Public transport, Alaskan style
In Alaska you’ll learn what ‘wide open spaces’ really means, as the mostly roadless regions are impossibly remote and wild. (Emily Riddell/LPI)
In Alaska, a state more than twice the size of Texas and one-third larger than western Europe, dramatic topography, inclement weather and the sheer distances between rural villages and towns all mean that road-based infrastructure is impractical, expensive and inconvenient. And though the image of a team of dogs pulling a sled is still a common trope in Alaskan imagery, reaching remote villages today requires a bit less exposure to the elements.
That is not to say there are not roads in the US’s largest state – there are, and beautiful ones at that. But they access only relatively small areas. To witness some of Alaska’s true wilderness you will need to go off-road: riding the ferries, trains and tiny planes that service Alaska’s bush communities and parks.
Alaska Marine Highway
The steep-sided fjords of southeast Alaska and the long tendril of the Aleutian Islands are both impossible to link by road. But the Alaska Marine Highway – a ferry route that connects Bellingham, Washington with small towns all the way out to Unalaska – covers 3,500 miles of scenic byway, all by water. In southeast Alaska, the ferry weaves through the green labyrinth of the Inside Passage, stopping at rainy fishing ports and the only US state capital off the road system, Juneau. A true deal in public transportation, the Alaska Ferry is worth taking instead of a cruise; you can book cabins, will mingle with locals, and you can drive your car on and off to continue your journey when you dock.
Chugging by glaciers, rugged mountains, and churning rivers, the 500-mile rail corridor between Seward, on Resurrection Bay, and Fairbanks, just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is mainly used for shipping and, in summer, tourism.
But one small section of the railroad serves homesteaders, anglers and weekend cabin owners. Called the Hurricane Turn for where it turns around, this old two-car train is one of the last flag-stop trains in the US. And, like the Alaska Marine Highway, it travels where no roads do. Penetrating the wilderness on a 55-mile stretch between Hurricane and Talkeetna, often with surreal views of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain, the Hurricane Turn rumbles past beaver ponds, fields of neon pink fireweed, and the occasional bear or moose. Along the way, it stops to deliver hikers, campers and wilderness cabin owners. When these folks want to return, they simply wave a white flag and the conductor stops the train for them.
Many of Alaska’s villages are inland and not serviceable by ferry or rail. For most of these towns, the only way to travel or receive mail and supplies is by plane, called “bush planes”. These usually small aircraft are equipped to land on small rugged runways or, in the case of floatplanes, lakes and rivers.
Travel by bush plane is so common that Anchorage’s Lake Hood Seaplane Base is the busiest floatplane base in the world, with about 200 flights passing through each day. Humming like mosquitoes, the small aircraft are used to fly anglers into remote fishing sites, photographers to see the world’s largest grizzly bears, and tourists buzzing the summit of Mount McKinley.
Catherine Bodry is co-author of Lonely Planet’s Alaska guide