IT’S BETWEEN AN CHORAGE AND THE VAST frozen farmland around Palmer that the sheer immensity of Alaska hits us. The Glenn Highway, running north-east from the city, curves around the icy, glacier-fed waterway of the Knik Arm before entering the wide delta of Eklutna Flats, backed by mountains as white as fine china. The railroad runs parallel to us, crossing the Matanuska River on a steel bridge so dwarfed by its surroundings it could be an old Hornby model. I already know the facts: more than twice as big as Texas, the Last Frontier state has more coastline than the rest of the US coastal states put together, as well as the tallest peak in North America, plus active volcanoes and glaciers and three million lakes. But statistics can’t prepare you for the almost planetary proportions of the place.
My girlfriend Deryn and I pull over and step out into the frigid silence. Alaska is thrillingly empty – 1.3 people per square mile, less than a quarter of Wyoming’s population density. A yellow-and-blue locomotive towing a long line of freight wagons rumbles into view from the north, the harmonica wail of its whistle sounding a warning to a few wandering moose. It’s as if I’m in a film shot in CinemaScope, and at any moment the director will yell ‘Cut!’ and the vast scenery will be carted off to reveal a studio lot.
Half a dozen years ago, a childhood friend from Teesside married an Alaskan bush pilot and went to live in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, a couple of hours north of the city on the road to Denali National Park. ‘Don’t come in the summer,’ she warned. ‘There are swarms of flies and hordes of tourists. Come at the start of March when there’s tons of snow, the nights are lighter, and the cold won’t kill you. That’s when you’ll see the real Alaska.’
On the first Saturday in March, Deryn and I find ourselves in Anchorage, standing next to a bronze statue of Teesside’s most famous son, the explorer Captain James Cook. We’re looking out across the gelid, glimmering inlet he charted in 1780 and named in his honour, and towards Denali; at 20,000-plus feet, it’s visible 175 miles away on the snowy horizon. By the time Cook got to Anchorage, Vitus Bering – a Dane employed by the Tsar of Russia – had charted the southern Alaskan coast, opening up the region to Russian fur traders. Cook, though, was seeking a prize far greater than sea-otter and marmot pelts – the elusive Northwest Passage and the £20,000 reward offered by the British Admiralty for venturing through it. He was not the first to come to Alaska seeking fortune, nor would he be the last. Like many, he was thwarted – turned back by freezing seas, his crew close to mutiny.
This morning there’s a rumble of trucks bringing in teams of huskies for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod, the world-famous sled-dog race: a gruelling, 1,000-mile tundra-like trek between Willow and Nome, following a trail forged by the Inupiaq, and later used by coal and gold miners. It’s Alaska’s answer to the Tour de France.
On the advice of a kindly taxi driver whose eyes twinkle almost as much as the gold in her teeth as she speeds over the slushy roads, we breakfast at Gwennie’s, where the frontier kitsch – gold-and-black eagle-print wallpaper; stuffed moose, musk-ox and bear heads; black-and-white photographs of bygone mushing teams – is so vintage it’s almost tasteful. We feast on skyscraper stacks of pancakes and birch syrup, surrounded by men in 50 shades of plaid and furry flap-eared hats that look like they might jump down from their heads and run off with our bacon.
It’s the final weekend of the Anchorage Fur Rondy, a 10-day festival that once marked the trappers’ annual return from the lonely winter season in the wilderness, and the state’s largest city is in a carnival mood. There’s a hold’em poker competition, a miners-and-trappers ball, and something called the Cornhole Ice Breaker Tourney, not to mention Native Alaskan blanket tossing and a herd of several hundred reindeer running down the main shopping street past JC Penney.
‘Come in! I’m back in the kitchen cooking a bear,’ my friend calls out when we knock on her front door. She’s always had a whimsical sense of humour, but it turns out she’s not joking. It was shot by a friend, but this is not a whole bear, obviously – just a fillet. We eat it braised, with purple-skinned potatoes and red cabbage. It’s black bear – apparently brown bear is tough and best turned into sausages – an omnivore that yields lean, flaky meat with a flavour similar to wild boar.
A LOCOMOTIVE RUMBLES INTO VIEW, THE HARMONICA WAIL OF ITS WHISTLE SOUNDING A WARNING TO A FEW WANDERING MOOSE
The start of the Iditarod is on Willow Lake. The next morning, we arrive fortified by biscuits with reindeer sausage and gravy from the elementary school PTA’s all-you-can-eat breakfast spread. Crowds have assembled around three-time runner-up and local hero DeeDee Jonrowe, conspicuous for her Barbie-pink pick-up truck with her name sprayed on in silver. Although historically men outnumbered women here, a shared frontier-minded pluck has shaped a kind of survivalist egalitarianism (a bill establishing women’s suffrage was the first passed by the Alaska legislature). ‘I could shoot and dress a deer by the age of 10 and fly a plane at 14,’ a petite blonde tells me at a barbecue as she flips a moose burger into a bun. It sounds like a line from a country song, but the set to her jaw leaves you in no doubt it’s true. For the first time since our arrival, the sun comes out. The temperature is half a dozen degrees below zero; moisture freezes in the air and falls down on us like a glitter shower. Across the frozen lake, a bald eagle wings through the crystal blue, the white tips of its eight-foot wingspan fluttering subtly on the thermal currents.
The following day my friend’s husband takes me for a joyride in his two-seater, a red-and-yellow 1944 Aeronca Chief. We fly north over the Matanuska-Susitna Valley for 30 miles towards the town of Talkeetna and Mount Denali. We loop around the extraordinary Goose Creek Tower – a 185ft stack of log cabins of diminishing size built by an eccentric Alaskan attorney, which rises above the pines and spruce like a stack of cuckoo clocks. Then we wheel over Hatcher Pass before plunging low over the frozen Susitna River, as moose tilt their hat-rack antlers and glance lugubriously up at us from the snow-spattered undergrowth.
Talkeetna (population 876) has a true frontier feel and a cheerful familiarity – it was the inspiration for Cicely, the setting for the Nineties comedy series Northern Exposure and its cast of lovably eccentric characters (the show was actually filmed in Washington State). The town’s Fairview Inn claims to be the only pub on the planet to have killed an American president, although the story is likely apocryphal: Warren G Harding ate a crab supper there in 1923 and died a week or so later, though not from food poisoning. There’s a sign outside listing the house rules: ‘No drugs, weapons, fighting or arguing about closing time.’ We sit at the bar sipping Bulleit bourbon while guessing a probable date and time when the ice will break on the Tanana River so we can enter the Nenana Ice Classic contest (the prize is $350,000).
We soon fall into conversation with a bearded giant and former gold prospector named Grog (almost everyone in Alaska is known by their nickname – or so the bartender in Homer’s Salty Dawg Saloon explains later), whose belly laugh rumbles like an underground explosion. His spirited partner, Elaine, tells us she came to Talkeetna from Michigan a decade earlier to take part in the town’s Wilderness Woman Contest, impressing the judges with her ability to keep a perimeter fire of driftwood burning through the night to ward off bears. Later, at the Bachelor Auction, Grog caught her eye and romance blossomed.
The Fairview has rooms, but we stay across Main Street at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, a 1914 timber building. In the dining room, white plank walls are hung with mountaineering charts and multi-coloured flags from the various expeditions that have used it as a base for tackling Mounts Denali and Foraker. There are two blackboard menus: ‘Breakfast’ and ‘Not Breakfast’. ‘The only bad thing about the Roadhouse,’ the bartender had warned us, ‘is that bakery. When the smell of that fresh sourdough comes wafting up the stairs at 4am, it wakes you up and makes it damn hard to get back to sleep.’ She’s not wrong. On our first morning we’re downstairs at 7.45am, 15 minutes before service begins. We gorge on just-baked cinnamon rolls, sourdough hotcakes the size of dustbin lids and crispy, maple-cured bacon. Everything in Alaska comes with bacon – the Spenard Roadhouse in Anchorage, which serves high-quality, hipster versions of American comfort food, even has a Bacon of the Month.
A few guests are here to follow the Iditarod, others are young, rangy cross-country skiers or middle-aged snowmobilers. There’s a hostel-like feel, a cheerful interaction between guests stoked by a feeling of shared adventure. An elderly Dutchman tells us he’s been coming to The Roadhouse for nearly 40 years. No longer a climber or skier, he returns ‘just to catch up with all the friends I made in the past’. Nursing a third chunky mug of strong coffee in the cosy warmth of the dining room, infused with the scents of fresh bread and pitch pine, and snow falling softly outside, I see why he does. There’s a timeless quality here, a sense of being cut off from the world and yet firmly entrenched in it.
On our final evening in Talkeetna, we dine on reindeer meatloaf and slices of peanut-butter pie at the Denali Brewpub. When we step outside it’s a crystal-clear night, –18°C. Deryn stays in by the cast-iron stove while I’m determined to walk to the end of Main Street, away from the Wild West-style red-timber frontages of Nagley’s Store and the West Rib Pub & Grill, and out onto the frozen river for a view of Denali by moonlight. I take a trampled path alongside birch trees bowed into arches under the weight of snow and soon find myself on the ice. The silence is so total it wraps around you like a heavy fleece, and the distant mountains are a wide stripe of glowing white between pale-grey panels of plain and sky; a thinner vertical streak of black spruce trees seems perfectly placed. Put a frame around it and it could be Rothko.
The view of Denali appears unchanged and unchangeable, yet things are more unstable than they appear. ‘Bears, moose, earthquakes, lightning, snowstorms, wildfires – Alaska is always gonna find some way to kill you,’ a gnarled young man in a feed-store baseball cap had remarked cheerily to us in the Fairview. The threats are increasingly significant. Over the past two decades Alaskan summers have grown hotter and drier – the state is heating up two-and-a-half times faster than what locals refer to, with some contempt, as ‘the lower 48’ (the contiguous states of the USA), nudged on by rapid loss of polar ice and escalating deforestation. Meanwhile, wildfires are more widespread and ferocious. Everywhere you see the blackened trunks of trees that have been caught in the wind-whipped blazes that destroy millions of acres of forest and dozens of homes each year. We live in an age where you no longer need to be an Old Testament prophet to envisage the world consumed by flame.
THE MOUNTAINS ARE A STRIPE OF GLOWING WHITE BETWEEN PALE-GREY PANELS. PUT A FRAME AROUND IT AND IT COULD BE ROTHKO
At the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, Homer is a sprawling seaside town with weather-boarded buildings, galleries and bookstores, and a narrow spit that rolls out into the bay towards the peaks and icefields of Kachemak Bay State Park like a serpent’s tongue. In summer cruise ships dock here, the caravan parks are full to bursting, and restaurants and bars race to keep up with demand. But in March the town is quiet. We take long walks along deserted Bishop’s Beach and enjoy breakfasts of chocolate bread and coffee at Two Sisters Bakery that stretch effortlessly into lunch.
Homer is a hub of Alaska’s burgeoning local food movement, characterised by its brief growing season, indigenous game – and, of course, seafood. The town bills itself ‘the halibut fishing capital of the world’. The red, snow and king crab are enormous and tender; weathervane scallops, razor and geoduck clams, spot prawns, and wild salmon are ubiquitous. Chinook (king) and sockeye (red) are the most prized of the five salmon species that thrive in these waters – a thick fillet of the latter grilled over alder chips at Anchorage’s thrummingly busy Glacier Brewhouse is one of the best slabs of fish I’ve ever tasted. But the gastronomic highlight of our trip is the Jakolof Bay Oyster Co Truck, which pitches up at the Homer farmers’ market and passes out tinglingly fresh oysters.
Our log cabin in Homer is on a ridge above the town. We booked it for its views across Kachemak Bay to Grewingk Glacier, yet the snow falls so heavily for the first two days we can’t see past the driveway. But being shut in is equally uplifting. One morning we’re awakened by the shudder of a small earthquake – Alaska sits at the boundary of two tectonic plates – then, while we eat breakfast, a baby moose strolls past our window, groggy on its skinny legs as if shaken suddenly from a dream.
Sometimes the only way to get a clear view of things in Alaska is from the air, and quite often it’s the only way to travel to a place, too. When the snow finally stops, we catch the 11.20 Smokey Bay Air flight to the old Russian trading settlement of Seldovia – like roughly 80 per cent of Alaskan settlements, it’s inaccessible by road. This explains why the state has three times more pilots per capita than anywhere else in the USA; non-commercial pilots learn to fly the way the rest of us learn to ride a bicycle.
We fly over the long Homer Spit and south down the coast, Poot Peak rising up to the east like the Paramount logo, before dropping down onto the narrow airstrip by the waters of the Seldovia Slough, which winds between pine trees like a strip of petrol-blue silk. ‘Turn right – it’s not a far walk into town,’ the pilot says, offloading boxes of fresh produce as we disembark.
We pause on the steel bridge to admire the colourful wooden cabins that jut out on stilts over the still water, once home to fishermen who arrived in the 1920s for a short-lived herring boom. Woodsmoke curls up from burnished stovepipes into a sapphire sky. The tiny city of Seldovia is silent, save for the gruff, throaty cawing of a lonely raven. We walk up some snowy steps to the white-and-turquoise clapboard Russian-Orthodox church of St Nicholas overlooking the harbour.
From the late 17th century, Russian fur traders, lured by the abundant populations of sea otters, seals, mink, marmot, beaver and bear, set up outposts defended by Russian garrisons. There are Russian-Orthodox churches on the Kenai Peninsula, and communities of Old Believers (who split from the church over doctrinal differences in the late 1600s) can still be found in the villages of Nikolaevsk and Voznesenka. You’ll see the women shopping in Homer, distinguishable by their ankle-length skirts and bright, printed headscarves. To this day, in spite of decades of tension as neighbours across the Bering Strait, Russian is still widely spoken here.
Russia clung to Alaska until 1867, when the Tsar sold it to the USA for $7.2 million. Negotiated by Secretary of State William H Seward, after whom the town of Seward is named, the deal was thought to be so ludicrously inflated it was dubbed ‘Seward’s Folly’ – although after the discovery of gold and later oil (which generates 85 per cent of Alaska’s revenue, with an annual dividend paid to every citizen), it became clear it had been staggeringly cheap. Native Alaskans such as the Tlingit were never consulted, of course. A series of court cases and civil actions culminated in the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, granting the tribes 44 million acres and nearly a billion dollars for land taken by the government – arguably small compensation for having a country sold out from under them by someone who never owned it in the first place.
We’ve just passed the Russian cemetery when a car pulls over. The driver, the town postmaster, asks us if we need a lift. We’re soon jumbled inside with her dog on the way to Outside Beach, with instructions for finding the way back to Seldovia through woods of pine and spruce. The beach is dark, volcanic shale fringed by low, rocky cliffs. The snowy white Augustine volcano floats on a sea of glass. Looking out you feel as if you are standing on the edge of time itself, and for a moment it seems as likely that a Tsarist whaling ship, or Cook’s Endeavour, or a birch-bark canoe filled with Athabaskans will round the point – just as a buzzing motor launch eventually does, breaking the fragile silence and the spell of a place of eldritch and unfathomable beauty that’s grown self-conscious with its own evanescence.
‘EARTHQUAKES, LIGHTNING, SNOWSTORMS, WILDFIRES, BEARS–THIS PLACE IS ALWAYS GONNA FIND SOME WAY TO KILL YOU’
From Seldovia we take a taxi to Jakolof Bay, where a small boat collects us from a jetty surrounded by oyster beds. We scud off back to Homer, stopping at a tiny island to pick up a family from Anchorage who are building a cabin there – mother, father, two primary-school-age kids and a Labrador, all exuding pioneering wholesomeness. We help them offload their kit from the boat. ‘Going to be peaceful out there, no doubt,’ the skipper says. ‘Only thing that’ll wake you is the noise of those old humpback whales slapping their tails on the water.’