Alaska: call of the wild
Making the most of almost 24-hour daylight in summer is key to a two-week trek around the epic interior of America's biggest state
If you have a window seat, it’s a spectacular 90-minute flight from Juneau to Anchorage, over jagged mountains and glaciers that from above look like massive, empty superhighways. With a population of 300,000, Anchorage is the biggest city in America’s biggest state, holding almost half of Alaska’s total population. Apart from a pleasant, newly hip downtown area, most of it is suburbia, though this soon runs out beneath a jagged backdrop. After an emergency trip to a mall to buy new hiking boots, I explore some of the wealthier waterfront areas on foot at about 9pm. Though it’s light – the sun will not set until after 11pm and rise by 3am, never getting fully dark in between – in all other ways, it’s as if it’s night, and the streets are suffused with a strange, soft silence.
Early the next morning, from the car park of a Fred Meyer supermarket, I depart on a two-week camping trip with a group of 12 mostly British millennials and our 40-something American guide Alan. I have chosen this trip because while I could have booked into remote luxury lodges and been flown from place to place, eating five-course gourmet meals and enjoying spa treatments, Alaska’s interior is first and foremost about experiencing the outdoors in as direct a way as possible, and camping is the only option in many of its most beautiful landscapes.
This begins as soon as our minibus exits the city to the east, and we drive along Highway 1 in the huge valley between the Chugach and Talkeetna mountain ranges, then skirt the tioga and boreal forest-surrounded Wrangell Mountains from the south. Alan has great taste in music and place-based playlists ranging from songs such as Alaska Highway by Dan Bern and the soundtrack to Into the Wild, which is playing eight hours and 500km later as we arrive at the Root Glacier Base Camp in Wrangell St Elias National Park, the biggest in the US. Literally at the end of the only road into the centre of the park, which has a population of about 50 permanent residents in an area of more than five million hectares (almost a third larger than Switzerland), this is the perfect place for our first night. Unlike other national parks, which have visitor centres, ticket offices and phalanxes of uniformed guides, its remoteness and lack of visitors mean that there is none of that infrastructure here.
We set up our tents by the Kennicott River, raging with snowmelt from the nearby glaciers, before one group of three cooks dinner (spaghetti bolognaise) and another group – mine – has to wash up. Though carrying the water from the river and packing everything away is tedious, it’s quickly done with a group, and in mine, everyone is surprisingly pleasant and thoughtful. The economies of scale on a trip such as this soon become clear, too – our food costs for the two weeks are just $200 (Dh735) per person, and the work, which includes putting up our own tents, is fast when there are three or four people helping. Less pleasant are the drop toilets and cold nights, for which I am stupidly not properly prepared. Though our tents are good quality and we are provided with inflatable camping mats, my North Face sleeping bag, which says it is made for a comfort temperature of freezing, is too thin – and I haven’t brought enough synthetic layers. Even in relatively mild conditions – cool at night in summer – wearing cotton is a recipe for disaster; I suffer from the cold for more than a week. That first night, when I expect to sleep soundly after a sleepless night before, the katabatic winds sweep down from the nearby glacier and through the stony campsite. Alas, I’m only warmed when the sun rises fully and beats down on us in time for breakfast.
The lack of showers or running water don’t bother me – the views alone are worth the sacrifice. By 9am, it’s time for a hike. I have requested a hike on the Root Glacier and am in a group of three with Daniel and Brandon, two strapping representatives from local specialists St Elias Mountain Guides. It’s an hour on foot to reach the glacier, but the time passes quickly as Daniel, an archaeologist with a passion for geology, points out large glacial erratics, crevasses and terminal moraine, explaining plate and glacier movement and everything about the surrounding landscape in impressive detail.
Brandon – who is quieter, spent nine years to 2016 in the US Marines, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now arranges backcountry guides for clients in summer and is an engineer in winter – carries a full medical kit and instructs us on how to walk with crampons, which is a strenuous but essential process.
As we hike up on to the glacier itself, its surface crunchy and slightly rough, we’re in the centre of a valley 8km wide and the summit of the closest mountain is almost 5,000 metres high. Rather than being one flat plug of ice, the glacier has its own landscape of gorgeously curved ridges and valleys, riven through with holes known as moulins, caves, pools and chutes with water rushing through them like waterslides. Though these look like they would be fun to make use of, Daniel tells me that many of the moulins have “false floors” and that if you fell into one, you would probably never come back out. He illustrates this by throwing some large rocks in and hearing them reverberate as they drop down. Yet using our crampons, we’re able to walk up and down in this landscape safely, even if by the end of the tour, my legs feel like jelly.
Back on terra firma, Daniel gives us a two-hour of the nearby Kennecott Mine, an extraordinary, 14-storey wooden structure with a fascinating history as the centre of an almost unbelievably lucrative copper industry in the early 1900s.
From 1911 to 1938, nearly $200 million of copper was processed, and the infrastructure built to support this industry included thousands of kilometres of railroad all the way south to the Lower 48. The business was run by the Alaska Syndicate, and early investors included J P Morgan and the Guggenheim family. At the peak of operation, about 300 people worked in the mill town and 200 to 300 more in the mines. Kennecott was a self-contained company town that included a hospital, general store, school, skating rink, tennis court, recreation hall and dairy, but Daniel’s brilliant narrative weaves together tales of history, economics, labour exploitation, innovation and capitalism that are familiar today.
Before making our way out of the park, we stop in McCarthy, a brilliantly cut off, atmospheric old western style saloon town, and centre of the adventure-travel scene here. As we pack ourselves back in the minibus and depart, the campsite owner tells us that part of the McCarthy road is under a mudslide. Yet to him this is nothing special, and he adds that once an 18-wheel truck went off the road and down a steep slope. The driver apparently pointed the vehicle downhill – and survived. “He came back with a chainsaw to make a road out and he drove away.” Alan says this can-do spirit is combined with a strong sense of community in Alaska. “For example, not everyone has a washer and dryer. There’s more sharing here compared to other states.”
Highway 4 north to Paxson is beautiful, comprising one lane in each direction across a high arctic landscape of forest broken by scattered lakes. In this bleak environment, even the shabby rooms we stay in at the Maclaren Lodge, which is home to several dozen miners, are hugely welcome versus a muddy campsite after another 400km, eight-hour drive. The prefab-style rooms and hot showers feel like luxury as we overnight there before heading out the next day on to the unsealed but savagely beautiful Denali Highway. Even though it’s early June, we are almost the only people on it, crossing the tundra to the east of Denali National Park.
This time, it’s only a 240km, five-hour drive before reaching our next base at the Denali Outdoor Centre. While it would have been better to camp inside the park, reservations have to be made months in advance and access roads don’t fully open until early summer. Instead, we take the National Park Service bus – a four-hour trip – into the centre of the park one day, seeing wolves, brown bears, moose, a large herd of about 100 caribou and the distinctive horned Dall sheep.
The following day, we are able to “choose our own adventure”, alighting the bus to hike wherever we want. Normal traffic here is banned, which means that this most-famous, most-visited of Alaska parks still looks like it did when it opened to tourism in 1917. The road is still unsealed and there’s no mobile-phone reception; signage is kept to a minimum and travellers are expected to seriously engage their navigational skills if they want to explore the outdoors here.
Though we barely scratch the surface of the 2.4 million hectares of land around the country’s highest mountain, one long hike on the Savage Alpine Trail, four-hours of non-stop movement with a lot of uphill, offers great views of the whole valley. It’s hard work, yet my legs are feeling stronger, and not only because of the increased activity, but also because of the fact that our camp food is clean and simple – and reaching the nearest flushing toilet is a 500-metre walk each way. The possibility of encountering bears more or less anywhere in Alaska, particularly here in Denali, makes you more alert, active and connected to the place. While people like to demonise bears, they have co-existed with people for hundreds of thousands of years and are best seen as part of the landscape rather than monsters waiting to attack you.
As an optional extra, the next day I take a $500 (Dh1,837) scenic flight to land on the Ruth Glacier in the heart-stoppingly dramatic “Sheldon Ampitheatre” on Denali’s south face. It’s a 350km round trip piloted by Eric, whose confident demeanour, peppered with an information-filled commentary, enhances the experience. Short of having weeks more time and thousands of dollars more to spend, this is a good way of seeing some of the park’s often out-of sight granite cliffs (some higher than Yosemite’s Half Dome) and a few of its 600 glaciers at close quarters.
Driving south from Denali, we stop in the historic pioneer-tourist town of Talkeetna, drenched in green and bathed in the clear, early-summer air. After coffee and our usual lunch of sandwiches, it’s a 600km, eight-hour drive south to Seward – and the Seward Highway south of Anchorage is one of the most spectacular roads so far. The road swings like a river along the flat valley floor, with forested mountains on both sides and glittering inlets to the sea.
Turning a final corner on the road to our campsite at Miller’s Landing, we see a humpback whale breach from the sea a few metres away. The campsite is in full summer swing, but we find a quiet space amid ancient, moss-covered trees and enjoy the Arcadian scene of smoke rising from the campfires all around. Here, there are showers and washing machines – though the showers cost $2 (Dh7) each and stop abruptly after two minutes.
A wildlife cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park from Seward Bay reminds me somewhat of south-east Alaska, though the landscapes and weather here is more reminiscent of New Zealand. A large group of humpback whales are feeding in Seward Bay, yards from the harbour, and the day trip is a roll call of wildlife, including Doll’s porpoise, some offshore orcas and sea lions, and several more impressive glaciers.
Back in Seward – another worthwhile town to visit – I buy thermals at a fishing shop and enjoy warmer nights in my tent. On a hike the next day to the nearby Exit Glacier, which takes us from ground level to high above the snowline, I chat at length to Sarah, one of our group who is a postgraduate research student at Queen’s University Belfast who is specialising in post-quantum lattice-based cryptography.
As we negotiate our way along the path, Sarah explains that with the growth of quantum computing, currently used forms of cryptography will be broken by supercomputers, and lattice-based cryptography is an increasingly popular option. It’s Sarah’s job to “ensure that these lattice-based primitives are secure against algorithmic and physical attacks, and are lightweight enough to be run on modern devices such as those used in the Internet of Things”.
Such conversation makes a welcome change from the mind-numbing pop music that has taken the place of Alan’s playlists in the bus’s music system. Four hours and 280km later, we pull on to Homer Spit, a spectacular splinter of land on the way to Kodiak Island and the Aleutian chain. The area still has a strong Russian flavour, and it’s surreal to see groups of traditionally dressed orthodox families speaking in a local dialect.
After setting up camp on the beach, half of the group go on a fishing trip, coming back with a 22kg halibut to bake for dinner on our campfire. It’s delicious, and tastes better, and cleaner, than what we would be served in a local restaurant. Showers here are $1 (Dh4), but unlimited, and there’s even patchy Wi-Fi. As the wind drops, it’s a warm, clear night, and after my team wins a group quiz, I sleep well on the beach to the sound of the waves.
It’s another bucolic summer morning the next day. Half the group have taken a light aircraft to Katmai National Park to view bears; I explore some local coffee shops, bookshops, bakeries and the library. Like many of the places we stop at, Homer is a jumping-off point for unlimited exhilarating trips into the wilderness, and given good weather, there are fewer more beautiful spots on Earth.
The Sterling Highway north gives us great views of Katmai and Iliamna mountains across the Cook Inlet to the left and, later, scenic rivers to our right. I opt for another optional activity of rafting the Class V rapids on Six Mile Creek on the edge of the Chugach State Park. To make sure we can all swim strongly enough, after donning a drysuit, we are each required to throw ourselves into a fast-moving river and prove we can swim to the other side. Next, I’m with a team of four led by a guide called Gumbie, who tells us: “I tend to charge rapids. I believe that if you go at it and if you get hit hard by the first wave, you’ll have the momentum to carry forward. So let’s go for it and deal with it then. You’re in America after all.”
After manoeuvring myself to the back of the raft, I hang on and follow Gumbie’s instructions to the letter. It’s clear that he knows every inch of the water and exactly when to paddle and when to stop, to the extent that I never feel we are in any real danger. If we hadn’t followed his instructions and simply paddled when we thought we should, we could have tipped over, which is everyone’s worst fear – including the trip organisers, who have military-style rescue boats stationed downriver in case of any mishaps.
Almost as a reward for our success, our last overnight stop is in Hope, a gorgeous little gold rush town on Cook Inlet. The main street is a small collection of historic wooden cabins: a cafe-restaurant, campground office and a bar with wood-plank terrace. There’s a river behind our campsite discharging on to the tidal flats, and all around are vividly green trees and honey blossom.
It’s a long way from the Fred Meyers and Starbucks that we’re all heading back to the day after tomorrow – and long may it stay that way.
Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Seattle from Dh6,755 return in economy class and Dh24,775 in business class, and a codeshare flight to Anchorage with Air Alaska costs from $150 (Dh550) return including taxes.
North America road-trip specialists for ages 18 to 38, Trek America offer a 12-day Alaska Wilderness tour from £1,749 (Dh8,332) per person, including 11 nights’ camping (including camping equipment), one lunch, a professional tour leader and private transportation throughout, and activities as detailed in the itinerary. The maximum group size is 13. For a similar trip with hotel accommodation, Grand American Adventures, a small group adventure specialist for ages 35 to 65, offers an 11-day Alaska Highlights tour from £2,419 (Dh11,523) per person. This includes 10 nights’ accommodation (five hotel nights, three lodge nights and two cabin nights), two breakfasts, activities as detailed in the itinerary, a professional tour leader and private transportation throughout. The maximum group size is 13. Book ahead for travel from May to September.
Updated: November 29, 2018 02:53 PM