Alaska has long been the last outpost of the wilds of the United States. It was the 49th state to be incorporated, not recognized until 1959. It is a land of bountiful resources, from wildlife and wilderness to gold and oil reserves. Its frigid lands have been crossed by the best mushers and dog teams, and its skies are graced with the celestial Aurora Borealis. An Alaskan cruise can reveal the landscape that Jack London worshipped, the wilderness that Mardy Murie worked her whole life to protect, and the culture that reaches to the first humans that crosses the Bering Land Strait. Travelers to the U.S.’s northernmost state should be prepared for breathtaking scenery, mouthwatering seafood dishes, long winters, and profound summers.
The earliest human inhabitants of the region of modern-day Alaska were Asiatic groups who crossed the Bering Land Straight approximately 40,000 years ago. The vast majority of pre-Colombian peoples of the America's crossed on this land bridge, and those who stayed in what is now Alaska became the region's indigenous groups. The largest group is the Inuit, and they are accompanied by the Aluet, Northern Athabascan, Haida, Yupik, and other peoples. These people survived the harsh winters subsisting on their formidable fishing and hunting skills. The whale provided the most productive kill, with its considerable meat and blubber benefiting each member of the community. They also hunted (and still hunt today, in many instances) walruses, caribou, musk oxen, seals, and polar bears. The Inuit used dog sleds for transportation, and the husky dog breed is credited to those people. Inuit sea hunters are also credited with the creation of the kayak; their fur-covered boats could easily be righted by a single person, and so the Europeans copied the utilitarian design. A trip to Alaska may yield a glimpse of the traditional boat, or better yet, and adventure in one.
The word Alaska originates from the Aleut word alaxsxaq, which means “mainland”. In the Aleut connotation, it literally means “the object toward which the action of the sea is directed”.
Alaskan culture is unique to the United States because, although its status as a state is relatively new, the area’s history is long and colorful. Museums throughout the state feature native history and crafts, the state’s legacy of the Gold Rush, and its past of trapping and trading.
The Alaskan traveler may want to take advantage of Alaska’s rich native culture of whaling, hunting, and arts. Alaska’s native population makes up 15 percent of the overall population, and there are hundreds of villages where communities live traditionally and share their history with the willing visitor.
Alaska’s most famous sport is, without doubt, the Iditarod. In this annual dog sled race, mushers and their dog teams cover about 1,151 miles in eight to fifteen days. The race began in 1973 as a way to test the best mushers and teams, and is a way to reach out to and keep alive the early history of the state. The Iditarod Trail covers portions used by the Athabaskan and Inuit natives centuries before the arrival of Europeans, and was later used by coal and gold miners in the early 1900s.
An Alaskan cruise may be scheduled to take in the Fur Rendezvous, which is billed as the biggest winter festival in North America. It is held every February in Anchorage to mark the waning of a long winter and the coming of spring. Its origins date back to the heyday of the fur trade, when a swap meet of sorts took place annually between trappers and traders in the region. In 1935, a three-day sports event was organized in conjunction with the meet to lift the spirits of Alaskan residents weary of the long winter. Now, the Rendezvous extends into March to lead into the Iditarod.
As the last great frontier of the American West, Alaska has inspired great writers like Jack London, who wrote White Fang and Call of the Wild. Alaska’s raw and wild landscape influences its residents in much the same way, and Alaskans are generally known for their resilience and strength.
Alaska boasts over 34,000 miles of coastline, and the ocean provides an abundance of food. An Alaskan adventurer will find a sumptuous array of shellfish, from Prince William Sound oysters and scallops to the famous Alaskan King Crab. The giant King Crab is known for its tenderness and sweet flavor. Alaskan trademark cuisine also includes varieties of salmon like Chinook and King, which spawn in fresh water and return to the sea when they mature. Halibut Outdoor adventurers to Alaska are sure to find freshly-caught fish a welcome staple in their daily meals. Those travelers wishing to remain on the beaten trail will experience such delicious recipes as scallops in saffron cream sauce, fire-roasted salmon, and reindeer stew. Alaska’s abundance of game provides for several types of meaty dishes year-around.
Alaska’s long summer days are conducive to productive growing seasons, so fresh produce is plentiful in the warm season.
The state’s cities feature a variety of dining options, from international and ethnic foods to closer-to-home recipes. An Alaskan cruise to more remote areas will be sure to feature the trademark Alaskan salmon for which the state is best known.
An Alaskan cruise will take its traveler to farthest north reaches of the United States. Not only is Alaska the northernmost state, it is by far the largest. At 656,425 acres, it is twice the size of Texas, the largest of the continental states.
This northern outpost is mostly surrounded by water. The Arctic Sea lies to the north, the Bering Sea to the west, and the Gulf of Alaska and vast Pacific Ocean to the south.
Alaska also boasts the highest peak in the United States: Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park rises 20,320 feet above sea level. There are other mountain ranges ringing the landscape, from the Pacific Mountain system begins in Alaska and runs all the way down to southern California. The Aleutian Islands, 14 big islands and 55 small ones, are peaked by the Aleutian Mountain Range. This range plays host to several volcanoes and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, so named for its many holes in the earth that release hot gas and steam.
Uplands and lowlands dominate the center of the state, characterized by rolling hills and wet river valleys.
Alaska’s most famous land feature is the Arctic Coastal Plain, or tundra. It is an area of permanently frozen ground (permafrost) than slopes down toward the Arctic Ocean. The ground’s immediate surface thaws enough in spring to allow grasses and wildflowers to grow, making it one of the most bizarre landscapes in the world.
To those travelers wondering about the classification of “sound”, it is a body of water in the ocean that is larger than a bay and wider than a fjord. The Valdez port is located in the Sound, which is the southern end-point of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Prince William Sound borders 3,000 miles of beautiful coastline featuring the Chugach Mountains. Less than 10,000 people live in the communities near the Sound, and there are no roads to connect them, highlighting the area’s ruggedness. A cruise in Prince William Sound is sure to offer marine wildlife glimpses and majestic views of the dramatic shoreline.
Glacier National Bay is a marine wilderness which includes snowy mountain ranges, tidewater glaciers and habitats, fjords, and freshwater lakes and rivers. A piece of forest that is undisturbed by earthquake-triggered tidal waves still contains evidence of natives who spent time near the glacier thousands of year ago. The bay was formed by a massive glacier that was already in retreat when European explorers where awed by its appearance, which was described as “solid mountains of compact ice”. The park provides a mosaic of adventuring opportunities that include mountain and ice climbing, rafting, and hiking.
Denali is home to North America’s highest peak, the awe-inspiring Mt. McKinley. McKinley is surrounded by equally spectacular peaks to create a majesty of natural beauty for sightseers, mountain climbers, hikers, and researchers. Denali encompasses 6 million acres of mountains, glaciers, and wildlands. It is a sub-arctic ecosystem that supports a myriad of life. Grizzly bears and wolves roam its slopes between herds of Dall sheep and gangly moose. Birds and wildflowers grace its corridors in the warm season.
The park, originally designated as Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917, was named an international biosphere preserve in 1976. Four years later, it was also established as a wilderness area and incorporated into Denali National Park and Preserve.
Denali is a beautiful destination for an Alaskan cruise, with several opportunities for exploration and recreation. Bus tours, ranger-naturalist talks, mountaineering and backcountry backpacking are all popular activities, and dog-mushing and skiing are ideal for the winter visitor.
Alaska was discovered by European explorers in 1741 by Danish explorer Vitus Bering, aboard the Russian Navy ship St. Peter. The Russian-American Company began hunting otters soon after, and engaged in an unsuccessful attempt to colonize the region; shipping costs to the far north were too high, and the colony was a drain on profits. The region became a place of competition for resources, claims, and exploration between Russia, United States, Spain, and England, though Russia held on tight to her claim.
In 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the Alaska Purchase; the entire chunk of land was sold for just $7.2 million, less than 2 cents for acre. The acquisition was deemed "Seward’s Folly", because next to nothing was known about the region other than its cold climate. Instead, it came to be perceived as a treasure trove where every pick struck gold, whales swam into harpoons, fur abounded, and oil came seeping out of the ground.
Just as the fur trade diminished, gold was discovered on Gastineau Channel by Richard Harris and Joe Juneau in 1880, and the city of Juneau was founded. Alaska's heyday of gold mining gained serious momentum in the late 1890s, during the Klondike and Nome Gold Rushes. An Alaskan cruise would be incomplete without a visit to an old gold town.
Alaska's oil production dates back to 1902, the same year that President Theodore Roosevelt established the Tongass National Forest. Prudhoe Bay's oil deposits were discovered in 1968.
Alaskans began lobbying for statehood in the early 1900's, but those calls fell by the wayside with the onset of World War I when many residents traveled south for high-paying jobs. When islands off Alaska's coast were bombed during World War II, the United States turned its energy back to Alaska to defend its northern outpost. Those defense efforts resulted in much of the region's infrastructure, including Alaska's only overland link to the rest of the states, the Alcan. This energy rejuvenated the drive for statehood, and President Eisenhower declared Alaska the 49th state in 1959.
On the morning of Good Friday in 1964, a massive earthquake hit that measured 9.2 on the Richter scale. One source states that the earthquake had ten times the force of an atomic bomb; several villages and the city of Valdez were completely leveled. Fortunately, only 131 people were killed in the disaster.
In recent years, Alaska has been the focus of intense environmental and political debate due to its immense oil resources and pristine landscape. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. can balance its dependence on oil with preserving dwindling wildlands.
Alaska’s unique environment—rich in resources, sparsely populated, and pristine in many places—has drawn the national spotlight more often than the average state. The debate between environmentalists, industry, and Alaska’s citizens has raged for years. From the Gold Rush, to the oil boom, to conservationists like Olaus and Mardy Murie, Alaska’s landscape has been called to the forefront of the national psyche. A trip to Alaska will reveal this delicate dynamic firsthand.
Alaska’s fragile balance between untouched wilderness and big business tipped its scales in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck the Bligh Reef. The tanker was loaded with 53 million gallons of crude oil extracted from Prudhoe Bay. It is estimated that 10.8 million gallons of oil were spilled in one of the largest manmade environmental disasters on the oceans. Thousands of animals died immediately, with the seabird population hit the hardest. 18 years later, many animals are still recovering from the disaster; some shoreline habitats will take up to 30 years to recover from the spill.
Alaska has been at the center of the fossil fuel debate for some time. The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge’s 1.5 million acres lies on top of an oil deposit that could potentially yield billions of barrels of oil. Depending on who is backing the research, this deposit could reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil or barely make a difference. The reality is that ANWR is home to calving caribou, polar bears, and myriad other wildlife, and a stopover migration point for millions of birds. Democrats have thus far been successful at keeping ANWR out of the Energy bill. The other stark reality is that warming global temperatures have served to thaw the permafrost on which the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is built to the extent that the pipeline is suffering costly damages that render oil transportation dangerous.
Alaska’s conservation movement reaches back to 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Mt. McKinley National Park into being. Since then, some of Alaska’s most pristine areas, which are also some of the wildest in the United States, have come under protection. Alaska’s conservation champion is Mardy Murie, author of Two in the Far North. Mardy was a heroic naturalist and activist who, with her husband Olaus, spearheaded the effort to protect what is now ANWR. Mardy’s words, “beauty is a natural resource in and of itself”, still ring influentially in the halls of Congress. An Alaskan cruise is the perfect opportunity to view such a valuable resource.
Alaska’s gross state product is third in the nation, with more than 80% of that derived from oil extraction. For this reason, Alaskans are generally in favor industrial operations and development. However, there is a growing tourism sector contributing to the state’s economy that emphasizes Alaska’s balance between preservation and development.
Alaska is generally described as a Republican-leaning state, although over half of registered voters are under the term “non-partisan” or “undeclared”. Libertarian undertones characterize land use issues, and travelers to Alaska will find a strong focus on individual rights is apparent in political issues. The longest-serving Republican in the Senate is Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, nicknamed “Senator-For-Life”; he was appointed in 1968 following Bob Bartlett’s death and hasn’t lost a re-election campaign since. Senator Lisa Murkowski and sole representative Don Young are also Republican.
Alaska has some of the most famous weather patterns of any U.S. state. Because Alaska is so far north of the equator, its tilt relative to the sun is particularly extreme. In winter, it tilts so far that the sun makes its full rotation low on the horizon, and the Far North is known for its days of 24 hours of darkness. However, in summer, the sun does not set for 84 days in the most northern reaches!
No trip to Alaska would be complete without a glimpse of the sublime Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. The Aurora was named for the Roman goddess of dawn. The Lights are active all year, but can only be seen when the Alaskan sky is dark enough, from late August to early April. The phenomenon is created radiation emitted as light from atoms in the upper atmosphere as they are hit by fast-moving electrons and protons; the atom type determines the color of the Lights. The show becomes more vibrant following intense solar activity.
Alaska’s climate varies widely depending on the region. Juneau, in the southeast, is described as a cooler Seattle. Fairbanks, in the interior, maintains temperatures in the 80s in the summer, but falls to 60 below zero in the winter. The Far North experiences long, very cold winters and short cool summers. The Golden Rule in traveling to Alaska is to prepare for one season colder than expected.
The wildest landscape left in the United States is in Alaska, and the animals that call it home are famous for their wide ranges and adaptation to cold. From wolves to grizzlies, to whales, Alaska's animals encompass the iconic animals that symbolize the wild. During an Alaskan adventure cruise, travelers may have the privilege to view herds of majestic caribou, reindeer, moose, and elk. Other megafauna include musk oxen, deer, and mountain goats.
Alaska's largest natural land animal is the bear. A cruise of Alaska will almost always involve glimpses of bears: numerous black bears inhabit the region, and brown bears are common as well. The Kodiak Island has its own endemic species, the Kodiak bear. This brown bear is unique to island; it is physically and genetically isolated, and its skull has developed differently. Brown bears are notoriously more dangerous to humans than black bears; they are bigger and more aggressive.
An Alaska small ship expedition may also reveal Alaska's most famous bear, the polar bear. These white carnivores mostly inhabit the coastlines and ice edges. They are mostly solitary animals, although they are polygamous! Polar bears generally hunt seals, although they also hunt beluga whales and walruses to a lesser extent. They are also known to feed on carrion.
A traveler in Alaska may be surprised to see American Bison roaming the lands of the far north. These animals were actually transplanted from Montana to Alaska in 1928. Bison were the most common large mammal in Alaska thousands of years ago, but all of the states current bison population (approximately 700) originate from the 20 animals released several decades ago.
Alaska's oceans are a playground to a host of marine animals. Mammals include otters, several kinds of seals, walruses, sea lions, and many species of whales. The types of fish present in Alaska's water are too numerous to list here, and shellfish abounds in similar quantities.