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Alaska the Final Frontier

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My fascination with the State of Alaska began in 2005 when I started watching the reality television show, Deadliest Catch. For those of you familiar with the show, you’ll know how addictive it can be. If you’ve never heard of it, the show is based on real life events aboard fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. Once hooked on crab fishing I started watching other shows such as Ice Road Truckers, Alaska State Troopers, Flying Wild Alaska and a few others. There’s something mesmerizing about the Arctic wild that I had to see the place for myself. So last January I decided to traverse half the globe from Australia to Alaska…

Landing in Anchorage at night is beautiful; the pilots fly low along the coastline so you can see glaciers glowing in the dark. It’s a surreal experience, and on the horizon you see the twinkling lights of the city. Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city with roughly 300,000 residents, which is over 40% of Alaska’s entire population. With an average temperature of -15°C in the winter, it was drastic change from the 35°C summer in Sydney, Australia. Nevertheless I hopped off the plane full of spirit as my feet finally touched Alaskan ice.
There are a few nice places to stay in town: I stayed at the Hotel Captain Cook, named after the famous British explorer Captain James Cook. Opened in 1965, the hotel has panoramic views of the Cook Inlet or Chugach Mountains from its towers.  The friendly staff are a warm feature of Alaskan hospitality.
Anchorage is used as a base for visitors to take day trips to neighbouring areas, so there isn’t much to see in the town, but you can stroll the lovely snow-lined streets, visit the Anchorage Museum, and enjoy shopping for endless trinkets at the local stores.

Alaska Railroad
For the next part of my trip, I needed to head to Fairbanks.  No matter the time of the year, you must take the Alaska Railroad. The Aurora Winter Train runs from mid-September to mid-May only once a week: northbound on Saturdays and southbound for the return on Sundays. The journey is a long 12 hours compared to the half hour flight but this is one train ride you won’t regret. The train runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks with scheduled stops in between, but it also makes flag stops along the way: meaning anyone is able to flag the train to stop by waving a white cloth. During the winter months, this train provides an essential service for many Alaskans who would otherwise be isolated. The train passes through Denali National Park, which is home to Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. Denali has over six million acres of protected area and attracts thousands of visitors each year for its wildlife. In winter, the park offers activities such as cross-country skiing, dog-sledding and snowmobiling. We were lucky enough to see herds of caribou nearby when the train stopped while passing through Denali: no, we weren’t flagged down – a lone moose was walking the track.

You most likely have heard of Fairbanks if you watch Ice Road Truckers. Fairbanks is located along the Chena River and is the second largest city in Alaska.  It also has average temperature of -25°C in winter. I stayed at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, a pet-friendly guesthouse located next to the famous Pike’s Landing Restaurant. The city itself is not so much of a tourist attraction, but is a great hub for getting to other nearby destinations depending on the activity you want to do. There is an interesting museum on the campus of the University of Alaska that is worth visiting also.
If you’re in Fairbanks for a short time then it’s best to do a few day trips. In January most visitors come to see the Aurora Borealis (as known as the Northern lights). It is an amazing dance of lights that can only be seen in areas located in or near the auroral band. The lights occur when highly charged electrons from the solar wind interact with elements in the earth's atmosphere. The electrons hit atoms of oxygen and nitrogen; the atom type and altitude will determine the colour of the aurora. It’s a magical experience and thousands make the trek every year just to get a glimpse of the lights. You can see the lights from Fairbanks but there are several night trips which allow visitors to view them in a different way such as snow cat tours, horse drawn sleigh, log cabins, hot springs or a flight above the Arctic Circle.

Hot Springs
The Chena Hot Springs Resort is another popular attraction not far from Fairbanks. It is famous for its healing mineral waters and close proximity to wildlife. The Aurora Borealis is visible to the naked eye from here during the winter months, and most visitors enjoy relaxing in the water while looking up at the dancing sky.

If you’re looking for something to do during the days, then dog-sledding is a must try! Paws for Adventure is a dog mushing school where you can learn to drive your own dog team. They also offer overnight tours and multi-day expeditions. If you’re not up for that much action then you can just take a ride like most visitors. Learning to control a team of four dogs can be very challenging, but once you’ve been shown the technique then it’s really a lot of fun. Some of the dogs kennelled here have previously raced in the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, both world-famous dog sled races. If you have the chance, learn to mush.

Ice Cream
Believe it or not, Alaska has the highest consumption of ice cream per capita in the United States. Hot Licks is a local Fairbanks ice cream parlour that was recognised as one of the top ten ice cream places in the world. If you’re in town you need to try this world famous homemade ice cream, even if it is -30°C outside.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline
One of the world’s largest, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was built between 1974 and 1977 and was the main reason for Alaska’s population boom. The pipeline crosses the whole state from Prudhoe Bay in the far north to Valdez in the south. Many tourists visit the pipeline or take scenic flights to see this engineering marvel.

For many visitors to Alaska, Fairbanks is as far north as most often venture. But with so much more to see I decided to fly to Bettles which is a community in the Yukon–Koyukuk area inside the Arctic Circle. The flight in a Cessna 208 Caravan single turboprop is amazing in itself, and the bush pilots are friendly enough to let you ride in the co-pilot’s seat. We flew through the Brookes Range and landed in a place called Anaktuvuk Pass; it is the last remaining settlement of Inupiat Eskimo’s in Alaska and residents mostly eat caribou as their primary source of meat. Flying back south we arrived in Bettles: population of 27 people at the time, including the five visiting passengers. The airstrip used was built during World War II, and there is an ice road which connects the town with the highway but is only accessible for a couple of months, the only other way to get to Bettles is by airplane.
The main reason people go to Bettles is because it’s located right under the auroral band making it the perfect place to stay if you’re looking to see the Aurora Borealis. During winter, only the Aurora Lodge is operational due to the severe temperatures, while the original Bettles Lodge (a National Historic Site) is operational in the slightly warmer months. The staff make you feel like family and despite being so isolated they served some of the best food I’ve ever had. They stock plenty of army issued bunny boots which you should wear if you don’t want your feet to fall off. During the evening everyone stays up to watch the lights.  There’s hardly any sunlight during the day so you have to make the most of things. If you’re out during the day you’re able to go ice fishing, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, dog sledding, or snowmobiling.  You can also visit the old ghost town down the river or just relax. Temperatures dropped to -50°C occasionally, but were usually steady at -35-40°C, so you had best prepare for chilly weather.

After a week in the Arctic I travelled south to Alyeska.  Driving down the Sewad Highway along the Cook Inlet is an incredible journey. The ski resort is 56 kilometres southeast of Anchorage and is famous for deep powder and steep terrain. There are also great heli-skiing and cat-skiing operations which have some of the best guides in the industry. Alyeska is all action: you can go glacier dog-sledding, ice-climbing and snowmobiling on the glaciers all within a short distance. There are also lots of opportunities to view the wildlife at the local conservation park if you can’t spot any just roaming around.

Alaska was one of the most beautiful places I have visited. I didn’t make it to the west coast or to the very north but I saw and did a lot.  There is still so much more to explore and I’ll certainly be going back for more!

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