Categorized | Features, Take a Trip

Alaska: Big, Beautiful And Wild

Kayaking near Mendenhall Glacier2

Kayaking near the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska

By Victor Block

When I began planning a visit to Alaska, three words came to mind. “Big,” which many things in the 49th state are. Scenery, some of the most magnificent in the world. And “wildlife,” which is available in abundance. It didn’t take long after I arrived to experience all three.

Alaska is big — twice as large as Texas and with a longer coastline than all of the other states combined.

Mount McKinley is the tallest peak in North America. Denali National Park, where it’s located, is larger than Rhode Island, Delaware and Connecticut combined and the state contains more than two-thirds of the country’s total national park acreage.

But it was the breathtaking scenery which left me awe-struck. Row after row of snow-covered mountains stretch to the horizon, including 17 of the 20 tallest peaks in the country. Rivers meander through deep valleys that were gouged out eons ago by advancing glaciers. Many lakes and rivers are dyed a bluish hue by the silt of melting ice and snow.

Myriad Choices

Bear catching salmon

Alaska offers many ways to enjoy one of Mother Nature’s most splendid settings. Whether flying over, driving through, walking in or viewing from the deck of a ship, it’s challenging to find words that adequately describe the sheer drama of the scenery.

Opportunities to observe wildlife in its natural setting, often close at hand, are everywhere. My itinerary included exploration of Denali National Park and Preserve, a world of Arctic tundra and soaring mountains. While I kept my eyes peeled for sightings of the “Big Five” Alaska mammals — grizzly bear, caribou, moose, wolf and Dall sheep — this vast wilderness also is home to a menagerie of other creatures.

Those who don’t make it to Denali need not despair. Towns in Alaska are never far from the wilderness, and in many places they overlap. Parks often begin within city limits and extend to nearby 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 eastern edge of Anchorage provides inviting habitat for bears and moose. I joined several people along a river bank there to watch the spring-to-summer spawning run of salmon. As they somehow return to their birthplace after spending several years at sea, the fish battle their way up rushing water, leaping over low falls along the way. Another obstacle is a phalanx of hungry bears that congregate to gorge on their favorite food.

Native Culture

Alaska Native Heritage Center

A stop at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage provided an opportunity to delve into life of another kind, the indigenous societies which comprise an important part of the state’s culture. The customs and traditions of the 11 major Native groups are presented through dance, music, art and storytelling at this living history museum.

Outside, encircling a pond, stand authentic Native dwellings representing six indigenous groups; the dwellings are staffed by people from villages around Alaska. The history, fables and other information they impart is as interesting as it is edifying.

Equally intriguing are Alaska’s towns, each with its unique history and stories. Gold gave birth to Juneau, the state capital, when it was discovered there in 1880, about 15 years before the famous Klondike Gold Rush began in Canada’s Yukon region. I relived those heady days during visits to several mining sites, and by trying my hand at panning which, while interesting and enjoyable, didn’t do much to fill my wallet.

Another claim to fame is the proximity to Juneau of the most readily accessible of the 10,000 or so glaciers in Alaska, the Mendenhall. Looming above the suburbs of the town, bearing the typical bluish-white glacial hue, it flows about 13 miles from the ice field where it originates.

At the lake where the glacier ends, large chunks dramatically break off to become icebergs. I was fortunate enough to observe a “calving,” as the process is called, but was saddened to hear how far the glacier has retreated in recent years.

The town of Ketchikan occupies the site where Tlingit natives once set up summer fishing camps near salmon-rich waters. Today it lays claim to the title “Salmon Capital of the World.” It also boasts the largest display anywhere of standing totem poles, in three formal collections as well as in front of private homes.

The setting I encountered along Creek Street is very different. A wooden boardwalk follows the stream that runs through the heart of town. For about three decades beginning in the Prohibition era, some of the buildings perched above the water operated 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.

From Russia With…

Mt. McKinley

The major attraction in Sitka is evidence of Russia’s effort to colonize Alaska; the attempt ended in 1867 with “Seward’s Folly,” the United States purchase of the territory. The Russian Bishop’s House (built 1842-43), the onion-shaped domes of St. Michael’s Church and a replica of a Russian fort blockhouse are among reminders of that chapter in history.

Along with Alaska’s breathtaking natural beauty, colorful history and constant opportunities to interact with wildlife, its residents also left an indelible impression. One reason for that is the respect accorded the cultures of the Native peoples and the extent to which they have been woven into the fabric of life.

Many Alaskans continue to use the word Denali, Athabascan Indian for “The Great One,” as their name for Mount McKinley. A number of locals wear clothing bearing representations of totem poles and other traditional images. 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 and claimed that the baskets woven by tribal women are among the finest in the world.

Non-Native residents also manifest pride and a sense of independence in their own ways. This is evident in the motto on state license plates, “Alaska — The Last Frontier,” and on a sign I spotted in a small town claiming, “Where the road ends and life begins.”

Those sentiments were voiced by Elizabeth Arnett, a forty-something nurse who told me she had moved to Alaska 15 years ago, then added, “It takes an independent spirit to live this far from family and friends.” This spirit was expressed succinctly by a shop keeper in Ketchikan who, when I inquired why she had moved to the state, simply replied “Adventure.”

For information about visiting Alaska, log onto ­­­

Ketchikan, Creek Street


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