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by Meryl Hunter

Formerly a Russian possession Alaska was purchased by the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million. It is vast, remote, sparsely populated but with a fascinating history. The first humans to live and prosper in the ‘great land’ were the aboriginals – the Aleuts, Eskimos and Indians. In the 1740’s Russian fur traders arrived followed by missionaries who built churches, some of which remain and also laid the foundations of literacy among the Aleut people. Alaska became the 49th state as recently as 1959 under President Eisenhower, is one fifth the size of the USA and is larger than Texas, California and Montana combined. Of the 20 highest peaks in the USA 17 are in Alaska one of which is Mt.McKinley at 20,320 ft. high, the highest peak in North America. 


When I embarked on my ‘adventure tour’ of Alaska in July I knew as much of that part of the world as Alaskans know of Australia. Like the early settlers it was ‘terra incognito’ to me but also like the first Europeans sailing in Captain Cook’s wake and sighting ‘distant stupendous mountains, covered with snow’ I was enthralled.


After a long flight over many of those snow covered mountains we landed in Whitehorse, capital city of the Yukon territory beside the fast flowing Yukon River. A small city spread on level ground with wide streets and a neat commercial centre all surrounded by fir and spruce clad hills. With the nine other ‘adventurers’ in the tour we drove to the longest fish ladder in the world on the banks of the Yukon and heard the sad tale of salmon spawning. Shortly afterwards there was a minor earthquake – a common occurrence in the area.


After a visit to Beringia Interpretive Centre where we stood in the shadow of a mammoth skeleton and learnt much of the pre history of the Yukon and its native animals, Whitehorse was left behind as we began our journey north on the Alcan Highway to Haines Junction. Snow covered peaks towered on each side of the road with melting snow feeding rushing streams and Lake Kathleen, a brilliant blue among the spruce forest of Kluane National Park.


 The Alcan Highway on which we travelled deserves special mention as an engineering feat of 1600 miles through extremely difficult terrain, constructed and completed by US army engineers in 8 months in 1942. There was some urgency to build this road as Japan had just attacked Dutch Harbour in the Aleutians. The highway also  linked a string of airstrips built to move leased aircraft to Russia, a US ally in WW2.  Construction was begun from both ends and completed at Soldier’s Summit, a spot high on a slope overlooking Lake Kluane where the Stars and Stripes proudly flies. Today the highway seldom sees simple sedan cars but streams of enormous RV’s bearing a variety of US licence plates.  They have become the new explorers of the northwest. Because of feet of snow in winter and permafrost the road surface buckles and bends creating 24 hour roadworks in summer to keep this highway open and usable which is another feat of endurance.


At first glance isolated Burwash Landing midway between Haines Junction in Canada and the US border seemed desolate and uninviting. Huddled  on the shores of windswept Lake Kluane it had one of the finest small museums we encountered but little else. Animals of the area had been skilfully preserved and sited in appropriate landscapes artistically presented. The animals looked ready to step out of the display!


Trans Alaska PipelineTrans Alaska Pipeline

Still surrounded by marvellous mountains we approached Beaver Creek and the border between Canada and the USA. At this point in the trip our group of ten adventurers was looking windswept and shaken after tortuous travel on the buckled and distorted Alcan Highway. We must also have looked quite suspicious so were ordered from the van by a gun toting uniformed border guard, fingerprinted and eyes photographed – all except me! My pristine passport was scrutinised, I was scrutinised and obviously causing some concern to the immigration officer who remained unsmiling and grim. Trying to look calm and knowing better than to query I nervously waited while a small conference took place out of my hearing. What had I done I wondered? Had I stepped over the yellow line somewhere? I had visions of incarceration in this remote area and shook in my shoes. Finally the grim faced one returned, smiled and excused me from fingerprints and photograph ‘because of my age’! So it appears increasing age has some benefits, even if it is in far Alaska.


Leaving the mountains behind, it was with some relief that we reached the town of Tok for dinner and bed, a town scattered in typical American fashion along some miles of the Alcan Highway and a favoured resting place for the RV’s and the ‘good ole boys’ in their check shirts. The following day we travelled through spruce and fir covered country dotted with lakes and finally came upon Worthington Glacier creeping down from melting snow which was falling on cloud obscured Chugach Mountains.  This area receives 600-900 inches of snow each year.  We scrambled as close as possible to gaze at this river of ice and marvelled at the ‘ice blue’ in its depths. And again we were surrounded by snow covered mountains which attract ice climbers and skiers – often dropped in by helicopter. Our destination was Valdez, scene of the dramatic oil spill from a tanker in 1989. Oil still seeps on surrounding foreshores in Prince William Sound.  Valdez was also the site of a huge earthquake in 1964 which caused a submarine slide into Valdez Bay, demolished buildings and resulted in the death of 30 people. Eventually the town was moved to more stable ground by army engineers who transported 62 buildings to the new site. Valdez today is another scattered town but has a large fishing fleet again operating in the icy waters of the Sound. At midnight (and in bright light as the sun does not really set in summer) we silently watched salmon running and a grizzly bear and cubs fish quite close to the township.


From misty, chilly Valdez we boarded a huge ferry for the six hour journey into the ice floe strewn Bay of Alaska and along Prince William Sound to Whittier. This town crouched by the Sound at the  foot of tall mountains and was connected to Anchorage via the Glenn Highway and yet another engineering feat – a 5km long tunnel through solid rock. A difficult exercise begun in the 1940’s under the supervision of army engineer Anton Anderson, for whom the tunnel is named, built to withstand avalanches and the longest combined rail/road tunnel in North America. We emerged into a landscape of lakes, mountains and glaciers and on to flower be-decked Anchorage. The city was hung with baskets of flowers, tubs of flowers decorated street corners, public parks were ablaze with flowers. Obviously after a long and dark winter, Alaskans rejoice in the short period of 24 hours a day sun and light and so do the flowers which were large, healthy and flourishing. I am told cabbages also prosper and grow to a huge size in this amazing summer climate!


Fishermen's Dock (Valdez)Fishermen's Dock (Seward)

After the gold strike at Fairbanks in 1902 it took until 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson agreed to extend the Alaska Railroad from Seward in the south. A wilderness construction camp was established at Cook Inlet, named for Captain James Cook after his exploration of north west Alaska with cartographer William Bligh. The city of Anchorage grew from this camp and is today home to 374,553 people or 40% of the population of the state. Most of the original architecture has disappeared due to the enormous earthquake of 1964 and today consists of bland modern buildings sited on wide streets. However an outstanding building of quality is the Museum of Natural History – yet another example of American concern and professionalism in recording their history. This building sported the latest in smart plumbing to the consternation of one of our group who shrieked for help when the toilet flushed unaided, with an avalanche of water! 


 On the outskirts of the city is an Athabaskan Native Interpretive centre where we were treated to native dancing and music and saw examples of building, carving, embroidery, bead work  and day to day life. It was interesting to note the early Russian influence in both art work and clothing decoration. Anchorage is also home to busy Lake Hood seaplane base which handles 190 flights per day. Travel and rescue in the far north demands planes – planes that can land on water and also snow. The legendary Bush Pilots use this base and on the site there is a museum of their history. Try as we might it was impossible to compare the risky life of the bush pilots to that of the Australian Flying Doctor. Alaska’s climate, where winter temperatures plunge to -26C and snow disguises the landscape, dictate that engine oil must be kept warm and spare propellers lashed to fuselages for emergency use. The winter climate also means that furs of all kinds are worn and many stores downtown featured wonderful coats, jackets and hats of fox, sable and mink at quite reasonable prices. It was at Lake Hood that we also learned of the hand to hand battles on American soil in the far north between the Japanese in WW2 where many lives were lost on both sides. In the end the American forces were victorious; the remaining Japanese committed suicide. 


From Anchorage our travels took us north to Denali, a township outside the amazing Denali National Park. En route we were fortunate to have a perfect view of Mt.McKinley which usually has its head in the clouds as it towers to over 20,000ft. A day long excursion through the 6 million acre Park took us into a part of the country which is the preserve of native animals in their natural state. We quietly watched grizzly bears and cubs foraging, caribou  standing watchful, squirrels darting and distant wolves. The public is not permitted to drive into the Park and must travel in specified buses – versions of the yellow American school bus. Eilsdon Visitor Centre in the centre of the Park has a wonderful view of glacier melt, rushing rivers, snow covered peaks and partly hidden by cloud, Mt.McKinley. This tundra landscape supports a variety of wildlife in absolute safety but the only moose we saw was not in the park but wandering serenely along the roadside near Denali village.


Discovery Boat Tour (Fairbanks)Discovery Boat Tour (Fairbanks)

En route to Fairbanks, our next stop, we passed through the ‘city’ of North Pole. This town’s claim to fame is the amount of mail it receives each Xmas, addressed to Santa Claus. Streets are named with a Xmas theme, light poles are painted like candy canes and a Xmas shop satisfies tourists. I might mention that North Pole is 1700 miles from the geographic north pole! In Fairbanks an afternoon was spent at the University of Alaska and its museum where we learnt that this northern city developed from a roaring mining camp begun in 1915 in the Tanana Valley and in a trying climate. It is a sub-arctic city which receives 22 inches of snow per month in winter, minimum temperatures of -31C and only 3 hours of sunlight. Summer brings 22 hours of sunshine per day and temperatures in the mid 20’s. The surrounding countryside is boggy tundra not suitable for agriculture however the city, like others in the north, was hung with flourishing baskets of brilliant flowers.


Proud of its heritage Fairbanks rescued for posterity and re-erected original buildings in a Pioneer Village. On the nearby Tanana River a vintage stern wheeler has also been pressed into service for trips up river to the native Chena Village. Owners of this paddle wheeler, the Binkley family can trace their history back to 1898 when Charles hiked over the Chilkoot Pass to chart and navigate the Yukon River and its tributaries. He became a respected boat builder and pilot at a time when freight and passengers travelled almost exclusively by boat until the railroad intervened.  


It was interesting to notice that the grand houses lining the Chena River were either log cabins or built exclusively of timber. All had neatly stacked and impressive wood piles!


Back on the Richardson Highway we came as close as 182kms. to the Arctic Circle then headed south crossing the fast flowing Tenana River once more at the spot where the famous Trans Alaska pipeline also crosses. This camera guarded pipeline carries oil 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Coast where it was discovered in the 1970’s to tankers using the port of Valdez and can be seen by aircraft flying the Arctic route.


Haines, a historic fishing town in the south east on Chilkoot Inlet was our next stop. Snow covered mountains surrounded the town which straggled uphill from the inlet and its dock where cruise ships tie up. Haines, originally accessible only by water, was a supply centre for the Klondike Gold Rush and remains a ‘frontier’ town with many original timber buildings. It was first settled by Europeans in 1879 when the local Chilkat people donated land to the Presbyterian Church to establish a mission and was named for Mrs. FE Haines a member of the Presbyterian Board of Missions. Haines is also the site of Fort Seward, established in 1903 as a military outpost and designed to be a showpiece of military strength in Alaska. Elegant houses set around a parade ground were built with all modern amenities for officers while the 400 enlisted men were accommodated in barracks. By 1947 the Fort was declared surplus to military needs and sold to an interested group of investors. Today the elegant houses remain and are being maintained by private owners, the parade ground remains a grassy open space and many of the original buildings including the Cable Office and Fire House continue to be used. It is hard to imagine a more remote place to establish a fort and equally difficult to understand how the inhabitants coped with 15 feet of snow in winter, sleds and snowshoes for transport and severe isolation.


After a time in Haines we boarded another ferry to travel the ‘marine highway’ north to Skagway. (The so-called marine highway was created in 1963 by the Dept. of Transportation to connect towns formerly inaccessible by road including Juneau, Haines and Skagway to mention a few. Originally 4 ferries were employed – today the fleet has expanded to 8 ships.)


Another frontier town, Skagway began as a supply centre for the Klondike gold rush in 1896. In the beginning it was a lawless town as thousands of prospectors including Australians flooded in to begin the arduous 500 mile trek to the goldfields. Eventually Canadian officials insisted that each prospector carried one ton of supplies with him to avoid starvation – a huge burden for both man and beast.


Skagway today has 100 of its original timber buildings carefully maintained and being used. Downtown is busy with shops, galleries, cafes and a proliferation of jewellery stores featuring gold. A million visitors a year, mostly from the many cruise ships that pause there, throng the town with its comfortable board walks and little vehicle traffic.  Mountains surround the town, permanently topped with snow. Skagway was the starting point for gold seekers long ago. The lure of gold was so strong that men trudged 40 miles through snow and blizzard up Chilkoot or White Pass, a climb of 2865 feet. Those that survived the trek then built boats and floated by river to Dawson. Many died on the journey and 63 were buried in an avalanche. All this for little reward for many. 


Leaving Skagway we drove in relative comfort up the White Pass and tried to imagine this same climb of years ago  on foot, burdened with supplies and in heavy winter snow. Eventually in 1898 a narrow gauge railway was built as access to the Klondike fields. Yet another American engineering feat this amazing railway climbs nearly 3,000 feet in just 20 miles and features steep grades, cliff hanging turns of 16 degrees, two tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles. It is classed as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark along with the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. Looking down on this tiny railway which is now used for tourist traffic from Skagway to Carcross clinging stubbornly to the sides of terrifying cliffs it was easy to see what determination was needed to construct this landmark.


White Pass & Yukon Route (Carcross)White Pass & Yukon Route (Carcross)

Once at Carcross, a dot on the map, we realised that our ‘adventure’ was coming to a close and we had only seen a tiny portion of Alaska. There was silence as we pondered on the majesty of this amazing part of the USA and realised there is no way to describe the landscape in words or even photographs. It has to be experienced.


We can forgive the US for its wastefulness, plumbing, strange food combinations, gigantic RV’s and its men wearing caps in all situations. It deserves high praise for its care and conservation of historic sites and buildings, the proliferation of museums,  the conscientious inclusion of ‘first nation’ people  and the unfailing courtesy to strangers in this land.



Meryl Hunter participated in the tour "Best of Yukon & Alaska" in the summer 2010.
The article was publish in The Yass Tribune in Australia (Summer 2010).