Adventure firm prides itself on in-depth tours

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CANTWELL -- Showing visitors "the true Alaska" at a leisurely pace is both a business and a passion for Gary Whittemore, owner and operator of Whitt's Alaskan Adventures here, who, during his 25-year tenure as a naturalist guide in Denali National Park, got a fairly good idea of what visitors wanted but weren't getting.

"Generally speaking, our guests are a very anti-cruise-ship crowd," said Whittemore, who founded the company in the summer of 1998.

Working as a guide in Denali, Whitte-more said, he grew frustrated as "the cruise ship companies started calling all the shots, and started demanding that the tours be shorter and shorter, faster and faster, because of all the travel connections."

"I just couldn't do the job I wanted to do," he continued. "We could not take visitors as far into the park as we used to."

An eight-hour tour to mile 66 of the 95-mile park road was tapered down to a six-hour tour to mile 53 in the mid 1980s, Whittemore said, followed by the creation about 10 years ago of a two-hour tour, reaching only mile 17, at the request of one of the cruise lines.

"I figured in the years that I worked in Denali, I dealt with over 100,000 visitors in the park," Whittemore said, "so it was pretty good market research. I asked a lot of questions, and people tend to tell you if they're not happy.

"Their frustration was obvious, and it was clear to me that they wanted an alternative experience."

Not surprisingly, Whittemore's tours do reach the end of the road in Denali, where his groups linger for lunch at the Kantishna Roadhouse.

"We've got several two-night stays built in," Whittemore said, "and a couple of days on the tour where people have the chance, if they wish, to do nothing and simply relax. For people who want more activity on those days, we provide it, with the day hikes and such."

Whittemore said his 13-night tours are typically taken by retirees and seniors. "We've had people up to 85 years old on our tours, and those couple of days to just relax made a huge difference for them," he said.

Whitt's Alaskan Adventures tours include a cruise of Tracy Arm Fjord. Clients on the tours should be in fairly good condition and able to walk several city blocks, Whittemore said. "They don't have to go to the gym and work out, but a certain mobility is required for logistics; we don't have wheelchair-accessible tours."

Group camaraderie on the tours also makes them attractive to older travelers. "We have the type of tours where, if we have people who are a bit older, group members pretty much adopt them," he said.

This summer, there are three 13-night departures, July 9, July 23 and Aug. 6, as well as a new, 10-night fall foliage departure, Aug. 20.

Guests begin the trips in Juneau and return home from Anchorage. The tours provide opportunities for daily hikes and walks, plus in-depth visits to Denali, Tracy Arm Fjord, Admiralty Island National Monument and Glacier Bay as well as Kluane Lake in Canada's Yukon Territory.

With the 10-night tour going for $4,395 per person, double, and the 13-night tours priced at 5,595, Whittemore acknowledged that "price is a big consideration with us," but noted that clients will not incur many additional expenses on the trips.

"You get what you pay for," Whittemore said, "which is [the experience of] traveling with a small group."

The 10-night and 13-night itineraries are similar, although on the ride from Anchorage to Denali, the 10-night tour takes the Parks Highway rather than the Glenn and Denali highways.

Guests on the 13-night tours also visit the home of Mary Shields, who in 1974 became the first woman to finish the Iditarod race, and stay for two nights at Chena Hot Springs Resort, where they can soak and swim at leisure.

"That is a totally free, nontravel day," Whittemore said, where guests have the option to horseback ride or have a massage.

"Chena is at the end of the road, literally," Whittemore said, "which fits our philosophy. It's pretty darn quiet, and gives people a chance to relax. We stay in the newest rooms they have there."

Other itinerary highlights common to both the 10-night and 13-night tours include an afternoon whale-watching cruise in Gustavus and visits to the Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla, about an hour north of Anchorage, and the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center.

Both the 10- and 13-night tours include daily breakfast and dinner and two lunches. Restaurant dining is off the menu, and guests are treated to a home-cooked meal at Whittemore's residence, located 27 miles south of the entrance to Denali Park. A nine-time Iditarod racer himself, Whittemore allows guests to pet his Iditarod sled dogs at his house.

Whittemore said he invites agents to call Whitt's Alaskan Adventures for referrals. "We have several clients who would be more than happy to be contacted by anyone."

Trekking to Tracy Arm Fjord

Whitt's Alaskan Adventures

Phone: (888) 764-2662

E-mail:[email protected]

Web:www.whittsadventures.com

Commission: 10%

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