Alaska is so monstrous that it proudly wears the ‘America’s largest state’ badge. But what is it that makes the 49th State so wild, beautiful and dramatically different to the lower 48?
Well it’s one of the last bastions of true wilderness with absolutely no inclination to be tamed. What astounded me is that not long after leaving the borders of Anchorage, I was in the wilderness with wide open views. You see it’s not like most cities where signs of life slow to the point where the city eventually ends. In Alaska the city just ended and nature took over.
What is there to do in Alaska?
Having spent 14 days travelling and camping my way through Alaska it left me with four concrete opinions:
1. Alaska is incredible and is an outdoor enthusiast and photographers wet dream
2. America is an extremely varied land mass which offers everything from blood red desert in the West, lush Appalachians to the East, the deep-south with its flavoured history…and Alaska!
3. The state of Alaska is in no way dwarfed by its 49 buddies. It feels very un-American which makes sense considering it was bought from the Russians in 1867!
4. Alaska is teaming with wildlife including black and grizzly bear, moose, caribou, bald eagles, marmots, whales, porpoises, seals and of course salmon. The state is filled to the brim with incredible animals and mammals.
When planning a camping trip; Mother Nature can demonstrate who is boss and many camping trips have been ruined by inclement weather. If I’m being totally honest I prayed for the best but expected the worst, especially as Alaska has such a notorious weather reputation.
Day after day, Alaska served up what in the food world would be described as the rump steak of good weather. Beautiful sunshine greeted me at trail heads; ice-sheets and glacial lakes sparkled, and it also helped dry my clothes after leaving them out overnight after a few glasses of whisky.
I felt a bit spoilt from the time I touched down in Anchorage, until my plane left the tarmac at the end of my trip. Especially with the locals constantly reminding how rare it was for 2 weeks of sunshine.
I arrived with a list of what I wanted to achieve. To hike incredible trails, photograph bears wandering the open plains, watch salmon running up rivers for spawning season, and see glaciers creating their own contours in the land. I got everything I wanted which explains why I left with such a big smile on my face.
Float Plane into the Alaskan Wilderness
Alaska is enormous, so much so that Alaskans often choose to travel by float plane; many of them actually have their own personal plane if you can believe that. I chose to fly from Soldotna into Redoubt Bay by float plane to get a little closer to Mother Nature and see the 49th State from above (which for the record is stunning).
We flew over a series of estuaries that were carving their way through the wetlands below, over and around electric-blue glaciers and finally onto a very icy looking lake. After landing on the lake we took a speed boat to the mouth of the river; our goal to follow the salmon on their seasonal journey.
This was my first time to see the salmon run and I was amazed to observe them literally swimming over each other to get to base of the river. Now everyone has seen that quintessential photo of the bear in the river with a salmon in its mouth, so it’s no surprise that a crowd of bears were waiting in the wings, plucking salmon out of the water and ripping them apart in front of me. When we turned up, a mother grizzly was showing her three cubs how to make a fresh kill. I mean what an introduction to Redoubt Bay…that is pretty epic!
When the grizzly bears wondered off, two black bears would arrive and feed on the left over salmon carcasses, before being chased off again by the returning grizzlies. That’s pretty much how the day went.
It was suggested that I take a fishing line in case the bears didn’t show up. After casting my fishing line in and realising just how easy it was to pull fish from a river packed full of salmon, I began to see the irony.
We caught the allocated amount which were filleted right there, cooked over a hot plate and served fresh. We sat out on the boat, in the sunshine and admired the views around us. Everything was peaceful, bald eagles flew overhead, bears meandered along the banks of the lake and at times we were close enough to hear ice cracking from the nearby glaciers. It was a superb day and one I’m not likely to forget. I think I shot off 400 images in one day alone, mainly of bears as well so have made up a little montage for you.
Hiking in Alaska
Where do I start to explain the hiking trails in Alaska? How do I adequately convey just how magnificent they were? There were times, I stopped mid-tracks and yelled around me at the cascading valleys and towering mountains ‘You’re so good looking Alaska’! No seriously, I did. I have seen some pretty memorable things in my years of travelling from cheetahs making a kill in the Serengeti, Leopard Seals killing penguins in Antarctica and the wandering rice terraces in hidden China but Alaska is right up there!
The Harding Ice-field Trail in Seward is possibly my favourite trail ever. It starts fairly tough and tends to get easier the further along I got (or perhaps the scenery just got better). Imagine hiking beside a gigantic ice sheet on one side, and a grassy mountain on the other side covered in wild flowers….beautiful. But the finale of this hike definitely comes after reaching the top. I actually can’t describe how stunning it is so hopefully this photo does it more justice
I find American people to be some of the friendliest I have encountered travelling (behind Iranians which are the friendliest by a long shot). Often it’s on a superficial level but so what. I live in London where eye contact is worthy of an apology so superficial conversation and a smile is OK. But Alaskan people are the real deal, the genuine article. They’ve lived through the harsh winter and welcome visitors without hesitation or question. Plus in bars, they pour what can only be described as a ‘healthy’ dose of whisky. Oh and to all the single females or gay men of the world, there is a 12-1 ratio of men to women so if you don’t mind a beard and dressing up like the Michelin Man in winter, don’t rule it out!
What to do in Alaska?
There is an endless supply of outdoor activities on offer and whilst they aren’t cheap, travel budgets are in place to be blown!
Glacial swimming – It’s free and even though it was a little on the chilly side, it makes for a decent initiation for travelling in Alaska
Glacier walking and climbing – Armed with ice axes and crampons in Wrangell-St Elias, I hiked around the Root Glacier admiring electrically coloured pools, and scaling vertical ice walls. It was hard work but also one of my favourite memories whilst in the 49th state
Sea kayaking – Navigating kayaks up to the mouth of Shoup Glacier in Valdez was a brilliant experience, and even the insanity of attacking seagulls couldn’t dampen the day. Imagine kayaking through floating chucks of ice up to the mouth of a gigantic glacier!
Helicopter landing on ice-sheet – The icing on the cake was taking a small plane flight across Denali National Park which landed on the ice-sheet under the watchful eye of Mt Denali – the tallest mountain in North America. The eerie silence seemed to reverberate off the surrounding mountains, camouflaged under a blanket of white.
Wildlife Cruise from Seward – In Seward I opted for a full day wildlife spotting cruise from Seward into the Kenai Fjords National Park and saw a whale breaching not once, but twice. I also an array of birdlife, porpoise and seals. I mean seriously? Really? Could this trip get any better?Read my blog on this incredible act of nature
The short answer is yes. Alaska surpassed all of my expectations and honestly left me speechless on many occasions. Having travelled a fair amount, it is not often I come back from a trip and rave like a madman to anyone who will listen. Anyone considering (or not considering) Alaska, dust off the hiking boots, buy bottles of mosquito repellent (seriously they are like small flying dogs) and head into the wild in the 49th state!
Happy travelling folks.
Have a read of my blog on the Midnight Sun – 24hours of daylight!