Extreme Alaska

Published : Oct 20, 2006 00:00 IST

THE PORTAGE GLACIER in the Chugach National Forest. - AL GRILLO/AP

THE PORTAGE GLACIER in the Chugach National Forest. - AL GRILLO/AP

Once considered a frozen waste for polar bears, it is today a magical destination for those in search of the last true wilderness.

ALASKA derives its name from alyeshka, meaning `the great land'. Here the sun never sets in the Arctic summer and never rises in the Arctic winter, when the skies are lit up like a neon board by the Northern Lights. In this wilderness paradise with immense hidden wealth, brown bears can be 3.5 metres tall, cabbages can grow to more than 30kg and the narrow river mouths are choked with salmon going to their birth-place to spawn. It is known as a land of `rushes'; first came the fur rush, followed by the gold rush, the oil rush and finally the wilderness rush.

Covering an area of 14,60,157 square kilometres, the state of Alaska is the same size as England, France, Italy and Spain put together. It is so sparsely populated that at its present person-to-square-kilometre ratio, an area the size of New York's Manhattan island would have only 16 people.

The first European to sail into Alaskan waters is thought to be Spanish Admiral Bartholeme de Fonte, in 1640. The first written record of Alaska is by a Danish navigator named Vitus Bering dated to 1728; he is credited with being the first European to set foot there. The Spanish, the British and the French followed, attracted by the money to be made from the fur of various Arctic animals.

The main occupiers of Alaska, however, were the Russians. Aleksandr Baranov, head of the colonial trading company Russian American Company, built its former capital Sitka, known as `the American Paris in Alaska', with the wealth gleaned from the fur trade. By 1860 the Russian found the management of the vast landmass difficult and in 1867 American Secretary of State William H. Seward signed a treaty purchasing its 14,60,57 square kilometres for $7.2 million - a rate of less than two cents an acre. At the time the deal was seen as a folly. Slowly, however, the natural wealth of Alaska was revealed: whale, salmon, gold, oil, and more.

There could be many reasons why Alaska's second largest city, Fairbanks, is known as the `Golden Heart City': it is located in the heart of Alaska, its people are friendly, and the gold trade brought it prosperity. Gold production is a way of life here; in 1998 Fort Knox, the largest gold mine in Alaska, produced gold worth $170 million. It is probably one of the few places in the world where in the summer people can play baseball at midnight without artificial lights. In winter, however, the temperature drops to - 50 degrees Celsius for days. For that reason sled dogs are a part of life here. Fairbanks is the Aurora Borealis capital of the world; the Northern Lights are visible 240 nights of the year. This polar phenomenon is caused when solar winds flowing above the earth's surface (80 to 320km above) hit gas molecules and turn the sky milky green and, on rare occasions, red. In 1958 the red lights were so strong that the fire department sent its trucks out, thinking the forests were on fire.

With Fairbanks as a base there is much to see of Alaska. From bathing in the atmosphere of the harsh and beautiful terrain with its eternal Christmas to soaking in a hot natural spring, from fishing and wildlife-spotting to panning for gold, Alaska offers an exciting variety of experiences.

The first thing that came to my mind was fishing for salmon. Five types of salmon inhabit the Alaskan waters. The largest is `king salmon', which can weigh up to 32kg. A fishing permit for the day costs $10. Surprisingly, residents are charged more; the logic is that they live here and catch more fish. My visit came right in the midst of the salmon spawning season. Armed with spoons and floating lures we set out early one morning to the Salcha river where large shoals of salmon could be seen swimming upstream. Fishing is sheer luck, my tantalising and expensive lures failed to attract the attention of the shoals floating past. Once every 15 minutes, however, some happy fellow amongst the fishing crowd fought to pull out a beautiful red-coloured salmon from the cold waters. Fishing is a favourite pastime and numerous charter flights are available to fish in the remote lakes filled with rainbow trout. Catching halibut from the sea is a great challenge - at 135kg, they can tip the scales.

Lots of snow, reindeer, a cheery old man with gifts? You guessed it - Santa Claus. The little town of North Pole near Fairbanks celebrates Christmas; the decorations never come down and candy canes are an everyday occurrence. You can even meet Santa in person in his shop filled with Christmas decorations and souvenirs. Identifying Santa's house was no problem - a large nine metre Santa stood next to the road holding a list of children's names. Santa was busy telling a little boy to be good. Interestingly, the boy was all ears for Santa's sermon. Some things like Santa will surely live on and fascinate children well into the centuries ahead. Four lakh people write to Santa every year at his address `Santa Claus, North Pole Alaska'. One of Santa's little elves (otherwise known as citizens of the town) always responds.

Alaska is renowned for its wildlife. A drive on the roads is a sure way to encounter the moose. The largest members of the deer family can be seen feeding in ponds and lakes. Moose are the most important game animal in Alaska. A total of 9,000 moose are harvested in the hunting season and they yield more than two million kg of meat. The brown bear, made famous in movies as a man-hater, has evoked renewed interest. Documentaries on the National Geographic Channel have shown the creature to be an expert fisher - it catches its prey with ease by standing at the small waterfalls at the mouths of rivers where salmon move upstream. This type of bear lives mainly on the coast and can weigh up to 360kg. The famous Kodiak bear can stand an amazing three metres and weigh 680kg. Those brown bears living inland are called grizzlies. They are smaller since they do not feed on the protein-rich salmon. Some bears are attracted to human camping areas for food, which has led to some unfortunate incidents; if in danger experts advise campers to act dead.

The Denali National Park is the best place to view wildlife. It has 37 species of mammals and 130 species of birds. Moose, grizzly bears and caribou are an integral part of the scenery. It is also the home of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America. Rising from an elevation of 600m, it stands at 6095m and is a breathtaking sight. The park attracts close to three lakh visitors during the summer. To travel there one needs to take the shuttle bus. Most of these are booked in advance; booking opens in February for the summer season.

Nature has a miraculous way of providing contrasts in harsh terrains. Soaking in a hot-water spring amidst the ice and snow is one such instance. The Chena hot springs are almost 90 km from Fairbanks. They were discovered a century ago by miners who used the water to soothe their aches and pains. The water is a piping 70 degrees Celsius and must be cooled before use. Water from the spring is piped into a large natural stone tub. A day-long soak costs $10 and you can finish off with a lovely meal at the hotel nearby.

In this natural wonderland people are paid to stay. Every Alaskan gets $1,700 annually for staying - even the children. The money comes from a part of the mineral-lease royalties; in 2000 this fund was close to $26 billion. This is largely owing to the oil discovery in North Alaska's Prudhoe Bay.

The oil is transported via a pipeline that runs north-south across Alaska to the port of Valdez. This pipeline is considered a marvel of engineering. It was constructed in 1977 at a cost of $8 billion. One and a half million barrels of oil flows every day through this pipeline, which stretches across 1,263 km of harsh terrain.

Alaska's gold was discovered in 1902 by an Italian named Felix Pedro near Fairbanks. In the days of the original gold rush in the early 20th century, gold mining meant rowdy bars, women, wine and, quite possibly, jail. The discovery of gold is celebrated with a festival in the third week of July, complete with dog shows and floats depicting the `golden days jail'. Those who dream of striking it rich can still try panning for gold in some of the mines and relive the past on a guided tour. The El Dorado mine offers these facilities, including a ride round the mine in a narrow-gauge train.

The heart of Fairbanks town is covered with flowers; there are bouquets hanging in large clusters from the walls of buildings, and flowers line the sides of the Chena river in numerous hues. The sunset at 10p.m. is striking: the land is covered with golden hues, which light up the flowers against a backdrop of blue.

For home-cooked Indian food and great pizza every Indian should head to "Pizza4less", run by a Sikh from Jalandhar.

It is said that people come to Alaska for six days and end up staying there for six years. As my plane took off, I sank into sadness. At a distance I could see Mt. McKinley covering the horizon in the morning sun, and as I glanced down, the numerous streams and lakes dotting this amazing wilderness glistened.

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