Alaska is immensely rich in wildlife and remarkably diverse. Its coastline stretches over 5,000 miles (8,000 km), from the panhandle in the southeast, site of one of the world’s few remaining temperate rain forests, to the bold cliffs and thundering surf of the outer coast, and north to the arctic waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
The interior – expansive in scope and extreme in climate – holds its own enchantment: in summer the birds, flowers and across the tundra, but in winter the land withdraws into frigid, silent darkness. Few places remain in the world where this kind of wildness exists.
Alaska’s national park and wildlife refuges offer a superb introduction to these environments. Visiting just a few provides a taste of Alaska’s varied grandeur.
ISLANDS AND FORESTS
Only a few hours’ drive south of Anchorage, at the northern limit of the temperate rain forest, Prince William Sound is an explorer’s paradise. The sound can be accessed from Seward, Cordova, Whittier, and Valdez. At each of these centers, tour operators offer sightseeing flights and boat trips, and kayaks can be hired.
This is a place of verdant islands and massive glaciers, a wonderland of channels and backwaters, home to otters, Sitka black-tailed deer, brown bears, black bears, and foxes.
The water of the sound support salmon runs and rich stocks of halibut and sablefish. Harbor seals and northern sea lions feed on fish such as capelin and herring. Endangered populations of fin and humpback whales pass through seasonally, as do gray whales, recently taken off the endangered species list. Five pods of orcas, comprising about 90 animals, are resident here.
To the east, the Copper River Delta provides a staging ground for phenomenal flocks of dunlins and western sandpipers. Sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, and Aleutian terns all use these remote breeding grounds. The sound is home to over 3,000 bald eagles, as well as to shearwaters, kittiwakes, puffins, and marbled murrelets.
FJORDS AND GLACIERS
Nearby Kenai Fjords National Park presents the savage beauty of a land fresh from the carving forces of glaciers and the relentless pounding of the sea. The 300 square mile (780 km2) Harding Ice Field sits atop the southern Kenai Peninsula, its tremendous expanse of ice resulting from up to 600 inches (15,000 mm) of snow annually. Thirty glaciers flow seaward from the ice field, eight reaching the ocean. Many of these rivers of ice can be viewed on boat tours and hiking trips operating out of Seward.
In the late 1700s, a bountiful population of sea otters brought Russian and Aleut hunters here. Driven to the edge of extinction, the otters have now made a comeback. Kittiwakes, puffins, murres, and countless other seabirds fill the skies, while Steller’s sea lions, harbor seals, whales, and an armada of fish enliven the sea.
MOUNTAINS AND TUNDRA
Nowhere provides a better introduction to Alaska’s rugged interior than Denali National Park and Preserve. The crowning glory of the park’s 9,400 square miles (24,300 km2) is Mount Mckinley, known as Denali, or “the high one”, to the local Athapascan people. At 20,320 feet (6,200 m), this is the highest peak in North America. From the road, which runs east-west for 91 miles (147 km), 37 species of mammal and 159 species of bird can be seen. Cars are permitted up to the Savage River Bridge, beyond which only park buses may travel. Hikers may disembark from the bus at their discretion and board later for the return.
The park contains caribou, Dall sheep, foxes, grizzl bears, wolves, and wolverines. Golden eagles nest here in the greatest density per square mile know anywhere, and are joined by 17 other species of owl, hawk, and falcon. White and black spruce predominate in the forests, interspersed with cottonwood, birch, and aspen. In summer, the tundra explodes with flowers and berries.
THE BROOKS RANGE
Hardy adventures seeking a more extreme backcountry experience should head father north, beyond the Arctic Circle, to the wilderness that surrounds the Brooks Range.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, a rugged, roadless park covering over 1,300 square miles (3,400 km2), is named for the wide pass that lies between the peaks of Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags. Six wild rivers provide rafting opportunities, and the hiking is excellent, though no established trails exist.
The ecosystem here is a fragile one. Dwarf willow may take decades to rise a foot above the soil. Spruce and birch may be hundreds of years old but only inches in girth. Granite itself becomes brittle from repeated freezing and thawing. Grizzlies each require 100 square miles (259 km2) of territory. Herds of caribou, numbering close to a quarter of a million animals, winter to the south and calve farther north. Grizzly and black bears, caribou, Dall sheep, abd Wolves are also found here.
To the northeast, lies the sprawling Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the US’s largest refuge. Its 30,000 square miles (78,000 km2) encompass three geographical regions – the wide coastal plain, studded with marshes and lagoons; the eastern Brooks Range; and the boreal forest to the south.
About 135 bird species are to be found to the coastal plain. It also provides habitat for polar bears and arctic foxes, and is the calving ground for the 163,000 Porcupine caribou herd. The caribou migrate south to the forested lowlands of Canada for the winter.
There are seven great mountain ranges within the refuge. About 800 grizzly bears and 10,000 Dall sheep share this territory with large numbers of moose and wolves. Several rivers flow down the southern slops of the mountains and through the forests, including the Sheenjek, the Coleen, and the Porcupine.
Travelers must take a bush plane to the ANWR and then hike and camp in the backcountry. There are no roads or marked trails in the refuge, but the river rafting is unparalleled.