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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The article 'Public transport, Alaskan style' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.