From the bookshelf

Guides offer advice for exploring Alaska

Posted: Thursday, July 28, 2005


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  "The World Famous Alaska Highway," by Tricia Brown

"Going Places," by Nancy Thalia Reynolds

Going Places: Alaska and the Yukon for Families

By Nancy Thalia Reynolds

Published by Bergman Books

448 pages


$21.95 (softcover)


"The World Famous Alaska Highway," by Tricia Brown

The World Famous Alaska Highway: A Guide to the Alcan & Other Wilderness

Roads of the North

By Tricia Brown

Published by Alaska Northwest Books

288 pages


$21.95 (softcover)

Vast miles and a zillion tourists have created a whole genre of Alaska travel books. Even locals can spend a lifetime here but only see a fraction of the state. So travel advice can benefit many Alaskans, too.

Two ambitious new titles strive to guide travelers throughout the entire region. Each has a lot to offer and addresses a distinct target audience.

"Going Places: Alaska and the Yukon for Families," by Nancy Thalia Reynolds, is part of a Northwest-based series for parents who want to explore the world with their children yet maintain their sanity. Anyone who has endured long hours of car-seat squabbles and "Are we there yet?" whining will welcome Reynolds' help.

A resident of Washington who previously wrote about her home turf, Reynolds solicits input from other traveling families. She includes their warnings and recommendations, even giving the children a say. For example, her chief "informants" for the Kenai Peninsula section were Rose Williamson and her daughter, sixth-grader Sara Heermans.

"The World-Famous Alaska Highway," in contrast, is the totally updated second edition of a 2000 guide by longtime Alaska writer Tricia Brown. This book uses the limited highway network as its framework, but differs from references such as "The Milepost" by delving into the unique history of the areas and communities traversed.

Her primary source is extensive travel undertaken by herself and her husband in a Cruise America recreational vehicle, and she gives her book a personal touch.

Unlike free community visitors' guides and some other travel titles, these books do not contain advertising from tourism businesses. This frees the authors to write frankly. Although they generally enthuse about the region's charms, they sometimes warn travelers, as when Reynolds describes one eatery as having enough cigarette smoke to gag a grizzly.

Both books are well written and well organized. They include the basics of what to bring, safety cautions, mileage, listings of lodging and eateries and, most substantively, descriptions of interesting things to do and see at each destination. Both cover not only Alaska but western Canada.

Despite such similarities, these books differ to a surprising degree. Their discussions of mosquitoes offer an example. Reynolds includes a full page headed "things that bite and sting," in which she discusses clothing, headnets, repellents (including the safety of DEET on children) and recommends books and Web sites to inform travelers about northern insects. Brown provides a half page of information, including anecdotes, a plug for mosquito netting, a tip for getting them out of your car and a warning that no-see-ums can be even worse.

Reynolds offers a wealth of material about traveling by water on cruise ships and the Alaska Marine Highway. Brown sticks to the road, with only two pages tacked on the book's end about the marine highway. However, she provides a lot of information about RV parks and a bit about snowmachine tours, which Reynolds does not mention. For example, Reynolds tells how to get to the remote Yukon town of Eagle by day boats from Dawson, whereas Brown describes it as part of a drive along the Taylor Highway.

These differences go further. Although both books cover Alaska's major cities, many smaller destinations only appear in one of them. Only Reynolds covers Kodiak, Unalaska, Hope and much of Southeast. Only Brown covers Cordova, Circle and McCarthy, among others. Neither covers Bush communities unserved by roads or ferries.

Brown glosses over some places, barely mentioning them in passing. Reynolds' book is twice as long and thus presents more material. She gets the gist right, but sometimes her details are shaky. She calls Turnagain Arm "deep," spruce-bark beetles "huge" and seems to have a mental block against the correct spelling of "Eielson."

Neither guide is exhaustive. For example, Brown lists four restaurants in Kenai; Reynolds lists three. The yellow pages list more than 20.

Yet each book has real strengths.

"Going Places" covers more sites and provides a wealth of extras useful to parents. The author marks particularly child-friendly places with smiley-face icons, gives tips about appropriate age levels and reminds readers periodically about safety concerns. For those who want travel to be educational, she includes lists of informative books and Web sites for all ages.

"The World-Famous Alaska Highway" is more polished. Its maps, color photographs and editing are superior, and its listings of lodgings and restaurants are more extensive than the other book's. Brown deserves special kudos for her concise explanation of Alaska's quirky highway numbering system.

Each of these books has much to recommend it to travelers, but not necessarily the same travelers. For those traveling by land yacht, "The World-Famous Alaska Highway" is the clear choice. Likewise, those traveling via ship or ferry and those with youngsters in tow will get a lot out of "Going Places." People focused on wilderness hiking won't find much in either book. Others may want to pick up both, since they offer such distinct angles on the same destinations.

Local community and tourism Web sites are great places to start planning trips, but both these books complement such information and offer a wealth of additional resources.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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