First person: Getting my bearings in Alaska

Aug 12,2015

Alaska’s soaring mountain ranges, sparkling blue glaciers and thickly forested coastal areas make it one of the world’s most stunning places to holiday. But that picturesque terrain holds many secrets – some of them dangerous. Hannah Tattersall discovers a world quite different to the city she lives in.

We're stuck on a minibus in the middle of Denali National Park and there's a large grizzly bear crawling casually towards us. The windows have been snapped shut, but not before each and every one of us grabbed our cameras to take full advantage of this amazing photo opp. For the non-Americans among us – I’m travelling with a fellow Australian – a bear sighting is a serious thrill. Even for the locals who've ventured across the country to discover their 49th state, this is not an everyday experience.

McNeil River, south of Lake Clark National Park. Photo by Julie Dodds

But when it comes to these huge, brown creatures, delight can quickly turn to despair. Our attention is now out the back windows of the bus, on a poor young couple scrambling up the hill towards their car. Most of my bus companions have read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild about the young man who died while living out in the Alaskan wilderness. Our Tundra Wilderness Tour operator has also just told us an alarming story about a park visitor who got up close and personal with a bear the year before: all that remained was his camera and a roll of film revealing close-ups of angry bear faces.

Land of diverse terrain

These stories are intrinsic to the wild and stubborn state of Alaska. Known for its diverse terrain – soaring mountain ranges, sparkling blue glaciers and thickly forested coastal areas where wild bears and caribou roam – it's a place as stunning and picturesque as it is riddled with danger. Needless to say, that clambering couple did make it back to their car in one piece, although there's no denying they were given a scare: those bears in the park are hungry.

I’ve wanted to visit Alaska since watching the TV show Northern Exposure as a child and hearing the stories of friends who’ve travelled and lived here. Aside from moose spotting on the roads, many come to see – and climb – America’s tallest peak, Mount McKinley. Farther up the road, our busload of weary sightseers becomes part of the 30 per cent of visitors lucky enough to catch a clear glimpse of it through the clouds.

Mount McKinley

Literary appeal

For me, this is as much a literary sojourn as it is a trip about uncovering natural beauty. As a writer living in New York, I’ve become accustomed to tall buildings, grey streets and confined spaces. The rugged terrain of Alaska that has tempted countless authors and inspired numerous books, poems and stories of adventure also appeals to me.

On this particular land and sea tour, operated by Holland America, we're tracking the same path as the settlers struck by gold fever in 1897, discovering books and poetry written along the way, from Into the Wild to Jack London’s White Fang and the beautifully photographed Klondike by journalist and author, Pierre Berton.

Where to start

We began in Anchorage, Alaska’s most populated city and a colourful port town, which turns 100 years old this year. It’s a great base from which to explore the state, with many hotels to choose from, including newly refurbished The Lakefront Anchorage, nestled on the shores of Lake Spenard and Lake Hood. From there we boarded the McKinley Explorer train, where we journeyed by terrain that is fertile ground for moose, wolves, caribou, foxes and wild flora.

The Lakefront Anchorage hotel is the official host of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race – one of Alaska’s biggest events – and in Denali I spent an evening with musher, Bill, and dog handler, Arielle, who raise and train some of the state’s fastest canines. As puppies they are gorgeous – and one of the only animals I come across that I feel comfortable getting close to.

From Denali National Park we follow the same route, in reverse, that more than 30,000 stampeders took in 1898 when gold fever struck the region, arriving in Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory. This pastel-hued town is steeped in literary history and filled with great bars and cafes selling moose, salmon and other local delicacies.

On a walking tour run by a Parks Canada docent dressed in period garb, we visit the original cottage of Robert Service who settled here and crafted poems about the Klondike Gold Rush. Our guide leads us through a trail lined with spruce and wild toadstools and we are encouraged to write our own poetry along the way. Later that evening I have the chance to sample a Sour Toe Cocktail at Sourdough Saloon – a shot of whiskey with a real human toe in it. I politely decline although many of my fellow travellers get a kick out of this local ritual (pun intended).

Sourdough Saloon's Sour Toe Cocktail. Photo by Hannah Tattersall

Cruising life

I finish my tour of Alaska and the Yukon on a four-day cruise from Skagway to Vancouver. Travelling by ship enables unrivalled access to the region’s coastal mountains, marine wildlife and quaint, hidden towns. Our days at sea are spent eagerly searching for whales, eagles, bears, moose, seals and seabirds, sipping hot pea soup while enormous glaciers beam and shine down at us through the sunlight.

Photo by Hannah Tattersall

In Skagway I embark on a Glacier Point Wilderness Safari, which has us jetting off in a 26-passenger expedition boat to a remote beach where a humble peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a far cry from the luxurious sight I’m about to behold. Davidson Glacier is blue and spectacular and I’m thrilled to have walked on it and tasted it!

Back on the ship we glide around Glacier Bay, floating beside iridescent formations shaped during the Little Ice Age. We sail by Ketchikan, the gateway to Misty Fjords National Monument and through the Inside Passage, an area encompassing a thousand islands, coves and bays.

I never felt further from the city life I’m used to in New York, but I’ve had the time of my life in Alaska.

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