Move over, Sarah Palin. The Alaska governor may have won the No. 1 spot on Google's 2008 worldwide search list, making her the state's most famous resident. But in 2009, the state's entire 586,412 square miles is claiming the limelight. January 3 marks the 50th anniversary of Alaska's becoming the 49th state, and for the approximately 690,000 inhabitants of the fair, far North, it's the start of a yearlong commemoration. A trip north to join them can give you a new appreciation for the vastness and variety that is America.
Palin's campaign for vice president brought greater visibility to her home state, and that's fine with Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. The response rate to the association's direct-mail campaign this year was 20 percent higher than in previous years, he says.
"This is an opportunity to record and reflect on the cultural diversity that Alaskans bring to the larger American context," says Greg Kimura, president and CEO of the Alaska Humanities Forum. His group is sponsoring a number of projects for the half-centennial, with several aimed at capturing the oral histories of Alaskans in all their diversity. It's important "to get the stories of statehood experience now, because by the 75th anniversary, a lot of the people who were present in 1959 won't still be here," he says.
That human element is particularly important given how vast—and how remote—the state is. "You can drive along the Alaskan Highway there for six hours with just static on the car radio" because there are no stations close enough to pick up, says Aaron Spitzer, coauthor of the eighth edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Alaska and editor of Up Here magazine. "You'll encounter millions of trees for every human being." After a while, it starts to feel like "a journey backwards to a time and place, to a world of untamed nature," like the frontier territories in the lower 48 states once appeared.
Most first-time visitors to Alaska catch their initial glimpse from an airplane or a cruise ship. Approximately 1 million tourists take an Alaskan cruise each year, Peck says. Despite the crowds that throng the deck as the glaciers glide by, the blue-green vistas remain glorious. Even when the narrow streets of old gold-mining towns like Skagway become jammed with passengers from ships docked for the day, there is still the charm of an aura of history and the unparalleled views.
Small-group adventures can be found aplenty, points out Dan Oberlatz, owner of Alaska Alpine Adventures and vice president of the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association. Such trips—which can feature kayaking, canoeing, fishing, mountain-climbing, and bear- or bird-watching—tend to emphasize sustainable tourism and leave visitors with heightened awareness of environmental threats. From receding glaciers to endangered wildlife, "people can really see what's happening with climate change here," Oberlatz says.
Because Alaska is so big, visitors planning a trip need to focus on their own must-sees. "Decide if you want to see a bear in its natural habitat from 20 feet away, if you want to stand next to the lake that is in all of the photographs reflecting Mount McKinley's alpen glow, [or] if you want to camp on a glacier," says Peggy Wilcox, a fourth-generation Alaskan who has guided tours throughout the state.
Fewer people may see any of it this year, alas. Because of the economic downturn, tourism everywhere is down, including Alaska, Peck says. But for those who don't take advantage of the various specials offered by many Alaskan tour companies in honor of the 50th anniversary, there's always next year, right? You betcha.