Caribou and setting sun, Alaska

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No other region in North America fires the imagination like ALASKA – derivation of Alayeska, an Athabascan word meaning “great land of the west”. Few who see this land of gargantuan ice fields, sweeping tundra, lush rainforests, deep fjords and occasionally smoking volcanoes leave unimpressed. Wildlife may be under threat elsewhere, but here it is abundant, with bears standing twelve feet tall, moose stopping traffic in downtown Anchorage, wolves prowling national parks, bald eagles circling over the trees and rivers solid with fifty-plus-pound salmon.

Alaska’s sheer size is hard to grasp. Superimposed onto the Lower 48 states, it would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific, while its coastline is longer than that of the rest of the US combined. All but three of the nation’s twenty highest peaks are found here and one glacier alone is twice the size of Wales. In addition, not only does it contain America’s northernmost and westernmost points, but because the Aleutian Islands stretch across the 180th meridian, it contains the easternmost point as well.

Perhaps surprisingly then, a mere 670,000 people live in Alaska, of whom only one-fifth were born in the state: as a rule of thumb the more winters you have endured, the more Alaskan you are. Often referred to as the “Last Frontier”, Alaska in many ways mirrors the American West of the nineteenth century: an endless, undeveloped space in which to stake one’s claim and live without interference – or at least that’s how Alaskans would like it to be. Since the late nineteenth century tens of thousands have been lured by the promise of wealth, first by gold and then by fishing, logging and most recently, oil. However, this has led to the marginalization of Alaska’s 100,000 Native peoples, though Native corporations set up as a result of pre-oil boom land deals have increasing economic clout.

Travelling around Alaska still demands a spirit of adventure and to make the most of the state you need to enjoy striking out on your own and roughing it a bit. Binoculars are an absolute must, as is bug spray; the mosquito is referred to as “Alaska’s state bird” and only industrial-strength repellent keeps it away. On top of that, there’s the climate – though Alaska is far from the great big icebox people imagine. While winter temperatures of -40°F are commonplace in Fairbanks, the most touristed areas – the southeast and the Kenai Peninsula – enjoy a maritime climate (45–65°F in summer) similar to that of the Pacific Northwest, meaning much more rain (in some towns 180-plus inches per year) than snow. Remarkably, the summer temperature in the Interior often reaches 80°F.

Alaska is more expensive than most other states and major cities. There’s little budget accommodation and eating and drinking will set you back at least twenty percent more than in the Lower 48 (perhaps fifty percent in more remote regions). Still, experiencing Alaska on a low budget is possible though it requires planning and off-peak travel. From June to August room prices are crazy; May and September, when tariffs are relaxed and the weather only slightly chillier, are just as good times to go, and in April or October you’ll have the place to yourself, albeit with a smaller range of places to stay and eat. Ground transportation, despite the long distances, is reasonable, with backpacker shuttles between major centres, although it is often easier to combine a car rental with flights. Winter, when hotels drop their prices by as much as half, is becoming an increasingly popular time to visit, particularly for the dazzling aurora borealis.

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