“My cousin’s got a moose set up in his backyard,” a local tells me on my first day in Alaska. “He can’t mow the lawn – it chases him inside. The dog plays out the front now.”
I’m hardly out in the boondocks; I’m in Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage. Here, beluga whales breach from the sea just a few hundred metres away from the CBD while fanatic fishermen in wading boots line the waterway that runs through the city, hunting $10,000 – the prize for the biggest salmon in the annual Ship Creek Slammin’ Salmon Derby. And there are bears not far from here; the bins are bear-proofed and I saw tracks with my own eyes – it helps to be mindful of them when you’re munching on summer berries.
While most people (almost 70 per cent) visit by cruise ship, I intend to broaden my Alaskan experience by jumping ship and taking to its highways and railways in an attempt to discover the ‘real Alaska’ – whatever that may be.
I’ll be taking a train ride north from Anchorage to Fairbanks, stopping at Talkeetna and Denali National Park & Preserve. Then I’ll hire a car and hit the road south, completing the loop with my vehicle aboard a ferry on the Marine Highway, with a final short drive back to Anchorage. It’s an easy loop to navigate – there are very few roads in Alaska. “People always ask me for the complete road map,” a service-station attendant tells me when I begin my journey. “I say, ‘That’s it, hon – there’s no more roads up here’.”
And only in Alaska would I be staring down my first grizzly within three hours of clearing immigration. After a float-plane ride out of Anchorage, I’ve landed in a remote lake underneath a coastal mountain range. Within five minutes aboard a tiny runabout, a grizzly has made its way to the water’s edge just 30 metres in front of me.
It barely notices me as it fishes for spawning salmon. It misses its prey, then looks directly at me with a frown and walks back into the forest. Ten seconds later, it charges back, dips its giant paw and catches a 60cm-long salmon. It looks at me again – I swear it winks – and raises its catch to its mouth, then walks with a swagger to the forest. It’s a promising start to my wilderness experience.
But I’ve got a burning desire to head north, far beyond the city limits, so I board a train to Talkeetna, the source ofinspiration for the town of Cicely in ’90s TV seriesNorthern Exposure. Few Australians would have heard of Talkeetna, but it’s here, on just my second full day in Alaska, that I begin to understand the human inhabitants are every bit as wild as its animals.
"Just south of the town, I spot an old man walking by the tracks with a wolf for a pet, his pants held up by rope."
“Probably the only human contact he’ll have for weeks,” a conductor tells me. He points at the old dirt road the man stands on. “Last road west ’til you hit Siberia.”
It should be dark by the time I disembark the train in Talkeetna, but the heart of the Alaskan summer essentially comes without any night-time at all. In the soft evening sunlight, the town looks as pretty as a picture, and right beside it a fast-flowing river of glacial run-off attracts picnickers prepared to risk hungry bears.
I walk inside perhaps the world’s most bizarre bar, the Fairview Inn. A bluegrass guitarist strums and sings, while in the outside beergarden I meet the kind of locals you could only find in Alaska. Many are draft dodgers who came here in the ’60s and ’70s and never went home; they still don’t have much use for surnames around here. They live in the forests where the roads stop – up here they call it ‘living off the grid’.
“Alaska only begins where the road ends,” one local tells me. Another tells me this is his first trip to town in two years; in winter, most bunker down with meat from animals killed during summer. On the train north, I pass towns with names like Coldfoot and Deadhorse, until I reach Denali National Park.
"The landscape here is ludicrously dreamy: purple, white and crimson wildflowers make the world feel like a painter’s palette, while North America’s highest mountain pops more than 6,000 metres straight up around me."
Just north of here is where Chris McCandless, whose life is detailed in the book (and film) Into The Wild, famously perished 22 years ago. He came to Denali looking for the kind of splendid isolation he figured only the Alaskan wilderness could ever provide. That it killed him tells you everything about the respect you should have for it.
In Fairbanks I catch the Midnight Sun baseball game that’s been running every June solstice for 108 years. Fairbanks has a quirky charm of its own, but I’m excited to take the highway south, so it’s time to take the wheel myself. It’s a stunning passageway: waterfalls cascade by the side of the road while I drive for hours without seeing a single vehicle on a route surrounded entirely by wildflowers and mountains.
I hit the first fork at Tonsina and take the short road east, waiting by an old landing strip for a bush pilot to take me to the old mining town of Kennicott. Few travellers ever venture here, even though it’s in the middle of the Wrangell-St Elias National Park & Preserve, located right beside a massive glacier you can hike.
Kennicott is now considered a ghost town. They mined copper here until 1938, then one day they closed the mine and told everybody to get the last train out – it was leaving in a couple of hours. This is an example of the towns you’ll find in the Alaskan countryside.
But it’s Valdez, at the end of Highway Four, that sums up the diversity of the Alaskan experience. Built on stunning Prince William Sound, you’ll find workers from the nearby Trans-Alaska Pipeline and fishermen living a rough-and-tumble life. It’s a hippie magnet too – all tie-dyed, long-haired types and bookshops about spiritual awakenings.
They all fit in nicely; health-food stores prosper next door to gun shops. Hippies tell you to love the bears that browse through town, fishermen tell you to fill them full of lead. I could stay a month, but my ride is waiting on Alaska’s unique Marine Highway.
"I drive my 4WD aboard and take a seat as humpback whales gasp beside me and the captain weaves his way through a sea of huge white glaciers."
Alaska is the ultimate adventure holiday destination. Play it safe and you’ll still see the pretty flowers and the soaring mountains. But dare to explore a little further and you’ll find the real flavours – and the strangest locals – in a destination that’s every bit as remarkable as you dreamed it would be.
– words by Craig Tansley.