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Before Losing Yourself in the Vastness of Alaska, Be Prepared for Crowds : Wonders are there to enjoy, but the season is brief. To see the most, relax and rush less.

TIMES STAFF WRITER; <i> Balzar is The Times' Northwest correspondent</i>

Do you know what you are in for?

A surprising number of visitors to the Last Frontier do not. They’ve read Jack London since they were kids, they are urged on by glossy promotional brochures, they have thumbed the easy travel guides and they’ve been dazzled by the gee-whiz nature documentaries. They’re off.

Then, the real Alaska rears up. And, for the unprepared, it can be a shock, and many times a disappointment.

This is not a matter of mosquitoes or cold rain or outhouses. Coping with those is relatively easy. But what about crowds, lines, long waits, miles of no-vacancy signs, and the pressing need to adhere to a schedule across uncommonly vast distances, never mind spontaneity? This is the Alaska of disappointment.

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Congestion and bustle, of course, are contrary to the myth of wide-open Alaska and therefore too often are omitted from the travel pages and from your neighbor’s slide show. Who, after all, wants to tell about the night they slept in the back seat of the car in a gravel pit because they could not find a room? Or when they had to wait in a line that stretched outdoors to get a fast-food burger?

As a news correspondent who covers the region, I see the long faces of the unwary who wander unprepared into that Alaska. And I think their experiences here are needlessly diminished as a result.

Smart visitors understand that people-pressure exists in the state’s major crossroad areas and cities, and they are not daunted. They accept it as just another Alaska challenge.

A motel operator at the highway crossroads of Delta Junction tells the story of two travelers last summer on the Alaska-Canada Highway, that long, bumpy, this-is-a-paved-surface-isn’t-it?, two-lane marvel that links the far north with the rest of America.

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“The first one pulls in, muttering that the road has practically knocked the shocks right off. He’s had trouble with his car. He couldn’t cover the distance in the three days he allotted, it’s crowded, he’s behind schedule and angry. It couldn’t have been more awful.

“The very next person comes in, full of excitement and wonder. It was a spectacular road. He’s had a wonderful trip, the best of his life. He couldn’t be happier.”

The difference?

“Perception,” says Susan C. Kemp, executive director of the Great Alaska Highways Society.

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Whether you’re coming in by car, ship or plane, Alaska challenges travelers to prepare themselves by calibrating their expectations. And never has that prescription been more pressing than in 1992.

The 50th anniversary of both the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands in western Alaska and the completion of the 1,422-mile Alaska-Canada highway from the Lower 48 to the interior is expected to increase road traffic 35% this summer. Something like 850,000 visitors are packing their mosquito repellent and aiming for the Last Frontier.

Alaskans are excited. And braced.

Practically everything glorious that you have heard about Alaska is true. And so is almost everything bad that you could imagine. Finding one and avoiding the other calls for deft traveling skills: knowing what you are in for, planning in great detail and remaining wholly flexible.

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About the saddest sights I see are the crowds that gather at public telephones in the vicinity of major attractions such as Denali National Park during the peak July-August tourism season. The callers are anxiously going through the listings for lodgings. They have driven for hours and now all they see are no-vacancy signs.

This is not the Lower 48. Here, merchants and hoteliers who serve the tourist trade must make a year’s earnings in only a few weeks. In other words, you are not going to find a surplus of peak-season services----including unreserved lodgings, empty restaurant seats, unhurried car mechanics, wide-open charter fishing boats, ready-when-you-are air taxis or discount prices. At some of Anchorage’s more popular restaurants, it is not uncommon to wait 40 minutes to be seated. And that is with reservations. Hotels book up in advance and campgrounds are frequently full.

Traffic and crowds are hard to avoid, at least some of the time. Imagine tiny Juneau (population 26,751 and with only a handful of restaurants) with two, four, five cruise ships pulling ineach day.

I asked a Juneau restaurant owner if she believed it would be possible to get impromptu, same-day reservations this summer. “I hope not,” she replied. At the Baranof Hotel in Juneau, the reservation clerk said the same thing. “We’ll start filling up soon.” That was in January. Cancellation lists sometimes are a good bet for those without months to plan.

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At Denali National Park, in the interior of Alaska between Anchorage and Fairbanks, rows of RV’s and a scattering of cars park each summer in a gravel pit for lack of camping spaces. Their occupants wait from two hours to two days, or maybe more, for a seat on a Park Service school bus that will take them on an 8- to 12-hour tour of one of the most spectacular wildlife areas in the world.

Private cars for sightseeing are not allowed on the dirt road that leads deep into Denali Park. A park concessionaire operates a fixed number of school buses for visitors. You sign up for a reserved seat when you arrive and the wait depends on how many people were there first. Tour companies offer advance reservations and more comfortable seating on their buses as part of vacation packages, although some tour participants say they feel overly rushed when with such tour groups.

Park Superintendent Russ Berry says that demand to enter the park is so heavy that visitors are shaken to hear him say, “The theater out there is full. You’ll have to wait and come back for the next show.” In this case, Berry’s theater is a park the size of Massachusetts and the show is an extravaganza of wildlife that includes grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolves and foxes. All are commonly seen. Day in and day out, the park offers some of the best wildlife viewing anywhere in the state. Park officials explain they must limit entry, however, to keep from spooking the very creatures people are so anxious to see.

Those places in Alaska which do not restrict access can quickly give the appearance of being overrun. At popular Portage Glacier outside Anchorage, the view of haunting blue icebergs close enough to touch is almost always compromised by the clatter of idling tour buses, clouds of greasy diesel smoke and throngs of fellow visitors.

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Perhaps because newcomers have been exposed to so many nature documentaries and breathtaking close-up photographs, they can be sorely disappointed to learn that Alaska wildlife is usually wary and often avoids McDonald’s restaurants and airports, not to mention railroads and highway corridors.

In more than 40 years living in Alaska, Kemp said she has seen a bear on the road only once. In more than 25 years of Alaska adventuring, Allen Smith of the Wilderness Society in Anchorage said he has seen wolves only three times. Fish and Game public affairs director Sheila Nickerson says she sees more wildlife when she goes home to Upstate New York than she ever has seen in Alaska.

Still, there is plenty to see and experience in Alaska for those who make the time.

The impulse to see something fast and move on quickly and see more, taken to extremes by some tour companies, lies at the heart of the clash between easy expectations and the more demanding reality in glorious Alaska.

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Every trip I make to Alaska underscores my belief that too many visitors have unrealistic expectations and therefore feel helpless against the crowds and waiting. They push themselves, or allow themselves to be pushed, to see more and faster. As a result they experience less. Conversely, I find, those who know what to expect are not helpless or pushed. They are the most likely to face challenges here in the great tradition of pioneer Alaskans, that is, with creative self-reliance. And they learn rapidly that many of Alaska’s treasures are right there within reach after all.

At the Portage Glacier area, for instance, one can do an about-face from the noisy, crowded visitor center and walk south for 15 minutes on easy and nearly level trail. Suddenly you are deep in a towering mountain bowl at the snout of your own glacier and the promise of Alaska wells up unforgettably. Out of sight of the road, you can feel as small as you’ve ever felt on the planet, and there for the taking is that rarest of all commodities in the helter-skelter world of the Lower 48, solitude. Here you can enjoy something that you cannot photograph or take home on a videotape, a precious moment of quiet with the only sound in your ear the swirl of mountain breeze off ancient ice.

Bears and wolves avoid highways, but along the way down the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet toward the glacier, a careful traveler has a good chance of seeing mountain sheep high on nearby cliffs. Beluga whales are sometimes seen porpoising off the other side of the road. In town, that 40-minute wait for restaurant seating is precious little time, really, to even begin peeking into the galleries, where there is abundant proof of Alaska’s flourishing art community. Juneau print maker Laurie Ferguson Craig describes growing demand for art derived from Northwest Coastal Indians, a style as unique and distinctive as Southwestern art. Juneau and Anchorage, among other communities, are particularly dense with galleries.

At Denali, the wait for entry into the interior of the park allows time for a local raft trip, easy strolls on nearby trails, daily dog-sled demonstrations and any number of other enjoyable activities.

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For those vacationers who always return home with fond memories of the people they meet, Alaska is hard to top for authentic sourdough character. Unlike destinations such as Hawaii, with its undercurrent of local ambivalence about tourism, Alaskans by and large seem delighted at the growth of an industry that is not related to the boom and bust cycle of oil.

The traditional rural Alaska roadhouse, a combination of restaurant, saloon, public meeting hall, trinket shop, guide service, motel and gas station, is one of the easiest places to mix with people who like to hunt their meat on the hoof and could care less if the restroom is equipped with running water.

Mostly these are people who choose to live on different terms, at a different pace, and what it takes to gain their attention is interest and patience.

Alaskans know what it is like to be a tourist in their state. Look around, those people gap-jawed at the sights out the window of the airplane, that family in line with you to get into Denali Park, those in the rented Winnebago dawdling at 30 m.p.h. down the highway in front of you--they are as likely to be Alaskans as anyone.

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