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Anchorage awaits: Tips for troops, families and travelers headed (far) north

January 25, 2017 (Photo Credit: Ken Graham Photography via Visit Anchorage)

If you’re stationed in The Last Frontier, shouldn’t you explore it?

From pristine snow-capped mountains to blue waters, from northern lights to Nome-bound dog races, there are few outdoor adventures that can match those in and around Anchorage, Alaska, the first of our Military City entrants.

Whether you’re hoping to add once-in-a-lifetime hunting and fishing to your next duty station, eager to mix local color into your running or hiking (or skiing) routine, or seeking a memorable family outing on a river or on the rails, check out a few tips for a region one Military Times reader called “more beautiful than any picture you have ever seen”:

SEEING THE LIGHT(S)

With an exception or two, military duty won’t take service members near much better locations than Anchorage to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights – a phenomenon scientists describe by discussing ionized particles, solar winds and magnetic fields. Most who see it stick with “ooh” and “aah.” 

Like any skyward wonders, the best places to view the aurora are away from ground-based light pollution. Multiple lodges and tours fit the bill; Alaska Photo Treks offers an Anchorage Aurora Quest trip that includes photo-taking tips for preserving the moment.

The lights are visible at various times in the fall, winter and spring, with the best views generally around midnight. The University of Alaska-Fairbanks maintains a website with daily updates that will help you decide whether to stay up late.

CHARTER SCHOOLED

More than 100 fishing charters operate off of the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage, according to Michael Flores, who owns Ninilchik Charters, works with Cabela’s and has three sons serving in the Marine Corps. And that doesn’t include hunting tours for deer, waterfowl … even bears – black bears, mostly, with restrictions on brown bear hunts that limit nonresident participation.

On the water, you’ve probably heard about king salmon fishing, but Flores says halibut tops his charter list. Area anglers aren’t hurting for species selection, with Arctic char and rainbow trout among the choices.

Regardless of the game – or even if it’s just the sights you’re hunting – do your travel homework to match your experience with your price point. Among the key factors to consider:
 
  • Does your trip include all transportation? What about lodging? Meals? 
  • If you’re hunting or fishing, can the tour company help with licensing requirements? What about cleaning and dressing, shipment and storage? 
  • Are there discounts for trips early and late in the season? Possibly more important, are there still any seats left? Flores already is booking bear hunts into 2018, he said, with prime summer hunting and fishing spots for 2017 already going fast.
DEALS ON LICENSES

Alaska offers hunting and fishing locales different than anything you’ll see in the lower 48, but you’ll still need a license before you cast or take aim. 

Fortunately for military members, the state offers significant discounts for nonresident troops – an annual hunting/sport fishing license for active-duty military members and their dependents stationed in Alaska for less than a year runs $69, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website. That’s the same as what residents pay; a two-week license for sport fishing alone costs nonmilitary nonresidents $105.

Troops and family members stationed in Alaska for more than a year can buy all types of fish and game licenses at the residential rate. They also don’t require guides for certain hunts (brown bears, for instance) that are mandated for those on nonresident permits. 
If you’re from Alaska, the news could be even better: Residents serving in the Alaska National Guard or a reserve component get free hunting and fishing licenses if they’ve been called into active service. 

PCS TRIP: PREPARE YOUR CAR

The folks at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson don’t recommend winterizing your ride before you arrive at your new, sometimes-chilly duty station, but it’s a must once you’re in place, made easier by local mechanics with more experience in cold-weather prep than those in other military locales. 

Once on location, you’ll have to familiarize yourself with local flavor such as an engine block heater (recommended for days below 20 degrees), arctic-weight lubricants and 5W-30 engine oil. As always, check your owner’s manual for car-care specifics.

And while bare or worn tires probably should be replaced before tackling Anchorage’s often-slick roads, don’t rely on studded or snow tires to cover for driver inexperience. 

TRAVEL TIP: SKIP THE CAR

Train tours will take you from Anchorage to the most popular tourist attractions, including some like Denali National Park, where private vehicles are kept off certain roads in certain weather conditions. 

The state-owned Alaska Railroad offers trips from Anchorage south to Seward and north to Fairbanks, with plenty of stops in between – including Denali, on the northern run. Trains also run to Whittier, if you’re up for checking out glaciers. Privately owned lines, such as the McKinley Explorer, also run to Denali and other points of interest. 

Prices can vary significantly based on the type of train car – “dome cars” promise premium views – and the time of year: The beginning and the end of the season, which runs from May to September, offer the cheapest fares. 

Note: When tour brochures say “day trips,” they mean it – the Anchorage-Fairbanks run is a 12-hour trek, one-way, and other destinations are nearly as far. Some plans let you hop off at an overnight stop along and re-board the next day

HIT THE TRAIL ... ANY TRAIL

The city of 300,000 people is about 1,955 square miles, according to the folks at Visit Anchorage (put together by the city’s convention and visitors bureau). That’s about the size of Delaware, and it includes plenty of room to get around.

For starters, per Visit Anchorage: 135 miles of paved bike and multi-use trails, plus 90 more miles of nonpaved hiking trails for summer use. In the winter, workers plow 130 miles of winter walkways. The popular Coastal Trail starts downtown and ends in Kincaid Park, with everything from beluga whale to bear sightings reported.

Not much for walking? Try 140 miles of ski trails (30 miles lighted), or even 36 miles of dog mushing trails. Prefer your trips to be with some fast human company, or against the clock? Visit the Anchorage Running Club online for a race calendar and local runner’s tips.

SEWARD'S SETUP

About 125 miles south of Anchorage sits Seward Resort, an Army Morale, Wellness and Recreation facility that’s open to all branches. 

Why make the drive? The resort offers a central, military friendly hub for many of the tours, treks and unique-to-Alaska experiences sought by service members and their families. 

It’s got its own fish house so you can clean and ship your catch, offers RV and tent space for the warm season, and even boasts its own wine, per its website: Red, White & Blueberry, an exclusive concoction from Bear Creek Winery in Homer, another three or so hours south. Like many resort offerings, the wine (and the bar and grill that serves it) is available from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

More, including eligibility rules: SewardResort.com

KID CORNER: GET A GOLD RUSH

The late 1800s brought the Klondike, the Yukon and Bonanza Creek into American culture as prospectors headed to the territory to secure their fortune. Tens of thousands rushed to find gold, and about as many left all but empty-
handed, ghost towns in their wake.

Most of the would-be treasure sites are far from Anchorage, but families seeking a taste of the process can pan for gold at the Crow Creek Mine ($5 discount for active-duty military) or the Indian Valley Mine, where pre-made, gold-stocked “paydirt buckets” might save parents from consoling a younger family member who otherwise might come up empty.

MILITARY DISCOUNTS

As always, check with your tour service, hotel or any other travel provider to see whether they offer special military rates. Here are some deals highlighted by Visit Anchorage:

  • Alyeska Resort, the largest alpine ski area in the state, is less than an hour from the JBER gate. Not a skier? The resort has lift-assisted mountain biking in the summer. Discounts on that, plus on traditional ski-lift tickets and season passes. More at www.alyeskaresort.com.
  • The Phillips 26 Glacier Cruise (May-September) which offers views of wildlife and the serene Prince William Sound in addition to the advertised glaciers. There’s also transportation available to the boat and a “no seasickness guarantee.” More at www.phillipscruises.com.
  • Ascending Path offers hiking and ice climbing tours, as well glacial kayaking. Not unique enough? Consider “heli-hikes,” where a small party is dropped off and picked up by helicopter, exploring a glacier in between rides. Military members can get 10 percent off the regular rates. More at www.ascendingpath.com.
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