Someone asked: What is it like to visit Alaska? The short answer: Its mindblowing! While in The USA, Alaska is where one gets to cross the Arctic circle. Extreme has a new definition in this frigid polar zone. Read on for the long one by Abhijeet Deshpande.
Sunny Summer Nights
When we landed in Fairbanks (Interior Alaska) at 10:00 PM, it wasn’t difficult to realize why this northwestern frontier state is often called the Land of the Midnight Sun. The night was sunny, like a tropical afternoon, but cold, very cold, very very cold. Below freezing. Cars cruised along without glaring beams. The only thing that kind of gave away the late evening hour was my wrist watch. It was a typical Alaskan summer, a typical polar day – a natural phenomenon in a handful of places around the world.
Denali, The Tall One
The double-decker train from Fairbanks to Denali National Park is a ride to remember. The slow-moving glass-topped locomotive, with a well stocked onboard restaurant, gently cuts through a dense forest and turns the journey into a safari, offering glimpses of flora and fauna even before you reach the park station. The forest is home to large mammals such as caribou, dall sheep, grizzly bears, moose, and wolves. In addition to Denali’s big-five, as these are called, expect a few late night visitors to your guest house – furry foxes, looking for food in trash cans. Besides, you might spot smaller creatures like arctic squirrels and rabits.
Denali is like a page straight out of geography books. Taiga, Boreal and Tundra – remember these words? The relatively untouched terrain, home to North America’s tallest peak (Mt. Denali), transforms as you go deeper inside. Taiga or Boreal, sometimes referred to as the snow forest and characterized by coniferous leaves, is the northernmost region on our planet to support tree life. Tundra, stretching further north, is treeless but a colorful landscape. Brown, green, purple, red, or yellow, make it one of the most visually stunning biomes. Tundra owes its rich colors to dwarf shrubs, grass, and moss growth on a permanently frozen soil or permafrost. Beyond tundra, it is all white – the polar ice cap. After a few days in Interior Alaska, that is where we headed. Barrow beckoned.
Barrow, Arctic Alaska
Welcome to the Eskimo town! Eskimo? First things first. While in arctic regions of Canada or Greenland it may be a faux-pas to use the term ‘Eskimo’, in the US it is still in use (along with terms such as Alaskan Natives) to refer to local Iñupiat people. And no, Eskimos do not live in igloos; they have normal houses. Likewise, you can not flag down a dog sled taxi! If you are lucky, you might come across some adorable pet huskies.
Travelers arriving in Barrow receive a “Member of the Arctic Club” certificate – a no-benefit, bragging-rights souvenir, that did make us feel special on the day. The northern most town of USA, covered in snow and slush, and topped by a sky about to crumble on its own weight, Barrow had us dazed and confused. Luckily, there were few direction markers to put things in perspective, there were the proud indigenous people who showcased their talents and arts to warmly welcome travelers at the popular Iñupiat Heritage Center, and there was free coffee!
Barrow’s peculiarities stood out. It sported an arctic post-office without a postman (you need to pick up your mail), an arctic satellite station buried in heaps of snow, a frozen arctic ocean with its icy beaches, or even an arctic cemetery. Because of the permafrost soil, the buried dead do not decompose and, sometimes bodies are dug out for research. Most of the supplies here are flown in or, less often, brought in via shipping routes when the sea melts (for limited durations in the summer) and allows navigation.
Iñupiat, A Culture of Whaling
In Iñupiat (Eskimo) language, Barrow is referred to as Ukpiagvik – a place where they hunt white owls! Speaking of hunting, Barrow is one of the few places in the world where whaling is legally practiced – with a government-set quota. Traditionally, the weapon used for whaling was a sharp wooden harpoon. Nowadays though, they use spears tipped with nitrate bombs. In the absence of vegetation, cutting up a whale is termed ‘harvesting’. Whale meat gets stored in the permafrost soil underneath houses raised on stilts. Monuments made of whale remains were popular landmarks along the frozen Arctic shoreline; such as this whale arch or the Bowhead Whale skull.
Do people hunt polar bears, you ask? No. However, in winters when the distinction between a frozen arctic ocean and land vanishes (with snow everywhere) and bears sometimes stray inside the town looking for food, people have been forced to – ‘put them down’. Such confrontation is rare.
Point Barrow, Gateway to North Pole
Point Barrow, a point where land tapers to an end, is sandwiched between Beaufort sea (Canadian side) and Chukchi sea (connecting Russia). A vast expanse of white frozen ocean merged into the vast expanse of dull gray sky above. Unless you are drawn by sled dogs, a refurbished military-grade Hummer truck (with auto-deflate / inflate tires) is perhaps the best vehicle to cruise through all that snow and slush. Ours came with a Czechoslovakian driver cum guide. Point Barrow is where you go for potential polar bears sightings. But, when we did, they remained still and very well camouflaged. In other words – we did not get to see any. From this point, you need a solid heart and a gun (to ward off bear attacks) to walk 900 miles on the frozen arctic ocean to the north pole.
Yield to Aircrafts, This is Anchorage
On our way out, the airline company gifted us a bonus destination. Thanks to a delayed flight, we stayed for 24 hours in Anchorage – Alaska’s largest and insanely beautiful city, often mistaken for its capital (Juneau is the state capital). Anchorage offered a few peculiar sights of its own – be it building architecture or transport options. Though it is the southern most city of Alaska, it still gets cold. Very cold. One house was constructed underground to keep its inmates warm. Air planes (amphibious or otherwise) remain a popular mode of transport – it is common to see a traffic sign “Yield to Aircrafts”! A hangar is akin to a multi-level car park elsewhere. And then this horse carriage!
Alaska, A Wonderland
Alaska’s sheer beauty, extreme weather, and the courage of her people to sustain in such harsh conditions had left us spellbound. There is something about remoteness and people’s warmth – the more isolated a place, the friendlier its people are; Iñupiats or Eskimos are a fine example of this. We would continue to look for opportunities to experience the Arctic polar night in the winters to witness its majestic Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights.
Hot Tips for Cold Alaska
- Weather: Most people prefer to visit between May and September, that is, during the polar days of summer. Between October to April, it is colder than cold and tourism activities are limited. However, a polar night is the only time to witness Aurora Borealis
- Budgets: Alaska is not the cheapest destination to travel. However with proper planning, deal-hunting, and advance bookings, you could optimize costs. The things to do vary from Mt. Denali, fjords, glaciers, whale-watching, salmon fishing, panning for gold, polar bears sightings, to northern lights, and the list goes on. Research your options
- Cruise Tours vs. Flights and Land Travel: This can be a tough choice to make. About 400,000 people visit Alaska each year. So you would have as many stories and opinions. We used flights and traveled on land to experience Arctic Alaska (Barrow), Interior Alaska (Denali), and Southcentral Alaska (Anchorage). Many prefer a cruise showcasing stunning locations in Southeastern Alaska (Glaciar Bay National Park, Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan), Southcentral Alaska (Kenai Fjords National Park, Anchorage), and Southwestern Alaska (Kodiak island, Katmai National Park), with a few cruise-tours also offering stays in interior Alaska (Denali). Research your options
- Clothing for Arctic: It is never enough to emphasize layers – an innermost layer (thermal for people sensitive to cold), a lightweight middle layer to trap body heat, and an outer waterproof and windproof jacket (or down-filled parkas) and pants. Pack fleece caps, gloves, scarves, and sturdy boots (to walk on snow) too. Also consider throwing in a few hot-patches to insert inside socks or gloves to keep the body warm. You may buy clothing from a numerous sources on the web. Research your options
- Foodventure: While smoked salmon, cod, king crabs and desserts topped with fresh colorful berries remain popular, the adventurous might fancy trying wild meat delicacies such as Reindeer Dog (with reindeer sausages), moose meat, Agutuk (Eskimo ice cream made from animal fat, seal oil, and berries). Oh, we even found an Indian food shack on the arctic beach!
Have you been to Alaska? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).
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Credits: This piece is edited from its original version, written in response to a question, on Quora.
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