A crisp Alaskan August

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 July, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 July, 1993, 12:00am

FOR travellers to Alaska, the best time to go is August. That's the month recommended because it is harvest time, when - after a short summer of long days and the midnight sun - the spongy tundra that covers the landscape turns to beautiful reddish and golden hues.

It is a time when the clean, crispiness of the air bites the early morning. The invigoration of the end of summer in Alaska comes with the knowledge that winter is approaching. The salmon are swimming up the rivers to spawn - alternatively, to be caught by bears and fishermen.

Native Alaskans - of which there are at least five different distinct ethnic groups - fillet the reddish-orange fish.

A delicious, rich smoked fish can be brought from the natives. It makes ideal, high-energy, long-lasting food for trekking adventures.

Travel begins with a flight to Anchorage, the state's largest city, in the southern central part of the state. Its population of 250,000 represents about half of the number of people living in the state.

By far the largest state in the United States, Alaska covers an area of roughly 1.29 million square kilometres. It was previously a territory of the US, but earned statehood in 1958.

The old timers are still grumpy about that decision. ''Too much government regulation,'' they say.

Known as ''sourdoughs'', these old timers often carve out a lonely existence, sluicing for gold in creeks during summer, and trapping animals for their fur in the winter.

The term ''sourdough'' comes from a method of making bread that does not require yeast, and involves letting the dough become sour in an earthenware crock before baking. The method was pioneered during long winters when supplies were a long dog-sled rideaway.

A popular Alaskan joke says that a sourdough is someone who is ''sour'' on Alaska but does not have enough ''dough'' to go elsewhere.

The intrepid traveller should begin his ideal trip to Alaska by renting a car at Anchorage International Airport: a fast, sleek model, with a big engine and a good heater.

The traveller should then drive north, up the Parks Highway, to Denali State Park for a look at one of the world's best natural wildlife parks. Grizzly bears dig openly for ground squirrels and moose chew long clumps of weedy vegetation that hang like beards from their mouths.

The road is smooth, paved, with plenty of food, petrol and overnight wilderness lodge accommodation along the way.

After Denali, the traveller can span the remaining distance to Fairbanks, taking in a stopover at Ester, which is 12 kilometres south of Fairbanks. During an evening at the Malemute saloon, a rag-time piano player evokes a strong feeling of life in the gold rush days.

In Fairbanks, the rugged traveller can fuel up his rent-a-car and proceed 100 kilometres up to Chena Hot Springs for a soak in the pool and a walk in the nearby hills.

After returning to Fairbanks for another night in semi-civilisation, the traveller should then head north, along the Steese Highway, about 215 kilometres to the Arctic Circle Hot Springs.

The hot pool there is excellent, the food is good and the beds are comfortable in the lodge.

On the way back down to Fairbanks, the traveller might dangle a lure or a fly in Birch creek for a trout-like Arctic grayling.

Back at Fairbanks, now grizzled in appearance, and ready for a shower but full of stories and feeling much like a rugged, frontier-loving individualist with scorn for high-rise buildings, the traveller should aim the rent-a-car south, but this time on the Richardson Highway, all the way down past Delta Junction, through the mountains and alongside the Trans Alaska Pipeline, to Valdez.

The road is paved all the way, and the traveller can pull in to the big log-built Totem Inn for a bacon and egg breakfast.

After a two-day excursion to Cordova by ferry, known as the Alaska Marine Highway, the traveller gets an idea of the diversity of Alaska as he compares the lush forests of southeastern Alaska with the spongy tundra north of Fairbanks.

Finally, homeward bound to Anchorage from Valdez, the scenery is out of a dreamscape, with high alpine meadows, deep blue lakes, and remote lodges where owners bring in fresh fish from the river and vegetables from the garden.

Back in Anchorage, the traveller can guzzle a beer at the famous Chilkoot Charlie's saloon, and tell exaggerated tales, before turning in his rent-a-car, and departing once again, leaving behind a trail of Alaskan memories.

Delta Airlines flies Hongkong to Anchorage via Los Angeles, on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.