Monday, 13 September 2010

Alaska: How To Live Once You Get There

(Editor’s note: This is the second and final installment of Hazard’s guide to Alaska on the Cheap.)
Gimme Shelter
A place to stay in Alaska will also throw your budget off. If it weren’t for the Youth Hostel in Anchorage ($10 a night, six nights maximum in low season, three in high summer), I’d be a pauper after two weeks. Sitka also has a fine AYH outlet ($7 a night). The Sitka and Ketchikan hostels are summer only and require sleeping bags.
I spent my first night in Fairbanks at the Polaris—billed as the highest building in the burg—for $78. It was the most amenities-poor hostelry I’ve ever booked.
I went there to snoop on the Elderhostel week-long seminar on Alaskan literature, politics and indigenous art. Their whole package was $320 F.O.B. Fairbanks. The lectures and trips were nutritious and genuinely appreciated by the 50 or so seniors taking the course.
Several Elderhostel summer courses are also given at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka—a marvelous venue with a library and world-class museum of its chosen subject, Alaskana. (It even had the two textbooks I edited in the 1960s—a thrill somewhat reduced by the fact that nobody had checked them out since the 1970s.) No doubt about it: Elderhostel is the only sure way I found to beat the high cost of Alaska.
The second night I “passed” in the Alaska Motor Inn, with a defective TV, a lumpy bed and no telephone for $45, serenaded into the wee hours by a distraught lover singing a sad, tipsy song from his four-by-four to his girlfriend bedded down upstairs with somebody else.
The third night I spent at a bed-and-breakfast near the University for $38—$40 if I used my Visa. B-and-B boomers meet you at the train station. The bed was marvelous, the TV plugged in to CNN, and I shall relish the memory of the breakfast for months—omelettes, fresh fruit, two kinds of nut cake, and so on.
Somehow, this young woman rises at 5 a.m., makes Lucullan repasts for her dozen overnight guests, then commutes to the University, where she’s a secretary. Maybe the miracle derives from the fact that her spouse is a graduate student in divinity.
B and B is the way to go if you’re not old or serious enough to Elderhostel. In Homer, I paid $57.50 for a lovely room at the Driftwood Lodge (free pickup and return to the airport), but the breakfast part was free coffee—with an honor system cash box for whatever Danish or doughnuts you consumed. Whooee. Professional skinflint that I am, I trekked down to the Trailside Inn, three blocks away, for the morning paper and my own cache of doughnuts.
If you go to Sitka, by all means stay at the Karras B and B, for $43.40. Pete is an ex-Navy man who settled there in 1947, married a Tlingkit and has a constant stream of interesting locals drifting in and out of the gill net of his parlor. He’ll also pick up and deliver at the airport.
Eats, Indigenous and Otherwise:
Eating, with a few savory exceptions, was my biggest disappointment in Alaska. Perhaps I was wrecked for good by the generosity of the train agent in Churchill, Manitoba, in 1988 who, when I asked him where in town I could eat caribou, said, “Nowhere,” then went to the train station fridge and slapped a caribou steak on the ticket window sill gratis. On the way back to Winnipeg, the dining car chef cooked it for me.
No such luck in Alaska. Although I overheard many tall tales about recent kills and astonishing catches, the closest I got to local food was reindeer sausage at a Westmark Hotel / Anchorage breakfast. The biggest letdown was the gorge-‘til-you-die salmonbake ($14.95 less a $3 coupon from the daily paper) at Fairbanks’ Alaskaland. Bad ribs, so-so halibut chips and merely OK salmon slabs.
Alaskaland, if I may give my opinion, is the most dismal theme park I’ve ever set foot in—machinery from the mining era rusting sadly before explanatory signs in an even sadder state of disrepair. I learned more about local history from the fisherman who volunteered to drive me from the airport than from the exhibits themselves.
The Fiddlehead in Juneau has a great rep, but the seafood jambalaya was 90% jam and 10% the seafood I hungered for. Ditto the Luna in Juneau, highly recommended by Neil, the cabbie who drove me in from the airport.
I did have two fine seafood gumbo soups—one at the Clarion Hotel outdoor restaurant on Lake Spenard, where its tastiness was compounded by the ambient  thrills of seaplanes (overloaded for forays into the bush) that lumbered slowly into the sky, buzzing our heads.
And Cyrano’s Book Store and Café in Anchorage is one of the sweetest venues in all Alaska for the polite palavers I dote on. Phyllis’s Café across the street touts itself loudly as a fresh scone source. The dinky soda biscuit lightly lathered with unfresh raspberries they served me was the nadir of my search for food to remember. The cook obviously needs a quick trip to Dorset to taste (even look at) the real article.
There’s food for thought and feeling that the penny-pinching tourist should look for. The premiere poet of Alaska, John Haines, was signing his latest collection at Cyrano’s when I passed through. The last thing my poetry-video-making son had said as I boarded my 757 in Minneapolis was, “Look for John Haines.” Haines and I had a marvelous schmooze while locals came to buy his autographed books and pay homage.
All year long you can watch great free flicks at the Public Land Information Bureaus: I caught the ones in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. The static high-tech exhibits on local natural history, flora and fauna are not only great ways to get in out of the ubiquitous rain but are intrinsically instructive and interesting—even on the rare sunny day.
And read the local papers for leads: I snooped on a bush pilots’ convention, an international symposium on polar regions and an international meeting on reducing the horrendous loss of boats and life in the Arctic fisheries (287 boats and 87 lives last year in the U.S., mostly Alaska). In a news-media-poor environment, the 40 reporters of Alaska Public Radio gather an exceedingly revealing listen.
There’s wit out there in the boonies. Sitka’s NPR affiliate dubs itself Raven Radio and calls itself KCAW. And I happened through Anchorage the night the local PBS affiliate gave a champagne reception at the new Performing Arts Center.
There’s a lot popping in the state, if you keep an eye and an ear peeled. And—maybe to compensate for your high initial costs—museum charges are modest compared to the Outside.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, July 31, 1991

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