The USA has never had a huge pull for me, I’ve had my fill of Marvel comics turned into movies and presidential elections to feel that I don’t need anymore America in my life. But Alaska seems different. Physically separate from the main bulk of the country and a land of extremes – of midnight sun and noon-time darkness – life happens according to the laws of nature not to the laws of the country whose flag happens to be flying.
Living is based on the conditions outside: in the winter I imagine the locals hunker down with plenty of firewood, food, books and DVDs and wait for it to pass. But in the summer the Alaskans and we, the visiting tourists, enjoy the extra sunlight hours to walk through magnificent forests and stumble across impossibly beautiful lakes, clearly reflecting the majestic mountains above. Only to jump out of our skins at the slightest rustle or snap of a stick due to the onset of ‘bear-anoia’. Watching Revenant on the plane over was a bad idea.
The plan for our trip was to get away from the city of Anchorage as soon as possible despite being told that the ‘parking lot of Best Buy’ was the best place to see a moose. We made use of the late sunshine and drove an hour north east to Palmer, arriving as dusk was setting in at the mind-boggling time of 23.45. Our Air BnB was an idyllic cottage in a forest clearing and, as we pulled into the driveway, the Alpenglow was starting to appear on the mountain behind.
Our to-do list is well balanced between organised activities as well as allowing time in the schedule for me to suddenly stop the car and take a photograph. One place on the list was Whittier. An old Cold War base with its only entry/exit a single lane tunnel through a mountain. It is famous for the, now derelict, ‘city under one roof’. In the 1950’s, the US government provided all the necessary facilities and entertainment in one building so the residents wouldn’t have to venture outside in the harsh winter. The empty shell of the Buckner Building now stands as a monument to brutalist architecture and overlooks the rest of the town, now home to 200+ residents in another tower block a few streets away. This is all there is to do in Whittier, however, and once you have eaten at the only half decent place in town you can’t wait for the tunnel to open on your side so you can escape.
Our other list consisted of the wildlife we wanted to see. Thanks to an incredible cruise out of Seward we ticked it off almost entirely in a single day. Humpbacks, orcas, seals, sea lions, puffins, mountain goats, bald eagles, otters and a black bear on a distant beach all in one boat trip. It turns out we were fortunate enough to have been on one of the best trips our guide had ever been on. The only thing that had beaten it was a cruise he’d done in Juneau where he had seen a pack of orcas attack a lonely seal only for a humpback to steam through and pick the seal up on its back and take it to safety. Despite our disbelief and questions as to whether he’d mistaken a movie for reality, he stood by his story.
This left a moose and a brown bear still unseen. We were almost at the point of giving up and en route to exit a state park, when we popped over the crest of a hill and saw both in one go.
On the left side of the road was the moose and in the distance behind it was a brown mother bear with her two cubs. Sadly the bears wondered off after a few seconds before I could get my camera out but the moose dozily hung around until we lost interest before she did.
Alaska is an amazing place to visit, we left feeling that we had done and seen as much as we could for a week’s trip, but knowing that we had merely scratched the surface. – Simon Peel