Alaska: The last frontier

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This Monday sees the 50th anniversary of Alaska legally joining the US. But the largest state in the union is a world apart from the 'Lower 48', says Harriet O'Brien

The little black-and-white birds stood upright and bowed one after another as our boat passed.

Penguin-like, but in fact unrelated, these were murres or guillemots, and are genetically predisposed to meet and greet. Lined up along the ledge of an offshore rock, they looked absurdly like small waiters deferentially ushering us on to a formal event. Yet so, in effect, it turned out.

We rounded the rock and, wham: the tail of a humpback whale rose majestically from the water just yards from us. It remained silhouetted against the skyline for a few seconds, then the mighty mammal disappeared. Alaska appeared to be showing off that day, producing a remarkable theatre of sea creatures along with a finishing touch of early summer sunshine. Yet at the end of the boat trip a park ranger told me, with an annoying shrug, that my wildlife sightings were "just normal".

I was at the Kenai Peninsula, a thumb of land slightly bigger than Belgium that dangles into the Gulf of Alaska from Anchorage. The fjords of its eastern side shelter an astonishing quantity of wildlife and offer mesmerising outlooks over mountains and glaciers. A day's boat excursion here took me through Resurrection Bay and over to the little-visited Northwestern Glacier.

On board a small vessel such as ours, which carried about 50 people, you have an enormous advantage over the cruise ships that glide through some of these waters, in that you are able to get close to nature. Shortly after setting out, we passed island crags where horned and tufted puffins were nesting, the markings of their stripy beaks clearly visible.

A little later, we found ourselves amid a large pod of orcas, and then we had our first sighting of a humpback whale – with calf. We moved on past rocks draped with sleeping sea lions into the Northwestern Fjord. The great glacier at its end shimmered an intense shade of blue and we sailed close enough to see and hear boulders of ice thundering from it as the frozen river met the sea. Meanwhile, the still reaches of the fjord harboured seals and their pups serenely lying on drift ice.

But the most endearing creatures were the sea otters. The day before, I had passed a half dozen on my way across Resurrection Bay to Fox Island. They were floating on their backs, flipper feet turned up, front paws holding fish or wiping white, whiskery faces. The island is an hour's boat ride from the harbour town of Seward and a world away from its bustle. Bald eagles swoop across the bay here, and resident sea lions come out to play in the evenings. You see them from the island's wilderness lodge, which is positioned along the western shore, its scattered cabins and main building presenting spellbinding panoramas of sea and mountains.

Fine food was an unexpected bonus of a night here. That evening the resident chef had prepared scallops followed by seared salmon with dill potatoes and a final course of berry compôte.

Afterwards, we all sat on the sloping bay, the staff and seven guests skimming stones until late into the long, light night. Intense weather conditions have produced a shingle beach offering an abundant supply of flat stones perfectly shaped for skipping runs of five, 10 and more – depending on your throwing skills. The chef told me how the region's stone-skimming championship is held on the island every August. Despite the off-the-wall atmosphere, this is serious stuff: contestants come from far and wide and qualify in heats on the mainland.

Quite apart from taking in the wildlife that emerged so obligingly, I had come to Alaska to sample just such a spirit of gentle eccentricity. Half a century ago, on 30 June 1958, the legislation that made Alaska a US state was passed, adding it to the "Lower 48". A month before the anniversary, I had arrived to get a feel for how this wacky, dislocated 49th state had evolved.

Alaska is America's largest state, more than twice the size of next biggest, Texas, yet with a population about 35 times smaller (670,000 as opposed to 23,400,000). To the west it faces Russia, only 58 miles across the Bering Strait from Cape Prince of Wales. To the south and east it borders Canada's province of British Columbia and its territory of Yukon. It has no land connection with the rest of the US.

In many ways, the remoteness is reflected in the positioning of its tiny capital, Juneau, tucked away in the south within the Inside Passage. There is no road to this secluded centre: you reach Juneau by plane or boat. Fortunately, access to Alaska's biggest town, Anchorage, is rather easier.

This was my first port of call on a fly-drive trip that put wilderness areas within surprisingly easy reach. A workaday place of box-like buildings, Anchorage is enhanced by its mountain and sea setting – and also by the fact that it is home to the best museum in the state. The Anchorage Museum is a showcase of Alaskan culture from history to Native American art and modern oils of landscapes. A sleek new wing is under construction and when it opens next spring will display Native artworks that are at present held by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. But I didn't need such treasures to lure me: the second floor of the existing building is dedicated to the story of Alaska's people, from the traditional lives of Aleut, Tlingit, Inuit and more to the arrival of the Europeans and subsequent developments.

Here, you learn how the recent history of Alaska has been dominated by resources and the various rushes to extract them. First, fur. The earliest account of the region was written in the 1730s by Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer working for the Russian navy. Thereafter, the Russian fur trade was quickly established.

The first permanent Russian settlement was founded in the 1780s on Kodiak Island and Russian control continued until 1867 when Alaska was sold to the United States for $7.2m.

The fur trade carried on buoyantly, but it was gold that really put this vast region on the American map. The Gold Rush started in 1880, brought thousands to the area and earned Alaska the (continuing) reputation as America's final frontier. And the next big rush? Oil. In 1968 enormous deposits of the black gold were discovered in Prudhoe Bay in the far north. The problem of transport from the remote area was solved with the creation of the 800-mile Trans Alaska Pipeline System, which took only three years to build. A sample section is on display at the Anchorage Museum.

Disappointingly, the museum somewhat skirts the issue of the environment and oil. u

o Arguments continue to rage over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the north. Oil industry experts believe there is a huge reserve there, yet environmentalists protect it as a great pristine wilderness.

The Alaskan polar bear has, of course, become another big issue. The declaration of its endangered status earlier this year is regarded by some politicians as yet another legal offensive to stymie extraction of the state's resources.

It was only 10 years before the first big oil strike that Alaska was accorded state status. For more than 90 years, it had simply been a territory of the US, considered too sparsely populated and too wild to be granted the rights and responsibilities of self-government. Today, there is still a sense of otherness. And a sense of freedom, too. People from elsewhere in the States move here because there's such a spirit of liberation: anything goes. Laid back and out on a limb, Alaska has a curious affinity with Hawaii – which was granted statehood just after the enormous north-western state. There's a well-worn passage between the two, with many Alaskans escaping the cold dark months and heading off to Hawaiian sunshine. Even the humpback whales winter around those Pacific islands, returning when Alaska starts to unfreeze in May.

Other than a white coating across mountain ranges, the snow had melted from the Kenai Peninsula when I arrived, and spring flowers were starting to bloom. From Anchorage, I drove south-east, skirting the spectacular Chugach range and passing crystal-clear lakes and alpine valleys on the 127-mile road to Seward. Having watched whales, seals, otters and seabirds along the fjords there, I cut across the peninsula to the western shore.

First stop, Ninilchik. From the highway, this strung-out village looks unremarkable, but turn down Orthodox Avenue and you reach a little piece of Russia. Set on a hill above the main cluster of houses is a clapboard-clad Orthodox church with little onion domes. It was built in 1901 by Russian settlers who stayed on in Alaska after the sale to the US. Many of their descendants, known as "Old Believers", still live in the village, tracing their roots back to Grigorii Kvasnikoff, a missionary who arrived here from Kodiak Island in 1847.

There is even more community colour further down the coast. I was heading to the quirky town of Homer, creative capital of Alaska.

First impressions here are beguiling. Homer looks an average, bland town – albeit with the added advantage of a striking setting on Kachemak Bay. However, for Alaskans this is almost hallowed ground. Homer is a place of artists, sculptors, fisherfolk, independent thinkers, New Age healers and more. Step into one of the five galleries along Pioneer Avenue and you begin to catch the vibe. At Ptarmigan Arts, the showroom of a cooperative of about 40 local artists, I gazed at landscapes and watercolours of otters and then found myself gently drawn into a discussion about the shapes and relative merits of styles of corkscrew. I left to enthusiastic rejoinders that I should check out the local wine producer, Bear Creek, which makes Alaskan-style wine out of fruit. Its intriguing list includes Blueberry Mirlo; Raspberry Rossa and a slightly sweet Chardonnay-like Rhubarb label.

However, for most tourists the town's main attraction is Homer Spit. This appealingly bohemian area is about four miles from Homer proper. Set at the end of a bar of shingle, it comprises a busy little harbour and a series of charmingly ramshackle wooden buildings housing cafés, kayaking outfits and eclectic craft stores. My accommodation that evening was equally as engaging. Timber Bay Bed and Breakfast lies a few miles east of Homer and is reached along a stunningly pretty road where moose meander. Like many B&Bs in the area, it is a sideline business largely operated for the enjoyment of meeting people – and in this case also cooking gourmet breakfasts. My host was Don, a computer specialist from New York State. With his wife, Sharron, he had a lifelong dream of living in Alaska and finally made the move four years ago. They constructed their large, timber-frame home over about 12 months and now offer four guest rooms and an apartment. Their sitting room presents spellbinding views over Kachemak Bay to peaks and glaciers. From this vantage point, Don pointed out where I would be travelling the next day: west to Halibut Cove, "the most peaceful place on the planet", he said.

Accessible only by floatplane or boat, the tiny community of Halibut Cove is principally made up of artists and fishermen. Their wooden houses and jetties fringe an almost impossibly picturesque channel of clear water lying between an island and a remote stretch of mainland. There is a floating post office here, a floating espresso bar, a restaurant – the Saltry, and a boardwalk running past several art galleries. But best of all is Stillpoint Lodge.

From Homer harbour I was picked up by the lodge owners, Jan and Jim Thurgood, an artist and former pilot respectively. During the 40-minute boat crossing they explained how Stillpoint has been their labour of love, evolving to become an 11-cabin haven, the main lodge sited with great care so as to make the most of the extraordinary setting. As well as individual guests, yoga groups come here, parties of nuns, business executives in conference sessions – and they all tap into the spirit of calm, said Jan.

Stillpoint has a resident chef, a masseur, and two wildlife guides with whom I went hiking through bear country to nearby Grewingk Glacier. There is a host of other activities: you can go kayaking, take art classes and make boating trips. Or you can just do nothing at all. I spent a good hour simply looking out of Stillpoint's windows, watching eagles sweeping over the cove and up into the mountains. Alaska glowed magnificent, surreal, and hypnotic.

State lines: Alaska

Population 630,000
Area 82 times the size of Wales
Capital Juneau
Date in Union 3 January 1959
Flower Forget-me-not
Motto "North to the future"
Nickname The Last Frontier

Go wild in Alaska
By Harriet O'Brien

From puffins to polar bears, the 49th state's great range of wildlife is spread over a vast territory. South-east Alaska is said to be the best place for whale watching. Orcas and humpbacks are particularly common in the summer around the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound, as well as in waters near Juneau and Glacier Bay. Beluga whales can sometimes be seen between Juneau and Skagway. Harbour seals, Steller sea lions (increasingly endangered) and sea otters also frequent Prince William Sound and the fjords of the Kenai Peninsula. Puffins breed on coastal islands and headlands around south-eastern and southern Alaska as well as the Northern Aleutian chain. Bald eagles thrive across most of Alaska, but are perhaps most common in the area around Prince William Sound. The improbable-looking moose is also widespread in the state, although not in the far north. Great herds of caribou live across mainland Alaska, with the Denali National Park particularly well regarded for sightings. Black bears are common throughout the state south of the Brooks Range, and frequent towns as well as salmon rivers in southern Alaska. Coastal brown bears are fairly ubiquitous and famously inhabit Kodiak Island as well as areas along the Gulf of Alaska and the south-western shores. Inland brown bears, also known as grizzlies, frequent the salmon rivers of south-western Alaska and are often seen in the Denali National Park. Polar bears, now controversially regarded as a threatened species, live in the far north, particularly along the Arctic Ocean.

Travller's guide

Getting there

There are no direct flights from the UK to Anchorage. Northwest Airlines/KLM (08705 074 074; www.klm. com) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow via Detroit, Minneapolis or Seattle. German charter airline Condor (00 49 180 5 707202; www.condor. com) flies from Heathrow via Frankfurt in summer.

Staying there

Fox Island Wilderness Lodge is operated by Kenai Fjords Tours (001 877 777 4051; Overnight excursions start at $359 (£189) per person, which includes an hour's boat ride to Fox Island from Seward, half board accommodation and a tour of the Northwestern Fjord.

Timber Bay Bed & Breakfast, Fritz Creek, near Homer (001 907 235 3785; Doubles start at $72 (£38) in winter or $124 (£65) in summer.

Stillpoint Lodge, Halibut Cove, near Homer (001 907 296 2283; www.stillpoint Doubles start at $515 (£271), full board. Return boat trips from Homer cost $60 (£32) per person.

Visiting there

Anchorage Museum, 121 W Seventh Avenue, Anchorage (001 907 343 4326; www. Daily 9am-6pm; $8 ($4.20).

Kenai Fjords Tours (001 907 276 6249; www.kenaifjords. com) offers wildlife boat trips from Seward, including the Northwestern Fjord Tour, $159 (£84) per adult.

Bear Creek Winery, Bear Creek Drive, Homer (001 907 235 8484; www.bear Free tours 10am-6pm daily in summer.

Reading there

In Alaska, read The Great Land: how western America nearly became a Russian possession, by Jeremy Atiyah (Hart, £19.95). When Russians sighted Alaska in 1741, they called it the Great Land. "The central premise of this book is, at first sight, scarcely believable," says Simon Calder: "That the world's largest country was on the brink of extending its empire along America's Pacific shore, making San Francisco as Russian as St Petersburg..."

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