Alaska Excursions

Alaska Excursions

A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.

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Photos and stories from the last great race.

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Culture: Drumbeat of Native dancers can be highlight of a summer visit

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Think Jamaica and immediately your mind's eye is filled with images of sandy beaches. Think Australia and the Great Barrier Reef looms before you. Think Alaska and you immediately are transported into a wilderness with wildlife and mountain peaks.

Enjoying the natural wonders relaxes us, refreshes us and reminds us what an amazing planet we have. But it's getting to know the people, eating the food and hearing the history of your newly discovered destination that truly gives you a glimpse inside.

Alaska is young as far as states go. It was William Seward's purchase that landed the Last Frontier in 1867. Even the people are young, with the average age of residents 35 to 40. That doesn't make the culture and history any less fascinating.

Grab your travel planner, there are cultural opportunities in Alaska you will want to be sure to experience.

Alaska Natives come from every corner of the state, each with a unique history.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center, 8800 Heritage Center Drive, gives visitors an amazing history lesson about the people who have called Alaska home for thousands of years.

One of the features of the center is a daily schedule of dance performances. These performances often tell a story of village life. After a brief explanation of the meaning of the dance given in English, the performers begin singing the story in the tribe's native tongue. Dancers in colorful kuspuks with headdresses and fans drift across the stage while the drum pounds out a mesmerizing rhythm. Stay around for the demonstration of the Native games. It will make your childhood games seem pointless.

These difficult-to-master games are more than just a display of athleticism. They were a teaching tool for the challenges life would bring in the remote villages. Hunting, navigation across ice floes, even bartering with visitors were skills that a young Native man would need to learn to survive. Tribes created a competitive and fun way to teach these skills. You'll be impressed by the abilities of these young men, but you'll walk away appreciating the hard life many Natives endure.

The center features museum-style information on Alaska's five major indigenous groups.

"Being able to interact and talk with Native people and hear their stories" is a highlight for many, said Jinnie Roes, the center's public relations manager. Many artisans are on site, creating handmade items available for purchase.

Stroll outside around the wooded lake and see up close and personal the different huts and buildings found in Alaska villages. Each village has an Alaska Native from that tribe dressed in traditional clothing and prepared to answer visitor questions.

"I really enjoyed seeing the replicas of the Native houses," said visitor Pam Jackson of Muskegon, Mich. "It made you feel like you could step back in time and see how they lived and get a real flavor of their lifestyle."

Jackson, who said she "loves all things cultural," explained that the Alaska Native Heritage Center gave her a greater understanding of Alaska's people.

"Just being taught a few Native words. Seeing their mild and respectful manner made me feel like I understand their view of the world," Jackson said. "How they view and respect wildlife and wilderness is all reflected in what they make and what they do."

Plan most of a day for this cultural opportunity, there is so much to enjoy. The center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from May 13 to mid-September. Admission is $23.50 for adults, $21.15 for military and seniors and $15.95 for children ages 7 to 16. For more information, visit or call 330-8000.

Alaska's skies are always busy. With so few roads in the Great Land, many of the state's remote areas, known as the Bush, are accessible only by air. That being so, much of Alaska's history involves airplanes. The Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, 4721 Aircraft Drive at Lake Hood, is a great place to follow history through the air. Enjoy vintage airplanes, including the museum's most popular, a 1928 Stearman. Strap yourself into the flight simulator and try your hand at piloting a plane. See an exhibit on the bush pilots who traveled the state or the airplane Joe Crosson flew to deliver diphtheria serum to the villages in March 1931. Be sure to allow time to simply stand and watch the floatplanes make some of their 80,000 yearly takeoffs and landings from Lake Hood.

The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in the summer. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $6 for children from 6 to 12. For more information, visit or call 248-5325.

Nothing stirs the desire to create art like the beauty of Alaska. Sydney Laurence, Eustace Paul Ziegler and Fred Machetanz are just a few of the talented artists that have made Alaska their subject. The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 121 W. Seventh Ave., has wonderful displays of some of the best of Alaska's art. Take time to sit on the bench and absorb the huge 12-foot-by-7-foot Laurence painting of a raging river crashing through the wilderness. Mount McKinley soars in the background.

Machetanz's oil paintings, featuring polar bears and village life, are among the favorites for visitors.

Upstairs there are life-size displays showing scenes of Native village life.

"We created a number of large house cutaways that would illustrate how these cultures would live," said head curator Walter Van Horn. "The Aleut display came directly from the illustrations of John Webber, the official artist of Captain Cook. We re-created it as close as we could in the space."

The art itself even tells a bit of the story of Alaska's growth. A program called the WPA project sent a number of artists north. The goal was for them to produce art that would be sent on a traveling show through the Lower 48 to encourage travel and interest in Alaska. The artwork was finished and submitted in 1937 but never shown, Van Horn said. There was concern that the trip would be too expensive and sending out the art would bring questions about frivolous government spending. The artwork was scattered among a hotel, the railroad and some museums and collectors. About 20 pieces are on display at the museum.

The museum is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, with extended hours to 9 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission is $8 for adults and $7 for seniors; children are free, but a $2 donation is suggested. For more information, visit or call 343-4326. The museum and the Native Heritage Center offer a combined admission in the summer. There is a complimentary shuttle between the two facilities.

It's true, the mountains and lush wilderness make Alaska a breathtaking state. But the people, culture and history are like nowhere else. On your Alaska adventure, soak up the midnight sun and watch a moose lazily stroll past your car, but be sure to take time to glimpse what can be found inside.

Freelance writer Gina Post lives in Anchorage.

Editor's picks

- One-stop history: To get a quick snapshot of Alaska, there is no better place than the Anchorage Museum. It is both a history and an art museum, covering 10,000 years in Alaska and offering an impressive collection of artwork. You must see Sydney Laurence's massive "Mount McKinley."

- Visit villages in town: The Alaska Native Heritage Center will take visitors on a virtual tour of Bush Alaska without ever leaving Anchorage. There are six life-size replicas of traditional Native dwellings. Make sure you watch the Native dance performances.

- Free history: The Alaska Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo, 301 W. Northern Lights Blvd., is a free museum with many Native baskets, carvings and other artifacts. There is artwork on display by Laurence, Fred Machetanz and others.

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