Tuesday, May 28, 2013



ANCHORAGE, a sophisticated metropolis with frontier Alaska in its backyard, is a fascinating mixture of human cultures and a rich natural history carved out by glaciers and volcanoes. Alaska's largest city, with a 2011 population of 295,570, contains approximately 50% of the entire state's  population.
 Alaska's birth and boom is directly related to its wealth of natural resources: gold, lumber, fur and oil. Some settlers came to Alaska as miners, loggers or hunters.  Some came because they realized their potential as traders, wholesalers and merchants in this rich frontier land.  

Northern Lights dance above a mirrored highrise that reflects a sod-roofed log cabin; four-wheel drive trucks share parking lots with Mercedes roadsters; rugged flannel-shirted "sourdoughs" (native Alaskans or one who has survived an Alaskan winter)  buy Alaskan lynx coats for their pioneering women. 


And the best place to buy that Alaskan lynx is at David Green, Alaska's Master Furrier.  David Green, is a family operated business run by the grandson of David Green who founded the company in 1922 when Alaska was still a territory.  
When it's time to tour, begin at the Anchorage Museum of History & Art (121 W. 7th Ave.) which showcases a permanent collection depicting 10,000 years of Alaska history.  The museum also displays works of Alaskan art from travelers, adventurers and native artists.
The Oscar Anderson House-Elderberry Park (420 M Street) is the only house museum in Anchorage.  The building was one of the city's first wood frame house, built in 1915 by Swedish immigrant Oscar Anderson.
Resolution Park (end of 3rd Ave. at L Street)contains a life-size statue of Captain James Cook overlooking Cook Inlet where he anchored in 1778.  The monument commemorates the 200th anniversary of Cook's exploration of the area on his third and final voyage.
"And behold...the earth did quake, and the rocks Rent."  The city's most sobering sight is Earthquake Park, overlooking Cook Inlet.  The park's broken ground stands in evidence of the Good Friday earthquake of March 27, 1964. In four minutes, 24,000 square miles of the earth's surface were raised or lowered an average of 3 to 8 feet.
The 1964 earthquake, the strongest quake ever recorded in North America (9.2 on the Richter), had more impact on Anchorage than any other event in its history.  Young Alaskans quickly sprang back, rebuilt the community and went on developing America's last frontier. 

 On 4th Avenue, where the annual Iditarod Dog Race begins, the David Green Furrier family placed a sculpture of a husky dog. The inscriptions reads: " 'Racing in the Footsteps of a Legend'.  Monument dedicated to all dog mushers and their heroic dogs.  In memory of David Green Pioneer Alaskan."


Lake Hood, and the adjacent harbor is the largest and busiest floatplane base in the world, with more than 800 take offs and landings on a peak summer day.  In a state where approximately 1 out of every 68 Alaskans are licensed pilots, it's not surprising that each year more than 230,000 pontooned planes take off or land  from this base.  In the winter, the floats are replaced by skis.  Providence Hospital has a heliport for emergency patients flown in from rural Alaska, also known as "the bush". 

On the south shore of Lake Hood is the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum.  Here you can see 21 vintage aircraft and learn about the state's unique aviation history.

Time permitting, it's worthwhile to take a drive east into the fertile farmland of the Matanuska Valley.  (Gray Line of Alaska offers superior tours.) The rolling lands are an unexpected change from the rugged snow capped mountains.  In 1935, families from the Midwest, reeling from the dust bowl and then the Great Depression, homesteaded in Palmer forming the first Alaskan community based on agriculture.

This rich Land of the Midnight Sun is known for growing giant vegetables.  Cabbages have been recorded as large as 73-pounds.  A world-record turnip grew to 50-pounds and a carrot weighed in at 17-pounds.  Cabbages must weigh a minimum of 50-pounds just to compete in the State Fair. The famous Alaskan-Texas rivalry reared its head when Alaskans sent a 66-pound cabbage to the Texas State Fair in a crate labeled "Brussels Sprout".

For a glimpse of the Native Athabascan culture and the influence of Russian Orthodox missionaries, visit the Eklutna Historical Park, 30 miles north of Anchorage.  A sacred burial ground of the Dena'ina (also called Tanaina) Athabascans contains more than 80 dollhouse-like spirit houses that look as if they were built by Santa's elves.  These multi-colored houses are built above each grave.

The historic old log St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church stand a few feet from the new yellow and white frame church.  On a few Indians from the Athabascan tribe still live in the village.  However more than 100 are still on the tribal roles.  Here, too, is the Heritage House Museum.

Just north of Palmer is the country's only Musk Ox Farm where you can get a close look at the shaggy prehistoric-looking animals that look like a cross between a sheep and a water buffalo.  Their soft grayish brown wool, called qiviut  (pronounced key-vee-ute), is knitted into hats, scarves and other clothing by Native Alaskans.
An ounce of qiviut  is eight times warmer than an equal amount of sheep's wool.  The wool of the rare musk ox is extremely costly.  However, the proud owner knows she possesses a garment from the rarest textile fiber on earth.

 Back in Anchorage you can buy your qiviut  masterpieces at Oomingmak, located in the little brown house with the musk ox mural (corner of 6th Ave. & H Street).  Over 200 Eskimos in this native owned cooperative (since 1969) hand-knit these wearable masterpieces in exclusive Alaskan village patterns.


A stop at Laura Wright's Alaskan Parkas  is also worthwhile.  Laura Wright parkas are expensive, but authentic.

And, to assure authenticity in whatever you buy throughout Alaska, be sure to look for one of two official symbols:  The "Silver Hand" emblem indicates the item was hand crafted by an Alaska Eskimo, Aleut, or Indian craftsperson/artist.  The "Made in Alaska" emblem indicates that the article was made in Alaska by a resident artist, craftsperson or manufacturer.  Wherever possible, items bearing these emblems have been made with Alaskan materials.


JANET STEINBERG is an award-winning Travel Writer and a Travel Consultant affiliated with The Travel Authority, Mariemont/Cincinnati, Ohio office.

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