This installment in my series of insider guides to extraordinary places to visit in the United States focuses on the great State of Alaska. Written by Foreign Service Officer Erin Robertson (who is currently posted at the American Embassy in Cairo), the article below provides personal insights and travel tips about our vibrant, diverse, and stunningly beautiful 49th State near the top of the world.
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MY ALASKA by Erin Robertson
Alaska (derived from the Aleut word for “Great Land”) is a gloriously beautiful, rugged, and unforgiving environment, far from the maddening crowd. Its friendly, self-reliant people, the stunning natural environment, rich culture and history, and an endless selection of exciting and unique things to do make my home State a place that everyone should visit at least once in their life. There is no other place quite like it.
Living in the “Land of the Midnight Sun” with its surreally long summer days and tortuously long winter nights makes Alaskans some of the most interesting, down to-earth, resilient, and exceptional people you will ever meet. From Alaska’s natives who have occupied the land from time immemorial, to the Alaskans who are descended from the gold rush prospectors, to the modern-day transplants who moved north for reasons of oil, adventure, or escape, Alaskans are a special bunch.
Alaska is home to five different indigenous peoples with a diverse family of languages and eleven distinct native cultures, constituting 15% of the State’s total population. Those cultures are part of the rich fabric of Alaskan life, and visitors can enjoy the great variety of native cultural offerings, traditional music and dance, crafts, storytelling and traditional ceremonies, and unique sports like knuckle hop and blanket toss.
With land area of approximately 1,500,000 square kilometers (580,000 square miles), Alaska is the largest U.S. State, more than twice the size of Texas (a fact I like to remind my Texan friends of regularly). For Kiwi readers’ general reference, that’s about six times the size of New Zealand. If Alaska were a separate country, it would rank 33rd in size out of the more than 200 countries currently on Earth.
The next closest State in terms of proximity, Washington, is an average five-hour flight away from Alaska. Barrow, Alaska is the northernmost city in the United States and the 9th northernmost in the world. This remoteness, as well as the weather perhaps, is what keeps the State’s population small. We average just over one person per square mile, which makes us the least densely populated of the 50 States.
Despite tripling since the 1960s, the total number of Alaska residents still only stands at about 735,000. There are only 3 States with smaller populations. The capital city of Juneau (in the southeast of the State) has just 31,275 people. (Believe it or not, there are five other State capitals that are even smaller.) Our largest city, Anchorage, has 295,000 people.
Anchorage’s unique location makes it a wonderful place to visit or live. As the city’s website notes, there are more than 60 glaciers in a 50-mile radius, a salmon stream in the heart of downtown, six surrounding mountain ranges, 300 miles of wilderness trails, and the third largest State park right in our backyard. You can dog sled across an icy glacier in the morning, explore snow-capped peaks by air or stalk exotic wildlife with your camera in the afternoon, and enjoy fine food and cosmopolitan entertainment in the evening.
Alaska is believed to have been first settled about 12,000 years ago by migration from Siberia across a Bering Sea land bridge, with all of the first peoples of the Americas thought to be descended from those migrants. Russian explorers started arriving in the late 1600s or early 1700s, and Spain began establishing outposts shortly thereafter. In 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward bought the territory of “Russian America” — known thereafter in some quarters as “Seward’s Folly” — from the Czar for US$ 7 million.
Life magazine once described “the Last Frontier’s mystique as a bastion of hardy, rough-and-tumble, solitude-loving homesteaders scraping a living from the land, rivers, and sea.” Long before it became a State in 1959, Alaska developed a strong identity of pioneering, can-do, all-hands spirit. The State flag was designed by a 13-year old Aleut boy in 1927, inspired (like New Zealand’s flag) by a constellation, in our case Ursa Major or “the Big Dipper.” The North Star sits in the upper outer corner to symbolize Alaska’s status as America’s northernmost state. The flag is a favorite theme for everything from tattoos to clothing.
The thing that probably draws folks to Alaska the most is its stunning natural beauty, so immediate and on such a grand scale that it is difficult to describe or truly capture in photos. Towering snow-capped mountains … pristine ice-sculpted fjords … crystal-blue icebergs, often in whimsical shapes … massive tidewater glaciers …
… majestic lakes and rivers … alpine fields and valleys bursting with brightly colored wildflowers … remote islands and teeming seas that seem untouched by modern life … the otherworldly Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) … exotic wildlife in great abundance … nature in all its undiluted, untamed, awe-inspiring glory.
One can foray out by foot, sled, train, or motor vehicle to explore as the pioneers did, or one can choose from the numerous excellent excursions available to visitors. An Alaskan cruise is the perfect idea of a dream holiday for many folks, whether your preference is a large liner, a more intimate yacht, or something in between.
Similar to parts of the Antipodes, calving glaciers, colorful puffins, breaching whales, and breathtaking fjords are some of the sights that await you during an Alaskan cruise. Many of the ships depart from Seattle or Vancouver and work their way northward along Alaska’s southeast “panhandle,” stopping at points of particular cultural, historical, or natural interest.
Depending on your route, you might cruise through the stunning Kenai Fjords National Park, get up close and personal with magnificent glaciers in Glacier Bay National Preserve, stop in Sitka to learn about the influence of the Russian Orthodox church and the historical and turbulent relationship between Alaska’s original inhabitants and Russian fur traders, or visit Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, the only U.S. State capital not accessible by road.
During your cruise you’ll be sailing the same waters as Captain James Cook, who mapped the coast of Alaska in the 1770s during his third voyage. For this reason, the body of water around the city of Anchorage is named the Cook Inlet. Unfortunately, folks cruising the same waters as Cook are bound to see fewer glaciers than he did. As with New Zealand’s Franz Joseph and Tasman glaciers, Alaskan glaciers are also melting at due to climate change.
Something that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon is Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, which means “the great or high one” in the native Alaska language of Athabaskan. At 20,320 feet (6,144 meters), Mt. McKinley is the highest mountain in North America. To be fair to our 50th State, I should note that the tallest mountain in the U.S. (and in fact in the world) is Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which stands 33,465 feet (10,200 meters) tall. Only 13,796 feet (4,599 meters) of Mauna Kea is above sea level, however, which is how mountains get officially measured.
Mt. McKinley is the highlight of Denali National Park, located only about 175 miles (281 km.) north of Anchorage and easily accessible by train, comfortable bus, small plane, or car. The park comprises more than six million acres (24,300 sq. km.) of federally-owned land where lucky visitors can see grizzly bears and other awe-inspiring sights. Access to the park is restricted, so any visit should be planned well ahead of time. And all visitors should be sure to bring lots of mozzie repellent, as Alaska’s unofficial State bird, the mosquito, finds tourist blood especially tasty.
Of course, if you are brave enough, you can try and ascend the peak. The average number of climbers on Mt. McKinley each year is 1,275. The most in one season was 1,305 in 2001. Approximately 51% of the people who attempt the climb actually reach the summit. The average annual number of rescues is 14, and the mountain claims on average one life per year. According to the map I last saw at the ranger station, four folks from New Zealand climbed Mt. McKinley in 2010.
Part of the challenge is that Mt. McKinley is so big that it makes its own weather and is often covered in clouds. If you’re there on a clear day or are able to stay for awhile, the best way to appreciate the massiveness and awesome beauty of the mountain is to take a flight-seeing tour. The absolute majesty of the sheer icy cliffs, cragged valleys, and massive, winding glaciers that fill the valleys around the mountain will leave you speechless. I took the photos below on one of my own McKinley sightseeing flights:
Those waiting to summit must take a rest in Talkeetna, a quaint village that serves as a required stopping point for mountaineers from around the world seeking to climb Mt. McKinley. Despite having only 800 residents, Talkeetna boasts some delicious restaurants, rustic bars, and neat bed and breakfasts. One of my favorites, the Talkeetna Roadhouse, is a century old and offers visitors huge raspberry cinnamon rolls, locally-grown salads, and a taste of genuine frontier hospitality.
Talkeetna is also notable for its independent, innovative politics. In 1997, when the town’s residents were unhappy with the candidates standing for Mayor, a grassroots write-in campaign led to election of Stubbs the Cat, then just a part-manx kitten of little repute. Stubbs’ first term was considered a great success, and he has been consistently reappointed as Honorary Mayor by acclamation ever since, most recently in July of this year.
Beyond thrill seekers, the wiles and wilds of Alaska have captured the imagination of modern writers, musicians, and artists for generations … from James Michener’s Alaska, to Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves, to the music and videos of popular band “Portugal. The Man,” to the Discovery Channel’s hit about the perilous and life-threatening jobs of Alaskan fishermen, Deadliest Catch, just to name a few examples.
Hollywood seems to be carrying on a love affair with Alaska lately, with a diverse array of films focusing on Alaskan life and characters … humanitarians who save whales trapped in the ice (Drew Barrymore in Big Miracle), foreigners who try to marry Alaskans to get around immigration rules (Sandra Bullock in The Proposal), bakery owners who double as serial killers (John Cusack in the upcoming The Frozen Ground), and students who suddenly give away all their possessions and disappear into the Alaskan wilderness (Emile Hirsch in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, based on the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer).
Tourism and culture aren’t the only draws to Alaska. Oil is the lifeblood of Alaska’s vibrant economy and contributes significantly to a median household income of approximately US$ 65,000, the 4th highest among the 50 States. Nearly a third of the State’s jobs depend on the oil industry. When U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward bought the territory in 1867, many thought that the land was nothing more than a huge chunk of barren ice. “Seward’s Folly” turned out to be a pretty spectacular investment thanks to oil.
The State experienced a population boom after the 1977 completion of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. The pipeline transports crude 800 miles (1,300 km) from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields to the port town of Valdez, where it’s exported to elsewhere in the United States for refining. In many respect, the pipeline is the main artery of Alaska’s economy, pumping oil through the heart of the State. It transported 2 million barrels a day through the 1980s. Today the flow averages about 700,000 barrels a day.
In addition to oil, we Alaskans and our economy rely heavily on fish. According to statistics from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the State has the most productive fisheries in the Americas. Commercial and sport fishing — the latter of which brings thousands of tourists to Alaska each year in hopes of catching a 50-lb king salmon or 100-lb halibut – have a combined economic impact of US$ 7.4 billion and support 90,000 jobs.
Commercial fishermen work in one of the world’s harshest and most dangerous environments, enduring isolated fishing grounds, high winds, seasonal darkness, extremely cold water, constant icing, and short fishing seasons during which inhumanly long work days are the norm. As I’ve already mentioned, the lives and toils of our fishermen have been vividly and accurately captured on the Deadliest Catch.
Before oil and fish, Alaska had another natural resource … gold. The gold rush was a key shaper of Alaskan history after the precious mineral was discovered along the Klondike River in 1886. Known historically as the ‘Last Great Gold Rush,’ the Klondike Gold Rush inspired more than 100,000 prospectors to set out for Alaska between 1886 and 1889. The journey through rough terrain in cold climate with heavy loads proved too hard to many, and only about 35,000 ultimately reached Alaska.
To get a taste of what life was like for a sourdough prospector, visitors can go to Hatcher’s Pass Mine, which isn’t far from Anchorage. There are many other picturesque abandoned mines across the State that you can visit, including the famous mines at Kennecott. You can also enjoy Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, which has an exhilarating trail that takes hikers from sea level to alpine tundra in just 16 miles.
With all the snow and ice in the State, you might think that a good meal would be hard to come by in Alaska, particularly with the expense and challenges of importing food to such a remote location. But you’d be wrong. Just like New Zealand, Alaska has high-quality, diverse food sources close at hand, many of which are local and organic.
In fact, a great point of pride in Alaska is consuming fresh, healthy foods that are grown locally. Our “locavores” can easily identify such products thanks to the Alaska Division of Agriculture’s ubiquitous “Alaska Grown” logo, which Alaskans themselves have taken to wearing on t-shirts, as we too are “Alaska grown.”
Grocery stores aside, there are a number of wild foods that folks can hunt or gather themselves without venturing too far from home. Berries, fresh salmon, halibut, moose, and caribou were some of my favorite local foods growing up.
Historically, people in Alaska have always had a diet based on such self-collected bounty, which includes as well clams, a wide variety of fish, and Dall sheep. And we don’t throw away the inedible parts.
It’s quite normal to enter a home in Alaska only to be greeted by the stuffed head of one of the animals hunted for food. As my parents were not hunters, we instead decorated our home with small pieces of carved walrus ivory and long strips of black whale baleen from a bowhead whale (similar to southern right whale).
I had plenty of friends who hunted and fished, but my own most memorable field trip as a child was when we went one autumn to the foothills of the impressive Chugach Mountains that tower above Anchorage to pick bushels of beautiful wild blueberries. Blueberry, cranberry, crowberry, and raspberry picking is a beloved Alaska pastime, as is eating the amazing breads you can make from your bounty. Cranberry and blueberry bread were staples of my diet growing up, and everyone had their own special recipe.
Of course, the key to berry picking is to avoid the bears, who are as excited about the luscious, plump berries as the people picking them are! Because of the prevalence of bears, part of our schooling always included lessons about how to avoid bears and what to do if you encountered one. Luckily I never had to deploy my bear evasion skills while berry picking or otherwise.
The State’s agriculture mecca is the Matanuska Valley, about an hour’s drive north of Anchorage. Among the bountiful fields you can find the thriving cities of Palmer and Wasilla. While Wasilla is perhaps best know these days for being the hometown of former Alaskan Governor cum Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Palmer is best known for hosting the annual Alaska State Fair.
The area is also known for 2-foot-long zucchinis and child-sized cauliflowers thanks to long summer days which regularly provide up to 20 hours of sunlight. (We don’t call Alaska “Land of the Midnight Sun” for nothing.) Among the State Fair’s biggest attractions are its displays of unusually large vegetables, including giant cabbages. Alaska’s largest cabbage ever was grown in 2012 and weighed in at 138 pounds (62.5 kilos).
We also have plenty of local product to offer if you are in the mood for liquid nourishment. Glacier Creek Distillery, Alaska’s only licensed distillery, makes Permafrost vodka from Matanuska-grown organic potatoes and glacier water.
In terms of other libation, there are dozens of excellent microbreweries across the State which produce world-class brews with unique local names including Glacier Brewhouse Ale, Moose’s Tooth Raspberry, Midnight Sun Hefeweizen, and the great Midnight Sun Oosik Amber. (I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what oosik is.)
If you are a foodie and have an interest in sampling authentic Alaskan recipes before you visit, Nellie’s Recipes has a variety of great ones that I highly recommend.
Originally compiled by the Alaskan Native Tribal Health Consortium to help assisted living facilities in Anchorage provide familiar foods to their clients, the book has recipes very similar to dishes my mother used to prepare. One of my favorite is the salmon spread that we made from the fresh salmon we smoked in our garage.
There is also a recipe in the book for Akutaq, or “Eskimo ice cream,” which these days uses Crisco (an American solid vegetable oil) as a substitute for whale blubber. We tried making that once when I was little and, well, that’s one recipe from Nellie’s cookbook that I don’t recommend you try! Maybe the Crisco was the problem.
As I alluded to earlier, if what you’re looking for is culture, you won’t be disappointed. For example, Anchorage is home to the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. Established in 1988, the Center is a federal research and education program focusing on peoples, history, archaeology, and cultures across the circumpolar North. Through the Center the Smithsonian has loaned hundreds of indigenous Alaska artifacts to their place of origin, facilitating access for hands-on study by Alaska Native elders, artists, and scholars.
Other favorite museums are the Alaska Aviation History Museum, Simon Paneak Memorial Museum (highlighting Eskimo history and culture), Alaskan Indian Arts Museum, Alaska Native Heritage Center, Hammer Museum (with more than 1,400 kinds of hammers, the first museum in the world dedicated to man’s earliest tool), and Ice Museum (where visitors can see ice sculptures by local artists).
In Alaska you are reminded daily that nature controls man (and woman), not the other way around. In suburban Anchorage the reminders are a bit more subtle, but they’re still there. Growing up, we regularly had huge moose come through our yard, somehow scaling our six-foot fence, a feeble barrier to their long and deceptively spindly legs.
If you didn’t bring your dog inside, and if it decided to run after the moose, there was a good chance it would get kicked and seriously injured or worse. Moose can weigh up to 1,500 pounds (700 kilos) and are very powerful. As a driver, hitting a moose with your car would be extremely dangerous, and you could be killed as easily as the moose. Hence, the “moose crossing” warning signs all over the State.
We’re not all about moose, though. Alaska’s wildlife is impressively diverse and abundant, with 112 species of mammals including polar bears, grizzly bears, black bears, gray wolves, arctic and red foxes, coyotes, lynx, mountain lions, marmots, woodchucks, flying squirrels, bison, eagles, a huge variety of other birds, and numerous species of whales, seals, and dolphins, just to name a few.
More than 900,000 caribou roam in 32 herds across vast tundra landscapes. On the Copper River Delta alone, five to eight million shorebirds stop to forage and rest each spring on their way to breeding grounds in the Arctic. Alaska ranks 12th among the 50 States in terms of mammalian diversity and has 32 species of carnivores, more than any other State.
Among the proud Alaskan traditions that pit man against the elements is dog sledding. Before the advent of airplanes or snow machines, dog sleds were essential modes of transportation for Alaskans, who face 6-9 months of winter depending on how far north we live. While dog sledding has gone the way of the horse and carriage as a means of daily transportation, it remains an important part of Alaskan culture.
Dog mushers are among the athletes we Alaskans idolize most, and we follow their races and accomplishments passionately. When I was young, I couldn’t have named one professional basketball or football player, but I could have given you the names of a dozen dog mushers off the top of my head.
Every year my family would head down to watch the start of the Iditarod, the iconic sled dog race that takes mushers and their dogs across 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of freezing tundra, snowy mountains, and frozen lakes. The race commemorates the 1925 effort of a team of mushers who rushed life-saving serum from Anchorage to the northern village of Nome where the native population was being threatened by diphtheria.
Two of my favorite mushers were women who broke the ice ceiling, if you will … Susan Butcher and Libby Riddles. In 1985, Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod. I vividly remember being terribly upset after a moose killed two of Butcher’s dogs during that same race, forcing her to withdraw. Butcher didn’t give up, though, and she went on to win the Iditarod four times thereafter. She also took a team of dogs to the summit of Mt. McKinley. For her Alaska spirit, bravery, and athleticism, the first Saturday in March is celebrated throughout the State as Susan Butcher Day.
The relationship between a musher and his or her team of huskies is a very special one. It’s human and dog together against harsh Alaska elements like icy temperatures, wild animals, frozen lakes, and unpredictable weather. The mushers depend on the dogs’ natural instincts to guide them through the wilderness.
One famous musher tells a story of a time her lead dog suddenly veered the team and sled off the planned trail. The musher didn’t understand why, but she trusted the dog and followed its lead. Only minutes later, the trail they would have taken completely collapsed through the ice into a frozen river.
Alaska is a huge and diverse State. Although I’ve gone on way too long already, I haven’t even scratched the surface of my home’s fantastic offerings … including the Alaska Sea Life Center that rescues sea animals and whose videos of adorable and hug-seeking baby walruses I can’t stop watching … the formidable University of Alaska … the wind-swept wild beauty of the Aleutian Islands …
… exhilarating kayaking, sailing, blue-water yachting, glacier walks, and wilderness treks … hunting and fishing resorts … wilderness lodges … photo safaris … the world-class ski resort of Alyeska, which has thrilling black diamond runs, 650 annual inches (16.5 meters) of snowfall, and the lowest base of any downhill ski resort in the world (only 250 feet, or barely a tenth of a kilometer, above sea level) … and so much more.
I hope that like Captain Cook, Drew Barrymore, legions of fortune hunters, and thousands of delighted tourists you’ll have the chance one day to visit America’s 49th State. Alaska is not just a place, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience you’ll never forget. Perhaps that’s why the State flower is, fittingly, the Forget-Met-Not (pictured above). Come and find out for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.
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I have nothing to add to Erin’s wonderful narrative except to note that quite a few of the photos above were taken by the author herself. For more info about the great State of Alaska, as well as for specific suggestions regarding hotels, resorts, cruises, and other excursions, be sure to check out the State’s official tourism website, www.travelalaska.com. For additional details about the pleasures of Anchorage and what to see on day trips outside the city, check out www.anchorage.net.
If there is a particular American city, State, or activity that you would like to hear about next, please feel free to let me know. I would be happy to recruit a tour guide who’s an expert on the topic from among my colleagues in the State Department network.