Re-imagining Alaska: A journey from Australia to an unknown frontier

Image by Alexis Mette, Unsplash

Traverse the wild and captivating frontiers of Alaska with Australian writer Margaret McKay as she takes in a tapestry of stunning landscapes and captivating wildlife and dog sled encounters.

Margaret has taken a cruise and glass-roofed train through Alaska and shows us her dream itinerary which includes glaciers, historic mushing towns and unique buildings made of driftwood.

She even discovered that a beaver tail doesn't always belong on the end of a furry animal ...

Re-imagining Alaska: A Journey from Australia to an Unknown Frontier

Written by Margaret McKay

The 1960s John Wayne movie, North to Alaska, the Johnny Horton song of the same name, and the children’s book, The Gnome from Nome, pulled me like a magnet. In sunny Australia, Alaska was just so difficult to imagine. I had to go.

Writer Margaret McKay was captivated by Alaska. Image supplied.

We flew to Vancouver, and then cruised the Inside Passage to Seward in Alaska. We disembarked and headed north. It was Autumn (fall), and Alaska was preparing for the depths of winter, the air was cold. But … let’s not put the sled before the dogs.

Dog sleds are one thing, but stay tuned for whales, otters, bald eagles and puffins. Image supplied.

From Vancouver to our first entry point in Alaska was several hours away, so sleep first. Too much excitement had me awake early. Flinging open our cabin drapes and sliding door to see what Ketchikan had to offer, a humpback whale breached just metres beyond our balcony. Its eyes, an ocean of wonder, locked with mine in one of those brief, animal connection moments you never forget. An enormous mammal with the bumpiest, lumpiest skin, it slid back into the cold depths, with a final wave of its fluked tail. I held my breath in disbelief. What an insane, over-the-top welcome to Alaska.

The scenery floating past us on the cruise was ridiculously photogenic. Here a misty fjord, there a glacier, and there … What’s that? A mother otter floating on its back while suckling its pup. Cuteness overload! We visited Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, each a frontier fishing town of mixed population: Inuit people, Russians, Americans. Each town charmingly unique, with clapboard saloons, king crab shacks, even buildings made of driftwood, and where the vehicle of choice is a sea plane – everyone has one.

Skagway is an historic gold rush town known for preserved buildings and museums. Image supplied.

Mendenhall Glacier is near Juneau so we signed up for a rafting experience at the foot of the glacier. Poling ourselves around chunks of floating ice bigger than our house was chilly and more than a bit exciting.

Mendenhall Glacier is home to vivid blue ice caves formed by the melting and reshaping of the glacier. The intense blue color of the ice is a result of the way glacial ice absorbs and scatters light, making it a breathtaking sight. Image supplied.

An intimate wilderness tour on the eastern shore of Sitka Sound was also too good to pass up. We met the ranger at the appointed time for grizzly bear awareness instructions before we trudged around the squishy wetlands. The birdlife was plentiful, including bald eagles and puffins, and all sorts of amazing orange things growing on green things, clinging onto rocks. Investigations were interrupted when our leader blasted his air horn, and with his spray can of bear retardant at the ready, indicated a steaming pile of wet bear dung, recently deposited. He said just three words: ‘We’re. Leaving. Now!’ I was ready to scale the nearest tree at breakneck speed, when I remembered our training and retreated in an orderly fashion.

The Alaskan big 5: bears, wolves, moose, sheep and caribou

After 7 amazing days, it was time to say goodbye to the cruise-ship and head to Anchorage, our stepping off point for Denali National Park. We stayed within the park at the lovely log-cabin style McKinley Chalet where we caught the 12-hour return bus ride deep into the park. I harboured a wish that I might see the big 5 animals: grizzly and black bears, wolves, moose, Dall sheep, and caribou. I accomplished my wish, including the most elusive of all, a lanky grey wolf, and around the next corner, two grizzly bear cubs feasting on blueberries by a stream, fortunately, with Mama Bear hovering nearby to thwart any sneaky wolves.

We were fortunate to be invited to a trapper’s cabin, deep in the wilderness. Our hosts, a young couple and an older couple, were completely reliant upon their self-sufficiency. The men go trapping in the long darkness of the winter months, somehow never losing their way, sometimes staying out overnight to check their traps. Dressed in thick furs all winter long, they don’t undress for bathing until the spring. The women served us tin mugs of tea, with sugary, cinnamon-sprinkled, warm beaver tail, balls of dough flattened to the shape of beaver tails and deep fried in corn oil. Delicious, but don’t tell my doctor.

Trapping was historically an important economic activity in early Alaska. Trappers built small, rustic structures to shelter in while they hunted in remote areas where beavers, foxes and minks were abundant. Image supplied.

From Denali, we travelled through exquisite scenery in a glass-roofed train north to Fairbanks, just 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, due west of Klondike in Canada. Fairbanks is the most frontier-like town I’ve ever seen, where parking signs refer to sled-dog teams, not cars.

Taking a glass-roofed train from Denali

Fairbanks is a town around 300km from the Arctic Circle where people park sled dogs rather than a car. Image supplied.

We met Lance Mackey, the multi-decorated winner of both the 1000-mile Yukon Quest dogsled race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, as well as the similar 1100-mile Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome. A man of few words, we asked how he navigated in day after gruelling day of pitch-black sky or snowy whiteout. ‘I don’t. The dogs do,’ was his answer. They breed ‘em tough way up north in Alaska.

Famous naturalist, John Muir, suggested people not go to Alaska while they’re young, because they’ll never be satisfied with any other place as long as they live.

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