Is Alaska the last frontier?

Alaska is like the final frontier of the star trek movies. Being so far up north means access is indeed a challenge. We are sure you would have heard about the story of Alaska being sold by the Russians to the US in 1867 for a sum of US$7.2 million. What piqued our interest was the fact that this purchase was dubbed a ‘folly’ by opponents at that time. The strategic reasons are a plenty and part of the global geopolitics of the times, so we’ll leave it at that.Alaska journey

Today we are not so sure about it being a folly. At US 2 cents per acre, it sure sounded like a grand bargain considering the amount of territory and resources the state is endowed with. The Russians are surely kicking themselves over this sale. Hmmm, they should have leased it out like the Chinese did with the Macau and the mainland part of Hong Kong… well hindsight is 20/20.

How we came here was after we finished our cruise from Vancouver to Seward (here). It was part of a planned extension to explore the northern part of the 49th US state.

Native culture

Drive from Seward1
See the bear?

It was a 3-hour drive from the port of Seward to Anchorage and it was a rather scenic drive. While most slept, we were happily looking over the glacier silt flats of the coast. It was an incredible scene to spot a brown bear on it though. Imagine that.

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Mt Denali peeking at us!

Then it was liftoff from Anchorage for just over an hour before landing in the city of Fairbanks. The only major city in the northern half of the state, it is really wilderness country from here on up. Because one can see that from the air.

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This could have been the Amazon…

It looked a lot like the photos of the Amazon river with its meandering around what seemed like forests. We can only imagine how raw it must be on the ground. Perhaps the ‘Survivor’ reality show can do one season here!

For those who are interested, the land bridge from Asia connected Alaska to the Eurasian continent and human migration was traced to have come overland via this part of north America.

Athabascan village63
Off on the boat

The area is home to the Athabasca peoples, distantly related to the nomadic tribes of northern Asia. They live in villages along the various rivers even to this day, fishing for salmon and trout. We took the river discovery boat that sailed up the Chena river where we disembarked to feel how a typical village would be like.

Chena Riverboat07
A plane in every backyard!

Along the way, we saw boat plane take off or land. It seemed like each house along the river had its own plane! We were told by the locals that land transport in these parts is extremely rare, and that planes are an essential mode to get around. And it is easy to understand why.

Chena Riverboat05
Our paddle wheeling ship

With vast tracts of forests gazette as national parks such as Denali, it is easy to understand that an intricately maintained system of roads is not feasible except in some major urban centers.

Do you know how to name the five main species of Salmon? You can easily recall them from each finger on your hand:

  • Thumb = Chump (don’t do that in the middle east)
  • Index = Sockeye (as it poke your eye)
  • Middle = King (LOL…need we say more)
  • Ring = Silver (well you put a ring on it singlette)
  • Baby = Pink (awe…did you hurt your pinkie?)

Neat isn’t is? Don’t quote us, we learnt this from the guides in Alaska!

The great outdoors

Athabascan village11
Ok come see the moose too…

But coming to Alaska is all about the wilderness and contributing to an economy that helps preserve it, rather than to exploit it through natural resources extraction. We breathed the fresh air of the mornings while in Denali, took short drives into the park, viewing the indigenous inhabitants such as the brown bear and lynx!

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Pose model, model!

When you come to Alaska, one of the must-do’s is to visit a dog musher camp. Before the advent of motorized forms of transport, the people of this region used dogs to pull sleighs across great distances. Set within a replica of an Athabascan village, we came to a ‘dog pound’ where more than 20 dogs were housed in a large open area. Remember that these dogs are hyperactive requiring large open places like dogs anywhere else. Duh.

You will notice that most of the musher dogs are not huskies. In fact, it does not matter what breed they are, so long as they meet the requirement for strength, stamina, personality and affinity to work with people. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that the juveniles can already be quite strong and they can easily pull the sleigh with a man on it. They are fast too and can do this in the height of winter! You might recall there are these long distance sleigh races being held annually in the winter.

Our journey then proceeded southwards towards Denali national park, stopping along the way to see the Alaskan pipeline that runs from Prudhoe bay to Valdez.

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Yep, she’s holding up the pipeline

We were at the 450th mile marker…

Now Denali has the highest peak in North America – Mt Mckinley as it is also known as. We set off in the morning, which was bright and blue. The conifer trees stand majestically in the blue sky as we drove across the valley and entered the National park road of 90 miles. Ranger stations are still maintained, where they stay overnight when doing patrols. The cabins you see in our photos used to be lodges when the park accepted staying visitors within the park itself in the early 1900s.

We managed to see Mt McKinley when we were there and noticed there are two peaks on the mountain. The peak with a plateau is actually the highest point.

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Our guide told us that rains and clouds had obscured views of the mountain for the past week, so how lucky can one get! And the other thing that we got lucky at was to sight a lynx. Unfortunately she was gone in a flash, so no still capture of her except for the image in our grey matter…

Alas we had to make our way back to Anchorage. And the ecologically friendly way to get from the major urban centers would be by

A train journey

Wilderness Express10
All the train is hers!

Glass domed train cars meant that we could see all the glories of the great forests that ring the railway on both sides. The train car is spacious and is equipped with a bar. Meals are taken in the first level of the carriage and the menu offers remarkably good choices. Enjoying the wilderness passing us by was definitely the intent.

One of the interesting observations along the way was the work of beavers. Cutting down trees and damming up rivers is the natural thing to do for these critters. Can you imagine they are considered a pest here due to their over felling of trees? Really. And who did the counting? Wondering if the government was trying to levy concession fees on them beavers for logging…

We took 4-hours to traverse through the national park on the way to Talkeetna, a small frontier town where we made an overnight stop. Here’s where we experienced our first earthquake. We were in a store when it occurred. There were two violent shakes and then it became calm.

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Where we had our earthquake

The whole house shook and many things fell off. And the owner? She simply said firmly to us to stay clear of the falling stuff and it’ll be ok. You’ll have to know we were near a train track and at first we had thought: wow this is how it feels like in the shop whenever the train passes by?

LOL, but then we were told that it was just a “5.9” quake and nothing to be concerned about. Guess we can now add “surviving an earthquake” to our list of achievements.

Of course, no trip for us goes on without a sample of the local cuisine.

Fantastic food

In the cold northern seas, fishermen brave the oft treacherous waters to bring back a catch of giant crabs. These magnificent crabs grow to enormous size. As in Hokkaido, these are served char-boiled with butter and they taste heavenly. Depending on the season, the catch is controlled to ensure that this valuable resource is not overfished, though that is actually debatable.

Like hungry ghosts at the seventh month of the lunar new year, we wasted no time in getting ourselves stuffed with the goodness of the sea. Freshly steamed with butter, it tasted sooo good when we had the first filling at our Talkeetna lodge. The next day we lunched at Latitude 62, a short walk downtown where we found reasonably priced ($28 per pound) crabs. Yummy… Price are good as of 2009!

Yet another precious resource in Alaska is salmon and trout. Possessing some of the most productive rivers in the world, the Athabascan people has long depended on the river, reserving the Sockeyes, King and Silver salmon for their great taste. Did you know they smoked Chump salmon for their dogs? Next time when you buy salmon from the supermarket, make sure you are not having dog food! LOL… and here are some views of how the smokehouse where the fish are air dried looked like.

Fresh fish and crabs, what a wonderful combination!

Travelling to Alaska during the summer time is the best. The weather is warmer, the flowers are blooming. A wide variety of fresh produce is available. Best of all the views are magnificent! It is easy to fall into the charms of Alaska with its slower pace and simpler life. Beware though of its allure like that of Don Juan. For we made acquaintances with shop keepers, whose winter job include trapping beavers and otters for their hide. They run businesses selling their wares to tourists like us in summer and online too.

Not quite the usual career choices facing most people in Singapore huh?

This journey took place in June of 2009

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