By Ari Karpel
Originally published on Advocate.com September 10 2010 4:00 AM ET
Since long before Alaska became famous for giving us Sarah Palin, the northernmost state has been a travel destination for gay men and lesbians seeking an off-the-beaten-path adventure.
The majority of LGBT visitors take in the state’s stunning vistas from the deck of a cruise ship, but Out in Alaska — the area’s only land-based gay tourist outfit — offers an intimate alternative. “On a cruise you see really neat stuff,” says Out in Alaska founder Tim Stallard, 36, “but on most of the cruises you’re with 1,000 to 2,000 people. You don’t experience the remote feel and the solitude that really defines Alaska, the wide open spaces.”
Solitude and wide open spaces are the core of Stallard’s summertime camping journeys into the backcountry, where groups of four to eight people raft fjords, kayak past glaciers, bike Anchorage’s Coastal Trail, even pick wild blueberries and spot sea otters and caribou. Less rugged trips put guests up in hotels and feature mellow but awe-inspiring sightseeing. “Most Americans don’t get the chance to see areas that have very little direct human impact,” says the Northern California native. “We go to places that have never been developed, to see what a truly natural environment looks like, rivers that have never been dammed, areas that have never been cratered by a bulldozer.”
All trips are led by Stallard, who ran the University of Alaska-Fairbanks’s outdoor recreation program for nine years. “It was a great job, but I wanted to work for myself,” he says. “Gay people like to travel but weren’t making it to Alaska in great numbers, and I wanted to share the amazing beauty.”
It is indeed amazing, though seeing it now might be bittersweet. “I think we’re seeing the effects of climate change much more dramatically here than elsewhere,” he says, “with glaciers sinking, areas of the coast melting and sloughing, the arctic changing quickly.”
Stallard has found it a challenge to spread the word about his company, which he started in 2004. “I’m way up here and our clients are outside — that’s what we call the lower 48 states.” But Alaska’s notorious ambassador has sparked plenty of new interest in the area. “It’s kind of funny — a lot of us have always viewed Wasilla as the armpit of Alaska,” Stallard says of Palin’s hometown. “It’s a beautiful area, but what you see of the town itself from the highway is 20 miles of strip malls. I used to always hope that our guests would fall asleep during that section of the drive, between Fairbanks and Anchorage, but now they’re wide awake and looking for Sarah Palin.”