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This is the first of several pages on Alaska. I was just there (May-June 2017) for just over three weeks with a tour group** and then touring/birding with Fran. It was grand – In the Southeast we traveled from Sitka to Petersburg to Juneau and then after the tour, I flew north to spend time out on the Seward Peninsula (Nome), then down to the Denali (Mount McKinley) area, and finally to the very beautiful and livable Kenai Peninsula. The next ten blogs or so will speak to the various areas of this great state and to the geology, birds, mammals, and scenery of the region.
Sitka Spruce dominate the coastal forest along Alaska’s Southeast peninsula. There are mountains to the east which keep Alaska and western Canada quite separate. There are only three passes through the mountains and only one sort of main road. Most of the Southeast is serviced by ferry lines and float planes. But that only enhances the remote feeling that the state exudes.
Alaska is certainly a state of majesty. The superlatives are unending; 3,000 rivers, 3 million lakes, 34,000 miles of coastline*, 425 times the size of Rhode Island and with a lake as large as Connecticut. But for many it is the scenery and wildlife that compels a visit. The state encompasses about half of the west coast Canada and then runs northward with about one-third of Alaska inside the Arctic Circle. Ever drive across Texas; Alaska is twice as large. As a matter of fact it is a bit larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined. Seventeen of North America’s tallest mountains are in Alaska.
*The 34,000 includes islands; the mainland coastline is about 6,600 miles.
It is our least densely populated state – if Manhattan were populated the same way there would only be 28 people on that island. In the northern city of Barrow the longest night is 67 days and the longest (summer) day is 82 days. The temps have ranged from -80 to +100. Juneau is accessible by road. Neither is the states fourth largest town, Nome. Anchorage has just under 300,000 people, Fairbanks is next with about 31,000. No other town has 10,000 people. There are several indigenous groups living in Alaska; about 15% of the population is either Indian or Native Alaskan.
Most of the coastline is forested. When you read about bears, and there are a lot of them in these woodlands, feeding in “meadows” in the spring it usually refers to a small silt bank along the edge of the water that is growing grasses and flowers. There are very few large areas of grasslands that typically are conjured up by the world meadow. There are areas of young second-growth (regeneration) where forest clearing/harvesting has taken place.
The Southeast, as the lower section is referred to, is rather mild and forested with a temperate rain forest. It is islands, mountains, and forests. It is also where the glaciers begin. The south central portion has Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley; a quite livable part of the state, though winters can be rather cold and dark. Heading north along the coast there are few towns and very few people. This area is tundra. both dry and wet, and often underlain with permafrost. There is no soil and hence no opportunity for agriculture. The huge central and northern expanse of the state was never glaciated and is almost all tundra where a tree is any woody plant and no woody plants grow waist high.
I had the good fortune to work with the National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions boat Sea Bird in the Southeast. The naturalists on board were very energetic and excited. There were divers looking at the sea life, botanists looking at the extensive green stuff, water and ice people looking at rain/rivers/glaciers/and floating ice, and (of course) birders and geologists looking at the things that they are interested in. Most importantly, it was then shown and/or explained to our guests.
**I often work for Smithsonian Journeys, the Smithsonian Institution’s travel program. In the case of Alaska, we often use National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions as a mechanism for our outings. They offer a wide range of travel opportunities and we are pleased to be able to cooperate with them in various spots around the globe.