The Last Frontier
Located to the far north is Alaska. Once a part of Russia, Alaska was sold to the Americans and would not be declared a state until 1959. From the late 19th century to the early 20th, thousands of gold miners flooded into the territory, prospectors looking to strike it rich. While they sifted through pounds and pounds of soot, slowly they began to realize the grand nature of Alaska and just how untamed it was. Alaska is the largest state by area. The next 3 largest states California, Texas, and Montana could all fit inside of Alaska. Despite being the largest state by size it is also the most sparsely populated state as most Alaskans live in the suburbs of Anchorage or Juneau.
Even with the advent of modern day technology, Alaska has still retained that wild aspect that makes it the ‘Last Frontier’. Whether it be the remoteness or the vastness of Alaska’s untampered beauty, an adventure here beyond the ‘Lower 48’ takes one out of the corporate world and into the mercy of Mother Nature.
Seeing mountains each one taller than the last, rare animals that you would not find in abundance anywhere else, to barely seeing a single soul on the road, Alaska is meant to detach one from the material world. In that time and space, one will find a new respect for the marvel that is Mother Nature that had shaped the Alaskan landscape for millions of years.
Like any popular tourist destination, there are those who visit and those who have called the area home for generations. The oldest inhabitants of Alaska are the indigenous tribal nations that made their way to Alaska by crossing the land bridge that connected the Aleutian Islands to mainland Russia. During the end of the last Ice Age, as the last glacial maximums receded, the Bering land bridge became submerged to form the Bering Strait.
Those who crossed the land bridge eventually spread out throughout the America’s to become the indigenous peoples of both North and South America from the Inca in Peru, to the Navajo or Aztecs of Arizona and Mexico. Alaska however has the highest concentration of Native Americans than any other state with nearly 15% of the population as part of the indigenous population. Although Alaska is mostly unpopulated terrain, there is enough to experience and do that will shed new light on the new future of the North.
Anchor Down in Anchorage
The largest city in Alaska is Anchorage with nearly 40% of the entire population living in the metropolitan area. Alaska’s largest city that has a lot to see and to offer. Leaving the terminal from Ted Stevens International Airport, the first thing one will see is a picturesque backdrop of mountains that hover over the city. Looking over to the left one will find the Pacific.
Anchorage is a unique city where the snowy mountains and the freezing ocean meet. Being the first stop for many people who travel to and from Alaska, Anchorage is the gateway for where the Alaskan excursion begins. Depending upon the time of year you go to Alaska, the summertime is a state of twilight whereas in the dead of winter, the amount of daylight is limited to a few hours a day. Spending the summer in the largest city in Alaska does not feel like America at all, more like Scandinavia.
The history of the Europeans’ arrival to anchorage is well embodied in the city. Whether it be spending the night at the iconic Hotel Captain Cook, or visiting Resolution Park where a life size bronze statue of Captain James Cook looks out upon the water. It was this infamous British Naval captain that sailed across the world and made contact with the west coast of Alaska in 1778. There are many museums in Anchorage that tell this history from the Anchorage Museum to the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
Alongside the history of Anchorage, the city also boasts some of the best gourmet dining and cuisine in the Pacific Northwest. From authentic Mexican food at El Dorado Bar & Grill, Himalayan food from the Taste of India, to the Alaskan delicacy of reindeer at the Red Umbrella Reindeer, or relax and unwind and try one of the dozens of on tap beers only brewed in Alaska. After enjoying the fine dining Anchorage has to offer, most of the five star adventures start here, either boarding for a cruise, helicopter tours, seaplane rides, glacier tours, or all the above for the purposes of wildlife viewing, the adventure begins in Anchorage.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Some two hours southwest of Anchorage is the fifth most visited National Park in Alaska. The Kenai Fjords National Park helps and maintains the Harding Ice field and all of its outflows, one of the largest ice fields in the world. In order to observe one of nature’s greatest wonders, you must travel either by car, bus, or train to Seward, the departure point for all Kenai tours. Once you arrive at the park, there are over 30 glaciers that can be observed either by plane, hiking, or by boat. Taking a biplane over Kenai is not only a marvelous and breathtaking view, it really makes one appreciate the forces of Mother Nature. Glaciers like these are the same things that carved out Yosemite National Park in California some tens of thousands of years ago as they receded to the North Pole.
For the more hands on, up close and personal types, hiking though not only a good exercise, is the one way to physically stand on and be in such close proximity to these ancient glaciers. The top recommendation for glacier viewing at the Kenai Fjords is by boat. Boat tours are given daily and primarily in the Summer months. It is through these boat tours that people who partake will also get a chance to view some of Alaska’s most primitive wildlife.
At any chance tourists can spot pods of Beluga Whales, Orcas, Humpback Whales, to nesting Bald Eagles, and the elusive Timber Wolf. This national park is where natural giants provide a sanctuary for the wildlife of Alaska. Depending on which method of exploration one takes either by hiking, flying, or boating, anyone can observe the fauna that call the park home and just don’t get too close.
The same can also be said for glacier viewing. From the air being too close is not an issue for a trained aviator. For someone who wishes to hike, being too close can be dangerous especially when traversing on top of the ice field. Being on one of the boat tours is perhaps the best experience to get up close. Gliding through the rich mineral blue water to glaciers the size of skyscrapers with mountains towering above is a picture worth taking if you still can.
One sight that occurs on random occasions at the Kenai Fjords is glacier calving. Nowadays it is a moment revelers anticipate seeing but they do not understand the warning signs that are present. Glacier calving is a rare event when a large chunk of the glacier falls off into the ocean becoming an iceberg. The sound of massive chunks of ice hitting the water is a loud thunderous boom that’ll shake your eardrums. As a byproduct, like a large boulder hitting water, wake in the form of waves spread out.
As a bystander in the boat, the waves rock the boat back and forth so hold on tightly. Although for such a unique experience, the reality of the situation is, what people are cheering for is the direct result of global warming. As the Earth continues to heat up annually, more and more calving events will occur drawing in more tourists. It is not only a chance for someone to feel the awesome power of Mother Nature up close, but also to see firsthand the impact global warming has on our climate.
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai National Park
Located some 290 miles southwest of Anchorage is Katmai National Park and Wildlife Reservation. Named after the stratovolcano Mount Katmai, this wildlife reserve is over 4 million acres of designated wilderness. Due to the presence of volcanism, Katmai remained relatively untampered with until the 1950s.
The reason Katmai National Park is called the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes was a result of the simultaneous eruption of Mount Katmai and Novarupta in 1912. The resulting pyroclastic flow covered the nearby valley approximately 300 feet thick in soot and ash. As the deposits cooled off, heat began to escape as steam through fissures earning it the nickname of ‘Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes’. Yet in the next several decades, great numbers of wildlife began to flourish at Katmai. Katmai is most renowned for its large schools of Sockeye Salmon that make their return voyages back from the ocean to the streams from which they were born in order to reproduce and repeat the cycle. Where there are large quantities of Salmon, one can expect to find Brown Bears and Grizzly Bears. These apex carnivores can eat up to 30 Salmon a day.
Because of this untampered relationship between the bears and the salmon, Katmai National Park boasts the largest protected Brown Bear population anywhere on Earth. There are estimated to be roughly over 2,000 individual Brown Bears roaming the park. The best overlook to capture the bears grazing for salmon is Brook Falls, a viewing area in proximity to the salmon spawning grounds that attract the Brown Bears. Numerous award winning photographs of Alaskan Brown Bears originate from this spot.
While Katmai is known for its Brown Bears and wildlife viewing, there are a variety of other activities that are available during your stay at Katmai. Some of these activities include backpacking, camping, backcountry skiing, world class fishing, and kayaking just to name a few. Katmai hosts a number of activities tourists can enjoy at their own speed and desire. For any visitor, proceed with caution, considering how remote Katmai is and the amount of primitive wildlife that calls the park home.
Denali ‘The High One’
Perhaps one of the most stunning and beautiful national parks in the United States is Denali. Formerly known as Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, the word Denali in the native Athabaskan language means ‘The High One’. Rightfully so considering the summit of Denali reaches 20,194 feet. Denali is the third most isolated peak on Earth and is so large that it even produces its own localized weather. On most days, the summit of Denali is shrouded by clouds and contains some of the harshest weather on the planet.
While Denali is at the center of the preserve, the Denali Wilderness area comprises 6 million acres of tundra, boreal forest, lakes, and glaciers, roughly the same size as the state of New Hampshire. Denali is a seasonal attraction. Wintertime activities include dog sledding, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and backcountry skiing.
Some areas of the park are monitored depending on the severity of the winter conditions. The annual minimum temperature of Denali in the winter months is around an extreme -39.0 Fahrenheit. Along with the cold, the farther north into the interior one goes, the less daylight they will receive. Journeying to Denali in the wintertime is no easy effort and not for the faint of heart.
Undoubtedly the best time to book a trip to Denali is around the end of Spring and all the way through the Summer. From the end of May to the start of September the weather in Denali is temperate and fair to those who are not familiar with such extreme elements. The summertime activities are just as abundant from backpacking, hiking, wildlife viewing, ATV riding, camping, to river rafting. Make sure to pack some mosquito repellent whatever it is you end up doing while on your stay at Denali. The mosquitos this time of year swarm as all the permafrost, snow, and ice thaw out and melt, providing an overabundance in pools of water for mosquitoes to breed and hatch in.
While enjoying the immense yet finite beauty of the tallest mountain in North America, take the time to also appreciate the local peoples who have lived by the slopes of Denali for thousands of years. Human habitation of Denali and the surrounding region dates back some 11,000 years ago. Within the park itself, not much evidence supports the idea that indigenous peoples of the region had established themselves in the park, due to the high elevation and harshness of the winter months.
The oldest pre-antiquity site found in park grounds is the Teklanika River Site which dates back to 7,130 BCE. While Denali is sacred to all Athabaskan peoples, it is more of a sanctuary for Alaska’s most pristine wildlife from Grizzly Bears, Caribou, Wolves, Lynxes, Bald Eagles, even Arctic Foxes, to the highly lucrative Wolverines. Making the venture through the vast interior of Alaska to ‘The High One’ puts everything into perspective. Once you gaze upon mountains, each one taller than the last, it makes our finite lives and all the stress and strife that comes with it, seem insignificant compared to the scale of the Earth.
Golden Heart of Alaska
Right in the heart of the Alaskan interior is the most populous Northern city in the United States. Fairbanks is the second largest metropolitan area in the state of Alaska and is so far north that it falls just below the Arctic circle. Long before the arrival of the Russians and the Anglo-Americans, the native Athabaskan peoples have lived in the Fairbanks region for thousands of years. It was not until the discovery of gold that led to a surge in the number of prospectors flooding into the area. The city was founded in 1901 by E.T. Barnette, but was named after Charles W. Fairbanks. The city is known for its rich history, no pun intended, of the gold rush and the prospectors who founded the foundation for Fairbanks. That is why the city and its surrounding boroughs have been nicknamed the ‘Golden Heart of Alaska’.
Due to its location so far north, Fairbanks is most renowned for its Northern Lights spectacles. The Aurora Borealis as it is scientifically called occurs when solar winds escaping the sun go on to collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, putting on a spectacular array of vivid colors in the sky. This natural marvel can only be seen in the higher latitude regions nearest to the poles. Fairbanks’ Aurora season begins in mid August and lasts until mid April. On average, the Aurora can be seen 4 out of 5 nights when the sky is at its darkest and clearest.
To make the experience that much more ethereal, take a trip over to the Chena Hot Springs Resort. Located in the North Star Borough of Fairbanks, these natural hot springs serve also as a source of geothermal energy for the region. Perhaps one of the smallest resorts, taking a nice warm soak in these natural hot springs while the Aurora dances above is an experience you cannot find anywhere else in the United States.
When looking at the continental U.S Alaska seems like an outlier, completely detached from the rest of the mainland. Hence why Alaskans call the other states ‘The Lower 48’. But as Alaska’s motto goes, “North to the Future” chosen by Juneau Newsman Richard Peter, Alaska very much is the future. There is still so much untamed wilderness in Alaska, it is a place where people can go to separate themselves from the material world. People come here to get off the grid, immersing themselves within the confines of Mother Nature. Whether you are coming here to live or to vacation, Alaska remains the Last Frontier of America and an untouched gem for some of the most remote wildlife and wilderness anywhere on the planet.
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