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Traveling to rural Alaska requires interest and a little bit of work

  • Author: Scott McMurren
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published June 26, 2011

Alaskans travel for many reasons. Some are serial adventurers: scaling a peak here, kayaking a cove there. Others are going to work: fishermen, teachers or oil patch workers.

Whatever takes you to the remote stretches of Alaska, it's hard not to pause at the grandeur of the country. That was the case when I tagged along on a rapid-fire economic development fly-through of Alaska's northwestern Arctic region.

Our itinerary included stops in Barrow, Wainwright, Kotzebue, Savoonga and Nome. The larger communities are accustomed to travelers. But towns like Savoonga and Wainwright? Well, they're not quite sure what to make of "tourists".

There is a well-traveled path north to Barrow. It helps to have jet service from Alaska Airlines. This accommodates the day-tripper who wants to see the northernmost outpost in the U.S. Don't miss a visit to the Inupiat Heritage Center, where you learn about Barrow's more recent history as a whaling center. But you'll also learn about the community's stature as a traditional trading center in the high Arctic.

Included at the Center is an area where local artists work with traditional materials like baleen. The area also offers hunters the space to repair their skin boats prior to their whale hunts.

When we arrived by air, you could see huge mounds of ice offshore, then vast stretches of open water between the ice pack and "beach ice" which still hugged the shore.

Most travelers are fascinated by the never-ending Arctic sun in Barrow. You can't miss that if you spend the night. River's Edge Resort in Fairbanks offers both day trips to Barrow, as well as an overnight option at the Top of the World Hotel. You'll learn about Barrow's progress in infrastructure, including a unique "utilidor" system to accommodate indoor plumbing for residents, as well as a natural gas power plant. Barrow sits atop a huge natural gas reservoir.

Wainwright is just 90 miles west of Barrow along the coast of the Arctic Ocean--but it's a world away from Barrow's "big-city" amenities such as air-fresh produce, a full-service hospital, cheap natural gas and daily jet service.

This small community is well-positioned to benefit from offshore oil and gas development. The local village corporation, Olgoonik Corporation, has built some housing to accommodate crews from oil companies, in addition to special boats and rigging for crew transfers.

But the big activity in Wainwright is whaling and other subsistence hunting and fishing. Local whaling captain John Hopson, Jr. and his team "Iceberg 15" recently harvested a bowhead whale. Hopson and his crew were busy carving up and cooking the whale when we arrived. As is the case across the North Slope, a harvested whale is distributed throughout the community.

And while bowhead whales represent the "big kill" opportunity and require intensive preparation and special skills, the villagers also hunt Beluga whales, bearded seals and other animals which they preserve in their "ice cellars", located deep in the permafrost.

One member in our group, Evelyn Sidon, grew up in Wainwright and was happy to give us a late-night walking tour of town. She pointed out her family home, recalled her childhood antics and described her "wonder years" in glowing terms. She left Wainwright to go to high school in Sitka, and is quick to point out that when she says "I grew up in a beachfront home and went to boarding school," she's not lying.

As a traveler, I was anxious to see the surrounding landscape, which starts about 50 steps from the outermost gravel road. Hopson slipped his truck into four-wheel-drive and we headed down the beach to a nearby river mouth. There, we marveled at the arctic tundra, bursting with wildflowers. The sun bounced off some of the free-floating icebergs just offshore as Hopson pointed out some of the ducks flying by. Then, the wind started blowing in the surface fog. It was a little chilly, but beautiful.

There is a hotel in Wainwright, although we stayed in the oil workers' "man camp." But there isn't an organized "tour" to see stuff around town. The airstrip is right next to town. Chances are good the local VPSO (village public safety officer) will be on hand to meet your plane. Wainwright is a "dry" town, so it's illegal to bring in alcohol. There's no guided hunting or fishing, since the local people are busy with their own subsistence activities. A trip to Wainwright really qualifies as "deep track Alaska."

The night we arrived, there was a potluck at the community center. There was no dancing, since the town was in mourning because of a recent death. But one of the elders suggested they sing a song for our group. Right on cue, everyone joined in (in four-part harmony) for a couple of verses of "How Great Thou Art" in the Inupiat language.

We were up early for our departure to Kotzebue aboard our chartered aircraft, a Beechcraft 1900D operated by Bering Air. The route took us southwest off of the North Slope to the shores of the Chukchi Sea.

While Wainwright faces north and is a whaling community, Kotzebue is a traditional trading hub and service center for the nearby Red Dog mine. Two big rivers, the Noatak and the Kobuk, empty into nearby waters. The nearby communities of Selawik, Ambler, Noorvik and Kiana link to Kotzebue for daily Alaska Airlines jet service, medical care, educational and training opportunities--and other services.

Kotzebue is a community on the grow. We visited the new museum, across the street from the airport. But the construction crews were busy at the new hotel, the Nullugvik. Other crews were busy reinforcing the waterfront against the strong fall storms which have eroded much of the beachfront.

Currently, Kotzebue relies on barged-in diesel fuel. But the city has several windmills in operation, which provide up to 20 percent of the town's power supply. Mayor Eugene Smith says his goal is to boost that to 50 percent of the power with new, larger windmills with advanced technology to adjust to the high winds in the area.

Our next stop in Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island, was a surprise for me. Like Wainwright, Savoonga is a whaling community. But at a local gathering, residents compared the ocean to the "garden" of their community. They harvest fish, shellfish, whales and seals from the ocean--so they are uniquely devoted to environmental preservation of the resource. As the climate changes, Savoonga is witnessing environmental pressure from fishing groups, from oil and gas companies, shipping companies -- even cruise companies.

During our visit to the community center, many local artists displayed their ivory carvings. For such a small community (about 650 people live there), Savoonga has a disproportionate number of incredible carvers. It's still an open question how travelers can easily reach this community. It's another "deep track" community for the intrepid art collector or adventurer.

It's just a short flight from Savoonga to Nome. But the difference in the feel of the community is palpable. Remember -- Nome was built up primarily as a Gold Rush community. There are several rusting gold dredges around town--and a bunch of modern sluices that continue to work the offshore gold veins.

But Nome has active fisheries, including a crab fishery. We visited a crab processing plant near the harbor. The harbor itself is being expanded to accommodate more deep-water vessels, including cruise ships.

It's hard to overstate the importance of daily jet service to rural Alaska communities -- and that's the case with Nome's daily flights to Anchorage and Kotzebue. Regional air service is available to many surrounding hubs, such as Unalakleet, Fairbanks and points in Russia. Bering Air provides charter service to Providenya and other destinations in the Russian Far East. Travel requirements to Russia are complex, though.

Nome's history is tightly linked with the Gold Rush, which started in 1898. There's also the history surrounding the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, the Iron Dog race and other extreme sporting events. My go-to resource for all things Nome is Richard Beneville of Nome Discovery Tours. From Teller, to White Mountain, to Pilgrim Hot Springs, Beneville can recite stories and anecdotes to bring Nome's history to life. If you're interested, he also can sing almost any show tune you can imagine. With his Broadway experience, Beneville has directed more than 30 theater productions in Nome. Don't miss this act! (Nome Discovery Tours: 907-443-2814).

Just as there are many types of travelers, there are many levels of discovery in the Last Frontier. Remember -- this is the land where people still ride their bikes along the Iditarod Trail. Not everyone is interested in the "deep track" communities. But the adventurous traveler still has an opportunity to see some undiscovered country here in Alaska. So bring your camera and don't forget the bug dope.

To visit Alaska Airlines' remote communities, you can purchase tickets and discover how expensive that can be. I recommend using frequent flyer miles if you have them. Between Alaska destinations, tickets are available for as little as 15,000 miles. It's more from destinations outside of Alaska.

If you don't have any Alaska miles, consider applying for an Alaska Airlines Visa card from Bank of America. You get a 25,000-mile bonus. That's enough for a free ticket.

If you don't want to get a Visa card, consider buying the miles on Alaska's website. Right now (through June 30), you can purchase 15,000 miles for $330. Compare that with the cost of a trip to Barrow -- $581 -- and you can see the immediate benefit.

For travel to places like Wainwright and Savoonga, you can choose from several local carriers once you get to Nome or Barrow. Era Alaska's frequent flyer program, "FlyAway Rewards," offers free travel after as few as five roundtrip flights. For example, if you fly five times between Anchorage and Kenai, you could qualify for a free ticket between Nome and Savoonga. That ticket usually sells for $425.

Figuring out the frequent flyer options sometimes can be hard work. But it can be very worth it, considering the high cost of travel in rural Alaska.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at

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