One imagines Alaska in winter as dark, icy, and—unless you're a bear—too cold. Maybe that's true in Nome, where dogsledders mush across ice and snow at temperatures of 40 below. But farther south, in the Inside Passage (or the southeastern archipelago), winter means milder temperatures, eight hours of daylight, and some of the best skiing in North America. "We have a tough job dispelling the myth that we all live in igloos in winter," says the owner of one nature tour company. A land of long distances and vast resources, Alaska teems with life, from microscopic ice worms to moose the size of minivans. Indians living here a century ago didn't even have a word in their vocabulary for starvation. So cancel that trip to the tropics and treat yourself to a winter wonderland.
where to stay
Juneau has been Alaska's capital since 1906 and lodgings can fill up in winter, what with the legislature in session. Try the Silverbow Guest Inn (120 Second St.; 907/586-4146, fax 907/586-4242; doubles from $85), where rooms are furnished with antiques. At Juneau's oldest hotel, the Alaskan Hotel & Bar (167 S. Franklin St.; 800/327-9347 or 907/586-1000, fax 907/463-3775; doubles from $67), try to stay on the top floor; downstairs in the Alaskan Bar, bands play into the wee hours. Closer to nature is the Glacier Trail Bed & Breakfast (1081 Arctic Circle; 907/789-5646, fax 907/789-5697; doubles from $85), where rooms look onto the Mendenhall Glacier.
In Haines, the Summer Inn Bed & Breakfast (117 Second Ave.; phone and fax 907/766-2970; doubles $70) is in a house built by a member of the Soapy Smith gang, notorious gold rush bandits. The Captain's Choice Motel (108 Second Ave.; 907/766-3111, fax 907/766-3332; doubles from $74) has cedar-paneled walls and room service.
Tiny Gustavus (population 300) on Glacier Bay is a half-hour by air from Juneau. From the Annie Mae Lodge (2 Grandpa's Farm Rd.; 907/697-2346, fax 907/697-2211; doubles from $245, including meals), explore nearby Glacier Bay National Park. The rustically elegant Bear Track Inn (255 Rink Creek Rd.; 888/697-2284 or 907/697-3017, fax 907/697-2284; $393 per person for one night, including all meals and the flight from Juneau) offers winter scuba diving and heli-skiing packages.
To move about the Inside Passage, keep the following handy: Alaska Marine Highway System Auke Bay Ferry Terminal, Juneau; 800/642-0066 or 907/465-3941. • Taku Taxi 102 N. Franklin St., Juneau; 907/586-2121. At its headquarters, you can get a card good for 15 percent off rides. • Alaska Airlines 8745 Glacier Hwy., Juneau; 907/789-5538. • Haines Airways 108 Main St., Haines; 907/766-2646. • LAB Flying Service 390 Main St., Haines; 800/426-0543 or 907/766-2222.
Planes are to Alaska what cars are to Los Angeles: I can't not take a "flight-seeing" trip to the glaciers. So I ask some locals in Juneau's Alaskan Bar to recommend a pilot. Their friend Ed Laity is at the next table.
The following day, I loiter on the tarmac. I'm nervous that we won't be able to fly in the drizzle, but since 27-year-old Ed keeps puttering with his Piper Super Cub, I guess we're going for it. I experience doubt as he sticks duct tape over the oil cooler on the plane's nose. "More efficient than aluminum," he says. At last we pile in, strap on cross-your-heart seat belts, and duck into headsets. We're Woodstock and the Flying Ace.
Like a butterfly, the plane is in the air in five seconds. Beneath us, mountains and sea alternate black, blue, green, white. I see big treeless patches left from strip-mining; Ed says the trees may take decades to grow back. It's discouraging, but there are so many miles of trees, I admit that I feel less despair now than when I first read about the bare land.
We head toward Glacier Bay, where we fly over several glaciers, including the McBride, famous for its turquoise crevasses. Ed swoops down and throws open the window. I lean out with my camera, and all that comes between me and the ice is 50 feet of cold air.
Returning to Juneau, Ed talks about his years as a herring-spotter pilot, his winters diving for sea urchin and abalone, and his current project— building a lodge on nearby Baranof Island. Only in response to my questions does Ed reveal these things. Like many people here, he is friendly but mysterious.
Since Ed may not be in the Alaskan Bar during your visit, book ahead with Temsco Helicopters (877/789-9501 or 907/789-9501), Era Helicopters (800/843-1947 or 907/586-2030), or Ward Air (907/789-9150). Rates range from $155 to $575 per person. For a customized experience, call Sky Trekking Alaska (800/770-4966 or 907/373-4966; day trips from $1,370 for two).
Alaska Nature Tours, in Haines, offers daylong trips along the Haines Highway that can include stops in the 48,000-acre Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and at Three Guardsmen Pass for cross-country skiing. The drive demands a good guide: without one, you may go right past the ramshackle buildings that are Klukwan Village, a Tlingit settlement that has supposedly been there since the last ice age (local lore says the scalps of the first Russians who came ashore in the 18th century still hang in a clan house). You also might not know to look for moose among willows and alders, where they're most likely to linger.
Alaska Nature Tours 907/766-2876, fax 907/766-2844; day trips from $180 per person per day. For information on the Haines Highway and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, call Alaska State Parks at 907/465-4563.
Before setting out, heli-skiers learn the risks; most important, they learn not to head down the slope before the guides have assessed the odds of an avalanche. (Your mother will be happy to hear that you carry a Peep—an electronic tracking device—and a backpack with a snow shovel in it.) The precautions are daunting, but my first heli-skiing adventure spoiled me forever. Imagine virgin pistes on every run—no lifts, no lines, no traffic. Scan the range and choose any mountain you want.
The initial ride was only 10 minutes from Juneau to the 4,000-foot peak of Mount McGinnis, where our group (two guides, three plebes) hopped out and stepped into our skis. Asserting my Colorado upbringing, I declared that I was perfectly capable of skiing black-diamond runs but wouldn't mind starting easy, just to get the kinks out. So our guides, Bruce Griggs and Scott Sundberg, chose a mellow one.
And that, evidently, was enough of that. I soon faced a steep chute, the kind where you peek down at what looks like certain death. Normally, you have the choice of taking a blue hill instead—this time there was no turning back. But I made it down, thighs burning, hugely satisfied that I'd conquered the slope. The length of the runs was amazing: we sometimes skied 30 minutes before radioing the "bird."