I had a birthday on a recent trip to America and my present was a surprise trip. On the way to the airport, destination still a secret, I was asked where in the world I would least like to go.
With memories of chilly English winters, I said, “Nowhere with snow and ice.”
I was told I was en route to Alaska.
We travelled by ship from Vancouver but, as soon as I had my first glimpse of Alaska’s distant coastline sparking like a million-carat diamond in the afternoon sun, I knew there was no place on Earth I would rather be.
It was a shining polished world and, in spite of the harsh climate and shallow soil, there was a wide diversity of plant life.
Wild flowers were in full bloom, the deciduous trees blazed yellow and red along the shoreline even though much of the interior is an uninhabited wilderness of vast mountain ranges separated by gleaming ice fields and frozen rivers.
Fairbanks is the only city of any size and none of them are connected by road – perhaps a reason that one in 50 Alaskans has a pilot’s licence.
We disembarked in Ketchikan, boarded another, smaller ship and cruised along the Inside Passage on the southern coast to a fascinating world of majestic hanging glaciers, past quaint fishing outposts, endless mountain ranges and open plains separated by long narrow fords.
We were told that there are more than 5 000 major glaciers in Alaska and more than a million minor ones and, wherever we travelled, we saw them in the distance.
These massive blocks of ice are often on the move and shed ice several times an hour.
Small cities dot the coastline and we marvelled at the whales, seals and otters we saw in passing, particularly the seals because half of the world’s population of northern fur seals gather in these waters every summer.
To our amazement, there were just as many bears.
There is a saying that when you’re in Alaska you’re never far from a bear – and it’s true. In winter they retreat to their dens and live off their fat reserves, but we were there in summer when they are active and most of the cubs are born, so we also saw many young bears.
We even learned to differentiate between the species. Kodiak bears, the largest of the brown bears, can be more than 2m tall, while the black bears are vegetarian and about 1.5m . Polar bears spend their lives roaming the ice floes in search of seals, but come to shore to breed.
We also saw moose weighing up to 675kg, lynx and caribou with their massive horns that migrate annually between summer and winter ranges in herds of up to 400 000.
Though Alaska is now American, its own native heritage is very much evident. Each tribal group has kept its traditions, language, ceremonial objects and crafts.
Throughout the country many south-western Alaskan villages still have a Russian Orthodox majority population who worship in onion-domed churches. The interiors of these are lavishly decorated with bright colours and have many icons but not a single seat as worshippers are expected to stand in deference to Christ’s suffering.
Most towns also have museums displaying the artefacts relating to their tribes and these are still regularly used in traditional ceremonies as well as sold in shops or can be bought directly from the artists.
The Aleuts are skilled basket weavers, the Inupiats are carvers using black soapstone or ivory, but most popular are Tlingit masks with mystic human and animal faces, black soapstone figures of hunters, dancers and intricate designs in ivory or whale bone.
Sitka, the second largest city in Alaska, considered the most beautiful and small enough to be explored on foot, is situated on Baranov Island and only accessible by ferry.
It is surrounded by island-studded waters and is the cultural centre of the Inside Passage with many buildings that appear in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1897 it was a tent town with gambling salons and dance halls. Two years later it became one of the centres of the Gold Rush, its population increased to 30 000 and it became the capital of Russian America.
In 1867 the US bought Alaska and it was here that the Russian flag was lowered, a ceremony that takes place every year on October 18, which is now known as Alaska Day.
Dominated by Mount Edgecombe, a dormant volcano, it has a compact downtown area full of art galleries and book shops, an ancient waterfront with weathered buildings and wharves around the harbour, 22 buildings that appear in the National Register of Historic Places and great hiking trails leading to surrounding, lush rain forests.
It also has a National Historic Park, known as Totem Park, which has the largest totem pole collection in the world and the history of each one is documented.
Anchorage, the capital, began as a tented construction camp in 1915 and was almost destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1964. Yet today it must be one of the most original cities in the world.
Surrounded by glaciers, ice fields, high peaks and forests all within easy hiking distance, it is a mixture of historic city and First World sophistication, with brown and black bears walking in its glaciated central State Park and red foxes prowling its pavements between its museums, theatres, sophisticated shops and good hotels.
We visited the Alaska Native Heritage Centre because our guidebook insisted it is a “must” – and because here we learned about Alaska’s tribal peoples, their traditions, achievements and current lifestyles which made our trips to the interior so much more interesting, as did the aviation museum showing the achievements of the early bush pilots.
In the evenings we attended free concerts in Marine Park Plaza and free pipe organ concerts in the State Park Office Buildings and, like most tourists, we left the city very unwillingly.
If You Go...
We spent a day glacier trekking and exploring a world of solid ice and snow. We walked on a river of ice 660m thick and had a talk on glacier geology that made us uneasily aware that global warming has melted it more than 2 800m since it was measured in 1911.