonplace. Unalaska is home to the Aleutian WWII National Historic Area. The area’s visitor center houses a museum which tells the tale of WWII’s bloody, forgotten war in the far north. The park preserves Mt. Schwatka, America’s highest coastal defense battery. The observation posts, gun batteries, and tunnels are very well preserved.
The Museum of the Aleutians shows how the creative Aleut people adapted to life in such an unforgiving environment. Other displays center around the period of Russian colonization, the evacuation of the Aleutian Islands in WWII, and the modern fishing industry. Head to Expedition Park to get perfect bald eagle photos.
Barrow: Barrow, Alaska is one of the state’s most unique and remote locales. It’s famous as the northernmost settlement in America. It lies in a flat, foggy area that’s locked in almost perpetual winter. The Inupiat people have made Barrow, or Ukpeagvik (“place to hunt snow owls”), their home for over two millennia and still constitute the majority of the town’s population. Here, the midnight sun doesn’t set for 82 days lasting from May to August, making living conditions especially harsh. You can see the Inupiat Heritage Center, gaze upon the Northern lights, take a helicopter tour, take a photo under the whale bone arch (a testament to Barrow’s whaling history), or just go for a stroll out on the frozen Arctic Ocean. Barrow is only accessible by Alaska Airlines, offering service from Fairbanks and Anchorage, and Era Airlines, with service from Anchorage. There’s also barge transportation in the summer.
Daven and Eat:
For Orthodox shuls, the only option is Chabad of Alaska. It’s located in Anchorage at 1210 East 26th Avenue. It can be reached at 907-279-1200.
Catering can be arranged in advance with Chabad. Falafel King in Anchorage (930 Gambell Street/907 258-4328) which is a well-reviewed kosher Israeli restaurant. Natural Pantry Market in Anchorage (3801 Old Seward Hwy/ 907-770-1444) has a decent selection of kosher food.
Note: Please consult your rav for special instructions on davening and Shabbos candle lighting times in Alaska.
Anchorage and Fairbanks are accessible by most major airlines. Smaller cities such as Juneau and Ketchikan are served by Alaska Airlines via Anchorage. Kosherica offers two glatt kosher cruises in the summer leaving from Seattle. Currently, the cheapest flights from LAX to Anchorage cost around $600 per person round trip. If you’re willing to brave the drive from Los Angeles to Anchorage, it’ll take 3,400 miles or about 65 hours. For winter driving, a block heater is recommended to protect your car’s engine from the cold weather.
(Sources: Wikitravel, Lonely Planet, Tripadvisor)