Alaska is the forty-ninth state and one of only two (along with Hawaii) that's not part of the main USA. The area was settled by Russians as Russian America, and bought from Russia in 1867 for US$7.2 million (equivalent to $133 million in 2020). It was deemed too expensive to maintain - I wonder if the Russians regret it now? Alaska was designated a territory and wasn't actually admitted as a state until 1959. Alaska is by far the largest U.S. state by area. It comprises more total area than the next three largest states (Texas, California, and Montana) combined.
The weather in Alaska is beautiful, most of the time, except when it comes to trying to spot elusive Denali (Mount McKinley). There’s that chill in the air when you get up that is invigorating and round every corner is something amazing.
I've landed in Anchorage - half of Alaska's residents live within the Anchorage metropolitan area. The best thing about Anchorage is the eating. Anchorage cuisine tends to focus upon seafood: fresh wild salmon, cold water oysters and king crab claws. But, despite having the population it's not the state capital. This is Juneau, situated on a sliver of coast further south . his is the second-largest city in the United States by area, (larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined). The former capital of Alaska, Sitka, close to Juneau is the largest U.S. city by area.
From Anchorage to Portage Lake and the dramatic scenery of the Byron Glacier Creek with its permanent snowfield under a hanging glacier. Then, Seward, a picturesque port ringed by a stunning landscape of mountains and glaciers, lying alongside the rich waters of Resurrection Bay. Seward was founded at the turn of the twentieth century by engineers building the railroad to the interior. It was chosen as it is ice free and it prospered during the early years of the Nome gold rush. Now it's the gateway port for cruises into the spectacular Kenai Fjords National Park. This has to be the best short boat trip in the world.
Here, nearly 40 glaciers flow into the water from the Harding Icefield and we're sailing (for five hours) to the tidewater glaciers in Aialik Bay and the Holgate arm of the bay. Orcas and humpbacks create a mesmerising display (especially the mother and calf - 'Come and look at the strange humans dear'. A whale breaches several times. Puffins, crested and otherwise, are bobbing, or squawking from rookeries on jagged outcrops, along with cormorants, marbled murrelets and a plethora of other seabirds. Steller sea lions cavort, adorably cute sea otters float on their backs waving happily. The backdrop is sparkling blue glaciers, calving thunderously. What a performance.
The very long ferry journey across the stunning Prince William Sound to Valdez, via Portage Glacier and Whittier, is almost a disappointment after all that excitement, despite seals and more sea otters gliding past on ice floes. Valdez is the northernmost ice-free port in the western hemisphere. It's also the terminus of the 800 mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which begins in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. This astounding feat of engineering traverses the Brooks Range, crossing rivers and valleys, above and below ground, before finally feeding its oil into the waiting tankers.
Onwards to McCarthy, in Wrangell St Elias National Park. We stop en route to see the remarkable fish wheels on the Copper River, an ingenious method of catching the abundant salmon that follow the river to spawn. It is chilly enough to call for hot water bottles at night. Wrangell St Elias contains the largest concentration of glaciers on the continent and nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. I could see some of the peaks poking through the clouds when I flew in. Some 13.2 million acres of the park system have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage area.
The old mining town of Kennicott has been designated as a National Historic landmark. It is described as 'the finest remaining example of an early twentieth century copper mine anywhere'. The town is a fascinating monument reminiscent of wild west movies, complete with swinging saloon doors. We are lured by the possibility of mountain goats and Dall sheep with long curly horns, wolves, black bears, coyotes, bison and caribou. Sure enough, I spot my first bear on the road to our suitably authentic timber lodging.
Here, we climb the Bonanza Mine trail, a steep 16 kilometres following the ridges and tram lines to the old copper mine, taking in the magnificent panoramas of the Chugach Mountains, Mount Blackburn and the Kennicott Glacier along the way. Here, the semi derelict mine buildings are astonishingly dark crimson against the sky - they are reputed to be haunted. And the dirty glacier peaks stretching across the valley floor are spectacular in their own way.
Then, along the Denali Highway to Tangle Lakes. The views of the mountains reflecting in the snowy lakes framed by taiga are utterly gorgeous. Moose, deer, squirrels, foxes and chipmunks all participate in turn. Guide Matt demonstrates using his self defence canister and leaping a stream at the same time.
Denali is six million acres of wild land, one of the world's last intact ecosystems, bisected by one ribbon of road. Relatively low-elevation taiga forest gives way to high alpine tundra and snowy mountains. It culminates in North America's tallest peak, 20,310 foot Denali. The Athabascan name means 'the high one' and the guides say that this towering pyramid of rock, ice and snow is often shrouded in a blanket of mist and cloud. True to form, the famous mountain refuses to put in much of an appearance, but more bear (mother and cub gambolling), moose, wolves and Dall sheep do. And there are sled dog demonstrations led by earnest rangers.
Next, the tourist town of Talkeetna - motels and log built fast food eateries. It's a good base for Denali exploration. But the peak remains elusive, even from the air. However, our Talkeetna air taxi uncovers clear views up the river systems of Talkeetna and across the Susitna Valley. It's an incredible landscape of cascading icefalls, meltwater pools of the deepest possible turquoise, glaciers and snowy peaks. We swoop through The Great Gorge of the Ruth. It has mile high granite walls filled with a 4,000 foot thick river of ice, and it's the deepest canyon in North America. Take that Arizona! Dipping into a snowy bowl known as the Don Sheldon Amphitheatre, at the head of the gorge, where we bump softly onto the ground.
Also in the Talkeetna/Denali area is Hatcher's Pass. The top of the pass is the site of another mine; this time it's gold. The Old Independence Mine, is today an Historical State Park, but it was once the property of the Alaska-Pacific Consolidated Mining Company. The pass is named after Robert Lee Hatcher, who established the first lode claim in Willow Creek Valley in 1906. At the peak of its production the mine employed over 200 men and produced nearly 35,000 ounces of gold. At today's rates that would equate to over $17 million dollars' worth a year.
The Mine Manager's House now serves as a visitor centre. It features a simulated mining tunnel and displays on gold-mining methods. From the centre, we are directed to follow Hardrock Trail past other restored, but oddly deserted buildings in the complex: a timber shed, warehouse, collapsed mill, mess halls, and bunkhouses. The highpoint - literally - is climbing the trail to the water tunnel portal, where there is a great view of the entire complex and a blast of cold air pouring out of the mountain.
Next up on the tourist trail, a musk ox farm in Palmer. The huge animals' pelts are sublimely soft and the wool ridiculously expensive. There's now a thriving herd of 80 musk oxen here, having been reintroduced into Alaska, after being hunted out. This, despite the fact that they were one of very few species to survive the Pleistocene era in the far north.
The Talkeetna (and trip) finale is a husky sled ride on another Alaska glacier. This involves a scenic helicopter flight over the Chugach Range, Knik Glacier, and Lake George. Then, 30 minutes of sledding in the stunning snowy landscape on the glacier. The Alaskan sled dogs and their mushers live here all summer long. Each of the dogs has their own small white kennel. They're in training for the annual Iditarod Race Trail Sled Dog Race. This is run in early March from Anchorage to Nome. Mushers and a team of 14 dogs, of which at least five must be on the towline at the finish line, cover the distance in 8–15 days or more. The owner here, Dallas, has won five times already.
It’s a little murky today, but this just adds to the atmosphere up top, as the chained up dogs howl mournfully from their kennel roofs and vie to be chosen for the ride. Which I hope is done at a more sedate pace. The dogs are selected in strict rotation, with pegs used to denote who has had their turn.
One of the most rewarding trips - ever.
Read more about the U.S.A. here.
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