When I began planning a trip to Alaska, two words came to mind. One was “big,” which many things there are. The other was “mystique,” a sense which pervades the image that people often have of that state. It’s the size of the “Great Land,” as the Aleutian people named the region, which makes the most immediate, and dramatic, impression. Alaska is twice as large as Texas and if cut in half, would be the first and second biggest states in the country. Mount McKinley is the tallest peak in North America, and Denali National Park over which it looms is larger than Massachusetts.
Alaska’s magnificent scenery is what first catches the eye. Row after row of glacier-garbed mountains stretch to the horizon. Many lakes and rivers are dyed a bluish hue by the silt of melting ice and snow. Rivers meander through U-shaped valleys that were gouged out eons ago by advancing glaciers. There are numerous ways to enjoy one of Mother Nature’s most splendid settings at any time of year. Warm-weather pastimes range from hiking and biking to fishing, rafting, sea kayaking and much more. In winter, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snow-shoeing and dog mushing are among activities that induce people to brave the cold.
Opportunities to observe wildlife in its natural setting are virtually everywhere. In Denali National Park and Preserve, a world of Arctic tundra and soaring mountains, sightings of the “Big Five” – grizzly bear, caribou, moose, wolves and dall sheep – are most prized. A menagerie of other creatures also makes the area their home. Dominating the setting is majestic Mount McKinely, which tops out at 20,320 feet. Those who don’t make it to Denali need not despair. Towns in Alaska are never far from the wilderness. Parks often begin within city limits and extend out to backcountry landscapes. Moose, bear and other critters looking for food sometimes wander into urban settings, eliciting little surprise from two-legged residents who are used to such intrusions.
For example, the Far North Bicentennial Park at the edge of Anchorage provides inviting habitat for bears and moose. People gather along river banks there and elsewhere during spring and summer to observe the spawning run of salmon. As they return to their birthplace, after several years at sea, the fish battle their way up rushing water, leaping to surmount low falls along the way. Another obstacle is the phalanx of hungry bears that congregate to gorge on their favorite snack.
Along with their close relationship to nature, cities and towns share a unique rough and rugged history. With a population of about 300,000, Anchorage has an urban setting that resembles other U.S. cities of comparable size. But there also are differences.There, as everywhere in Alaska, untamed nature is not far away. Chugach State Park just outside the city has huge stretches of alpine terrain that are visited by more animals than humans. The Far North Bicentennial Park’s Campbell Tract provides habitat for bears, moose and spawning salmon. People hiking or biking on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail can come face-to-face with as many as a half-dozen moose during a brief outing.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center delves into Native cultures, part of the state’s mystique. The customs and traditions of the 11 major cultural groups are presented at this living history museum through dance, music, storytelling and other mediums. Outside stand authentic Native dwellings representing six indigenous groups. Each is staffed by people from villages around Alaska who delight in relating stories of their people. Gold was responsible for the location of Juneau, the state capital, when it was discovered there in 1880. Visitors today may relive those heady days during visits to several mining sites, or by trying their hand at panning.
The terminus of the most readily accessible of the 10,000 or so glaciers in Alaska, the Mendenhall, is not far outside town. Looming above the suburbs of Juneau, bearing the typical bluish-white glacial hue, it flows about 12 miles from the ice field where it originates. At the lake where the glacier ends, large chunks dramatically break off to become icebergs, in a process called “calving.”
Ketchikan occupies the site where Tlingit natives once set up fishing camps near salmon-rich waters, and it lays claim to the title “Salmon Capital of the World.” It also boasts the largest displays anywhere of standing totem poles, in three formal collections as well as in front of private homes. Another popular attraction is Creek Street, a wooden boardwalk over a stream that runs through the heart of town. For about three decades beginning in the Prohibition era, some buildings perched above the water served as brothels. That time is recalled by a sign welcoming visitors to Creek Street, “Where fish and fishermen go up the creek to spawn.” Those structures now house restaurants, galleries and gift shops.
The setting is very different in Sitka, where evidence remains of Russia’s incursion, which ended in 1867 with the sale of the territory to the United States. The Russian Bishop’s House (built 1842-43) and onion-shaped domes of St. Michael’s Cathedral are among reminders of that chapter of history. Remnants of Russia’s brief influence merge comfortably with constant reminders that the native peoples have lived in what now is the southeastern corner of Alaska for thousands of years. Everywhere, their rich cultures are close at hand.
Along with Alaska’s breathtaking natural beauty, opportunities to interact with wildlife and colorful history, its people also leave an indelible impression. This is so in part because of the respect accorded the cultures of the native people, and the extent to which they have been woven into the fabric of life. For example, many Alaskans continue to call Mount McKinely “Denali,” Athabascan Indian for “The Great One.” I saw representations of totem poles and other traditional images adorning many T-shirts worn by locals. And I was moved by the pride with which an Aleut guide at the Alaska Native Heritage Center described how men from his village still hunt for whales from kayaks using poison-tip spears, and how women weave baskets that are among the finest in the world.
Non-Native residents manifest pride and independence in their own ways. It was voiced by Elizabeth Arnett, a forties-something nurse who said she came to Alaska 15 years ago, then added, “It takes an independent spirit to live this far from family and friends.” That spirit was expressed more succinctly by a shop keeper in Ketchikan who, when I inquired why she had moved to the state, replied “Adventure.”
Travelers seeking an adventure vacation couldn’t do better than to think Alaska. Others who prefer to observe wild animals and equally wild scenery from a distance, combined with a lifestyle different from theirs, also are likely to find much to like about the state.
For general information about visiting Alaska: travelalaska.com