Alaska: State of Superlatives
Story & photo by Julie Snyder
Alaska is big. And wild. And jaw-dropping. And big.
So big that it’s larger than Texas, California and Montana combined. Rhode Island could fit inside Alaska almost 500 times!
So wide, from the tip of the Aleutian Islands to the easternmost edge of the Panhandle, that it could span the lower 48 from coast to coast.
So unpopulated that the person-per-square-mile density is one (if New York City had the same density, only 23 people would live in Manhattan).
So tree-rich that it’s home to the nation’s two largest forests—the 16.8-million-acre Tongass and 4.8-million-acre Chugach.
So oil-rich that Prudhoe Bay is home to the largest oilfield in North America.
So lofty that 17 of the country’s 20 highest peaks tower there including 20,320 ft. Denali.
So liquid that there are more than 3,000 rivers and 3 million lakes—the largest, Lake Iliamna, is roughly the size of Connecticut.
So fishy that the seafood industry in the state’s largest private industry employer.
So coastal that it borders on three bodies of water—the Arctic and Pacific Oceans and the Bering Sea– and has more shoreline than the rest of the U.S. combined (more than 34,000 miles).
So quaky that some 5,000 temblors shake Alaska annually, like the magnitude 7 that rocked Anchorage and the rest of South Central Alaska in November 2018. Fortunately, most are less than 3.5 on the Richter scale.
So quirky that it spawns curious events like an annual festival built around moose poop in tiny Talkeetna (which is also where Stubbs the cat served as honorary mayor for two decades).
So icy that its 100,000 glaciers cover 5 percent of the state; the largest is 850-square-mile Malaspina, nearly 50 percent larger than Delaware.
So rugged that there are less than 20,000 miles of public roads (about the same number as in Vermont).
So summer sun-blessed that freakishly large vegetables—35-lb. broccoli, 65-lb. cantaloupe and 138-lb. cabbage—take home State Fair blue ribbons, thanks to some 20 hours of daily summer sunlight.
So grizzly that somewhere out there in Alaska’s more than 500,000 square miles lurks approximately one bear for every 21 people.
And one more superlative I couldn’t resist. So close to Russia—55 miles across the narrowest part of the Bering Strait and even closer from the Diomede Islands halfway between, one Russian, one American,—that some Alaskans actually can see Putin’s homeland from their houses.
After exploring the Inside Passage by public ferry along the Alaska Marine Highway System two years ago on a trip I designed, my husband, sister, and brother-in-law were game for another of my action-packed itineraries, this time on mainland Alaska. Anticipating that this might be our last trip to our 49th state (whose 1959 admission to statehood I remember from childhood), we wanted to cover as much ground as we could in two weeks while still absorbing a sense of place.
We flew to Fairbanks, just east of the center of the state and halfway between Prudhoe Bay on the north coast and our final stop, Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula. While there, we spent a long day heading north on the Dalton Highway for the privilege of saying we’d crossed the Arctic Circle. Then Alaska Rail took us south to Denali National Park, and a few days later, to Anchorage, where we rented a car to explore the Kenai Peninsula.
What we discovered during our two-week adventure was wilderness that took our breath away, wild animals best kept at a safe distance, lakes and fjords and rivers and bays and arms that glistened in the intermittent sunshine and grayed beneath cloud cover, nearly perpetual daylight that deceived us into drinking fine Alaskan beers much too late into the night, and welcoming people—indigenous Alaska Natives, natives born in the state and transplants for whom this unique place resonates.
We found out that fresh halibut and wild salmon never get tiresome, reindeer sausage is addictive and there aren’t enough hours in the day—even during summer’s midnight sun—to take advantage of all the opportunities for outdoor fun. We learned how thawing permafrost is literally altering the landscape—washboarding roads and destabilizing infrastructure—not to mention releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And perhaps most immediately critical, we learned the difference between black bears and grizzlies and how to react to each in an encounter, of which, fortunately, there were none without window glass between us.
We traveled in mid-May to beat the crowds and super-sized mosquitos and for that, we sacrificed wildflowers and the bloom of summer. Snow still frosted many mountaintops and hillsides and even valley floors, but temperatures were in the 50s-low 60s during the day and 40s at night, all comfortable with layers. We weren’t going for a suntan and lucked out with days of fast-moving clouds, pockets of sunshine and only one brief rain shower.
First Stop: Fairbanks
Landing in Fairbanks shortly after midnight, we felt disoriented in the eerie half-light. The official sunset was less than an hour before we arrived and sunrise came just after 4 a.m. Though technically the “land of the midnight sun” lies above the Arctic Circle some 200 miles north, the entire state of Alaska—with long daylight hours in the summer and only a handful in the winter—has adopted the moniker.
Straddling the Chena River, Fairbanks was long a seasonal refuge for the Athabascans, Alaska’s oldest native tribe, but the area didn’t become a permanent settlement until 1901 when the regional gold rush began to pan out. Today, the friendly home rule city is the seat of the North Star Borough, population 100,000. (For context, the borough is nearly the physical size of New Jersey, population 9 million.)
An amiable staff member at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, home to a trio of tourism, public lands, and native culture organizations, offered local insight. We learned that winter snow transforms the sprawling, low-slung and architecturally uninspired community into a frosted fantasyland for winter sports—including the 1,000-mile International Sled Dog Race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. And northern lights viewing is a prime attraction between September and April. (Word on the street: if you stay a minimum of three nights and are outside during the evening and early morning hours, your chances of seeing nature’s dazzling light show is 90%.)
We also learned from our helpful new acquaintance that the generous summer sunshine yields floral abundance, both wild and cultivated, and endless daylight for outdoor adventure. The extended daylight was seductive—we found ourselves wandering about well after what would have been bedtime at home and seeking coffee far earlier. Late and early, people were out and about, walking dogs, playing baseball, even golfing. Is everyone in Alaska sleep-deprived?
Our mid-May visit may have made us seasonal ‘tweeners but we didn’t lack for diversion. Despite our early morning arrival from Seattle, we were up with the birds and off to breakfast with a friend of my sisters who moved to Fairbanks for work several decades ago and never left, a common Alaskan story. Alaska seems to have a gravitational pull for seekers of self-reliance and elbow room.
Waving down a local bus, we headed for the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on the northwestern edge of town with a spectacular panorama of the Alaska Range. By design, the stunning snow-white structure evokes images of alpine ridges and gargantuan glaciers—but I saw Moby Dick. The only research and teaching museum in the state boasts more than 1.5 million biological and cultural artifacts and specimens, an intriguing sampling of which are on public display.
My tall husband was taken by a taxidermied Alaskan brown bear named Otto that towered over him by several feet, while I was smitten with Blue Babe, a 36,000-year-old mummified Alaska steppe bison preserved in permafrost since the Ice Age. Gold miners discovered the beast, complete with claw marks and tooth punctures from an Ice Age American lion, in 1979 and donated it to the museum. Another specimen of the super-size animals that roamed the grasslands during the Pleistocene era is a woolly mammoth skull as big as a baby buggy with 6-foot tusks. Also on display—the state’s largest public exhibition of gold.
I had hopes of hanging out with some musk ox at the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station adjacent to the university but we were too early for summer hours (though you can arrange winter tours in advance). Every inch of these hirsute, horned Arctic beasts—except for horns, hooves, lips, and nose—is covered with coarse “guard hair” up to two feet long. Underneath their heavy coats is qiviut, a downy underwool shed in spring and a favorite of knitters for super-soft, warm (and pricey) scarves, hats and sweaters. I did get my musk ox fix later in the trip at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, outside Anchorage on the way to the Kenai Peninsula.
Had we spent one more day in Fairbanks, we may have cruised the Chena River to an Athabascan village, and to the home and kennels of four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher on the sternwheeler Riverboat Discovery. Or we may have headed 60 miles northeast to the soothing geothermal pools at Chena Hot Springs Resort, home to the Aurora Ice Museum (think Ice Palace in James Bond movie, “Die Another Day” right down to ice carved martini glass, only smaller).
North to the Arctic Circle
While spending 12 hours on a small coach held little appeal for our active group, the notion of crossing the Arctic Circle was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, no matter how long the ride. Booking with Northern Alaska Tour Company, we joined a congenial group of 10 and an enthusiastic, knowledgeable guide named Rachel.
We bumped along the Dalton Highway, a 414-mile, mostly unpaved two-lane road (the setting for Season 3 of “Ice Road Truckers” I’m told) that stretches from 84 miles north of Fairbanks to Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean and the Prudhoe Bay oilfield. When oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1969, plans for drilling and constructing an 800-mile pipeline took shape at warp speed. To provide access to the pipeline construction, the Dalton Highway—simply called the “haul road” in its early years—was built in just five months in 1974 to access the remote northern reaches of the state. The southern 211 miles opened to public permit holders in 1981, and the entire route opened to public traffic in 1994.
Despite Rachel’s driving excellence and our vehicle’s sturdy shocks, there was no getting around all the bumps and dips and potholes. “Highway” is a bit of a misnomer—we threaded through several sections where passing a hulking tanker going in the opposite direction would be harrowing. Fortunately, CB antennas accessorized most of the scarce traffic, which allowed Rachel to get a friendly heads’ up about the road ahead from drivers headed the other way.
Subarctic boreal forest (acidic soil, little rainfall, shallow roots) bordered our route until we reached arctic tundra where hardy aspen, birch and black spruce with tufted tops populated the landscape. Along the way, we spotted moose, arctic hare, and sandhill cranes. The wildness of this desolate expanse literally flew in our faces as a bald eagle with a mink in its mouth swooped within six feet of the windshield.
On stops to stretch our legs and breath the Arctic air, Rachel dug up a patch of tundra to reveal the permafrost beneath and escorted us to a stretch of the Alaska pipeline which, at its peak, pumped 200 million gallons of oil a day. Our lunch stop was Yukon River Camp on the north bank of the 1,982-mile Yukon River, which flows from northeastern British Columbia through Alaska to the Bering Sea. The spartan facility—a pipeline checkpoint until 1994—now offers food, fuel and lodging (and a small gift shop, of course). Banh Mi sandwiches, fresh salads and bowls of steaming homemade noodles all featured one’s choice of house-roasted chicken, pork, beef or chunks of wild salmon—a delicious surprise in this remote setting.
As we drew closer to our destination, the 700-mile-long, snow-capped Brooks Range ghosted the horizon. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, North America’s largest untapped onshore oil reserve now under threat of development, straddles the eastern part of the range. At last we arrived at the Arctic Circle where the Bureau of Land Management has erected a much-photographed marker. Rachel rolled out a red carpet so we could each cross the latitude line, suggesting that we express a personal wish as we did so. (Joe and I vowed to adventure as long as we could still walk.) Cheesy, yes, but thrilling to be somewhere we never imagined we’d be.
On the return trip, as the light faded to twilight, Rachel entertained us with videos about wildlife and the intrepid folks who live off the grid in the Brooks Range. And stories about the challenges of being a young single female in Alaska (“Where the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”) Finally, she recited Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee” from memory and we doubled our gratuity. “There are strange things done in the midnight sun by men who moil for gold…”
Continue to Part Two
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.