When my guide, Jack, suggests a ‘casual’ stroll after breakfast, I’m not envisaging walking up an actual mountain.
Generally speaking, my idea of a Sunday morning outing involves a pub and the papers, and although, here in Anchorage, we start off in the vein I’m used to — with poached eggs, muffins and a rocket-powered latte at the sensible-sounding Middle Way Café — an hour later, we’re pulling on our boots at the bottom of Bird Ridge. Suffice to say it isn’t the caffeine giving me the shakes.
Looming over us, a steep, wooded slope vanishes into the September sky. Peering up through the trees to establish exactly what Jack had meant by ‘casual’, my eyes water at the shafts of sunlight cascading down from the cloudless blue expanse. Then a voice, just inches from my ear, warns me to “keep an eye out for bears”. Now there’s a phrase you don’t hear every day. Unless, that is, you live in Alaska.
For locals in this part of the world, the sight of a big fluffy quadruped with paws the size of dinner plates generally gets filed under ‘no big deal’. Indeed, experts estimate that Alaska is home to around 135,000 of them — including the polar bears inhabiting its Arctic coastline and outlying islands. When you consider the fact there are fewer than 750,000 people living in the whole state, this works out at roughly one bear for every five people. Having never seen one ‘in the fur’, I’m particularly excited by this stat (and also slightly nervous). With my plan over the next week being to explore the state via planes, trains, automobiles and boats, if ever I’m going to see one in the wild, then surely it’ll be here.
I’m undoubtedly wide-eyed as Jack and I take our first tentative steps on the trail leading up Bird Ridge. While the first section is definitely the stuff of ‘casual strolls’, threading its way up between towering trees, it isn’t long before things get decidedly steeper and a lot more rugged — to the point we’re scrambling over rocks. Emerging above the treeline after an hour or so, I turn round to see a huge expanse of petrol-blue water stretching out below. “That’s the Turnagain Arm,” says Jack, as we pause to catch our breath. “If you followed it out all the way, eventually you’d reach the North Pacific Ocean; I saw whales in there the other day.”
Off the grid
Until you come to Alaska, it’s hard to comprehend the thin line that exists between ‘civilisation’ and untamed nature. Even in the main gateway of Anchorage, with its skyscrapers, Starbucks and shopping malls, you’re never more than a few blocks away from being completely off the grid. In fact, a significant number of people here voluntarily live in backcountry cabins with no electricity, mains water or means of communicating with the outside world.
Even more astonishing is that only a hundred years ago, Anchorage was just a collection of tents lining the edge of Ship Creek, on the site of what’s now the railway station. When US Secretary of State William Seward bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867, the deal was universally mocked as being worthless; yet it wasn’t long before gold was discovered close to the nearby Turnagain Arm, and miners, railway workers, builders and other pioneers began pouring into the area to eke out a living.
The phenomenal ‘tents to towers’ story of Anchorage’s existence is being celebrated throughout this centennial year, with various events, including a reenactment of the tent city lease sale — where Anchorage was divided up into parcels of land and sold to the highest bidder — and costumed actors dramatising the stories of the city’s original movers and shakers.
Amazingly, Alaska has only officially been part of the US since 1959, by which time America’s sense of national identity was already well established. With Alaska being separated from the ‘lower 48’ states by the small matter of Canada, the people who live here have a different mindset; put simply, most regard themselves as Alaskan, first and foremost.
Evidence of this different attitude can be found in Alaskans’ relationship with the Native Americans. Whereas in states such as South Dakota, where local tribal communities were rounded up and interred on reservations — remaining largely impoverished to this day — the Alaskan tribes were cut much better deals when it came to land rights, and have managed to prosper as a result.
These are just a few of the topics that Jack and I cover, as we put the world to rights while huffing and puffing our way up Bird Ridge. The further we plod towards the top, the better the view of Turnagain Arm becomes — to the point I’m sure I see a pod of whales breaching in the glassy waters far below. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals it’s simply white horses being whipped up by the breeze; it’ll be a few days yet before my first encounter with these astonishing sea giants.
In the meantime, there are plenty of other things to get excited about: namely the fact we’ve finally arrived at the top of Bird Ridge — a mere three hours after beginning our ‘casual’ constitutional. In a fit of un-British-like celebration, I haul my tired self onto a slab of rock, for that requisite ‘top-of-the-world’ selfie.
In reality we’ve only climbed 3,000ft or so above sea level, and this is probably more of a plateau than a peak; but even up here we’re standing on the threshold of wilderness the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Below me, the vast expanse of Turnagain Arm is laid out like a super-sized Google Maps close-up; the serrated peaks of the Kenai Mountains lined up on the far shore like an opposing army. Immediately to my left, the ground falls away into a deep, wooded valley where, somewhere, bears are gorging themselves on salmon — a resource that will see them through the impending winter. From here, it’s entirely possible to wander into the woods, keep walking, and not see another human being for months. But the most staggering thing about all of this is the fact we’re less than an hour’s drive from downtown Anchorage.
This sobering thought continues to occupy my mind a short while later, as we sip the froth off some local ales at The Loft, the tap room/restaurant of micro-brewery Midnight Sun Brewing Company. Brew-pubs have sprung up all over the US in the past 10 years, and almost everywhere I go in Alaska, there’s real ale to be found — much of which would rival the concoctions you find in ye olde English pubs back home. They’re strong, too, with the Midnight Sun’s extensive menu including evocative creations like Monk’s Mistress (11.5%), Panty Peeler (8.5%) and Son of Berserker (6.9%). Needless to say, I sleep rather well that night.
Considering everything I’ve seen thus far, it’s hard to believe this is still only day one of my trip. From Anchorage, I take the slow train south, to the coastal town of Seward — a conveyor belt of spectacular scenery rolling past my window during the four-hour trip.
Despite the soporific rocking of the railroad carriage, I remain wide-eyed at the sight of an eagle hovering over the glassy waters of the Cook Inlet, followed shortly after by the sun rising behind the Kenai Mountains — backlighting the peaks in a transcendent glow. It’s as if the whole thing is being stage-managed.
For the next 50-odd miles, the train clatters along, fumbling through tunnels and edging past vast turquoise glaciers spilling down the mountainside. Approaching Seward, it slows to a crawl as we cross a jade-green river; alarmingly, the water is streaked with red — my gruesome assumption being that some unfortunate creature has met an untimely end. Closer inspection, however, reveals the visceral splodges are in fact sockeye salmon — hundreds of them — slip-slopping over one another. Every September, millions of salmon flood into Alaska’s rivers from the great open waters of the North Pacific, in a bid to spawn another generation. Their mission complete, the fish kick back and await the inevitable — which often comes prematurely on the end of a bear’s paw.
With winter approaching, the bears are under pressure to pile on sufficient weight to see them through hibernation. They come from miles around to gorge themselves at this all-you-can-eat salmon buffet — lining the riverbanks, the bears swipe and snack until there’s no more left. And yet I still haven’t managed to see one.
Ever hopeful, I join a hiking group up to Exit Glacier, a few miles from Seward. As with Bird Ridge, this provides yet another reminder of man’s proximity to pristine nature in this part of the world. But while the scenery around Anchorage has barely changed in several millennia, in Seward there’s a rapid and significant shift occurring.
Approaching the glacier from the road, my guide points out a series of signs, each of which have marked the edge of the icefield at various points in the past century — and it makes for scary viewing. A hundred years ago, when Anchorage was little more than a field of tents, the ice extended all the way to the flatlands a mile or so below the mountain; now it’s retreated to the upper reaches, having shrunk 187ft in the past year alone, according to experts. At this rate it may be gone in a decade or so.
Nevertheless, it still causes my jaw to drop as we enter the valley where it currently resides. As at Bird Ridge, we’re only a side-step from civilisation, yet among the gargantuan boulders and several-storeys-high ice, it feels like we’re venturing to the centre of the earth.
After two hours of steady hiking, we strap on crampons and shuffle our way onto the ice for a whirlwind tour of its electric-blue grottoes and deep crevasses. It may be shrinking but the glacier still feels huge; in fact, Exit is merely a tentacle linked to the vast Harding Icefield, which continues on for over 700sq miles. Alarmingly, it’s still moving — groaning and creaking like some primeval beast.
By now, things are looking up on the bear front. While descending, I spy a brown speck on the mountaintop, which our guide confirms is indeed a bear. But it’s not sufficient to count as having really seen one — at least not in my book.
Later, on the way to the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge (accessible only via a four-hour boat ride), we pause at Holgate Glacier — a thick wedge of baby-blue meringue coating the rocks — and watch it shed a huge slice of ice the size of an apartment block. Even from quarter of a mile away, I feel the icy blast of air across our bows.
By the time we arrive at the lodge, I’m happy to park myself in front of the fire. Staring out the picture window, across the lagoon, I watch sea otters bobbing about on their backs, overlooked by a cluster of mountains.
This is about as remote as you can get without resorting to a tent. Although there are 15 of us in our group, we each have a tiny lakeside cabin and the few abiding sounds I hear during my stay include the patter of rain on the roof, the crackle of an open fire and the occasional call of an eagle.
It’s early evening and I realise the group are gathering on the shore, tiptoeing along the water’s edge, armed with cameras. It can only mean one thing: we have company.
Within seconds, I’m there just in time to see a furry brown backside waddling off into the long grass. Apparently, it’s a female grizzly, about eight years old. By now, I’m wondering if there’s some sort of conspiracy afoot; perhaps the otters have tipped her the wink I’m on my way.
Thankfully, the killer whales aren’t so shy. On the boat ride back to Seward we stumble across a whole pod, playfully breaching the surface all around us. Each whale is the size of a house, and every time one crashes back into the water, the resulting wave sends the boat lurching sideways. It’s yet another reminder of how insignificant we really are.
But of all the acts Mother Nature lays on during the week, the most spectacular comes on the last day, with a visit to Redoubt Mountain Lodge. After an hour’s flight from Anchorage, spent peering out the window at Mount Mckinley — all 20,235ft of it — we drop out of the sky and land on the vivid blue waters of Crescent Lake. Within minutes, I’m on a boat, just metres from the shore, watching a family of grizzly bears scooping salmon out of the water. We’re so close you can hear the bones of the hapless fish cracking in their jaws; such is the abundance, they barely take one bite before moving on — leaving bodies strewn along the shore.
These are merely the first bears of many we come across. We spend the remainder of the day cruising the waterfront; our skipper stopping every few minutes as we encounter yet another bear stuffing its face. After all the near misses of the past few days, it feels like I’ve stumbled across some gory version of the Teddy Bears’ Picnic.
There are no direct flights. Options include Icelandair via Reykjavik, Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Air France, Delta and United Airlines via the US, and Air Canada via Vancouver.
Average flight time: 16h.
The Alaska Railroad links Anchorage with Denali National Park and Preserve, Seward and more. Rust’s Flying Service offers sightseeing tours, including glacier landings near Mt McKinley, flights into Denali, and floatplanes into remote spots like Redoubt Mountain Lodge. Cars can be hired from Anchorage airport. Alternatively, Park Connection Motorcoach runs services between Anchorage, Denali, Talkeetna, Seward among others. There’s also a ferry system to reach coastal areas, and water taxis for remote cabins and hiking trails. dot.state.ak.us
When to go
For bears, visit during the salmon run in August or September; in September and October you’ll see whales migrating along the west coast. Temperatures vary widely between regions, but most tours operate mid-May to mid-September, with June-August peak season.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens will need an ESTA; it lasts two years and costs $14 (£9.50).
Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $1.47.
International dial code: 00 1.
Time: GMT -8.
How to do it
Audley Travel has a 19-day Alaska Explorer package, from £5,985 per person, beginning in Anchorage and staying at the Copper Whale Inn, before taking in Denali National Park and Preserve, Seward and other destinations. Includes flights and transfers.
Trek America offers a 13-day trip from £1,549 per person. Trip begins in Anchorage and includes glacier hikes, dog-sledding and national park visits. Camping accommodation. Excludes flights.
Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)