8 Reasons Why I Returned To Alaska
"I remember the first time I saw Denali, I actually giggled. I am a grown man with a big red beard and I giggled. It’s something that stays with you forever."
I know international travel is so hot right now, but there is a place in the states that must be at the top of your “to-do” list if you haven’t already been there. If you have been there, it’s probably at the top of your “must-go-back” list. A place so big you will never be able to explore it all. Where headlamps get left at home in the summer, and if there is a geomagnetic storm brewing in the fall, winter, or spring, you may not need it then either. A place where the landscape is so big it either inspires you or scares the shit out of you...and sometimes both. It’s one of the few places on earth where animals still roam the earth en masse. It’s home to “The Mountain.” The best part is if you are from the states, you can leave your passport at home. If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m talking about Alaska.
1. The Light
When people ask me, “What is your favorite park about Alaska?” I immediately think of the light. Growing up in Florida, I didn’t really understand the whole solstice thing or that the length of days changed. When I moved to Alaska, that changed. The low-angle light makes for great photography and sunrises and sunsets last at least an hour. In the summer, they blend together to make a 2-3 hour-long event.
While I consider myself a “pro-tree” person, I would almost always prefer to hike above treeline. Since treeline is dictated by average year-round temperature, it’s around 3500 ft. That translates to loads of terrain where you can see for miles. There usually aren’t trails, but it doesn’t matter because walking on tundra is a dream. Most importantly, it's where I am able to take part in one of my favorite pastimes. Two words: Tundra. Naps.
I was first exposed to glaciers as a ranger in Glacier National Park. I studied and learned about them, how they shape the landscape. But it took me seeing my first Alaskan glacier to “get it". I had no words. Seeing ice calving off into the ocean one house-sized chunk after the other is just awe-inspiring.
I have seen more wildlife in Alaska than I could ever count. It’s the place where I had a lynx living under my house, a wolf howl 6 feet away from my car, and a bear so close we were only separated by my living room window. It peeked in the window when I was on the couch and scared both of us half to death as we made eye contact.
I have seen my fair share of aurora in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Canada, but the further north you go, the more intense it can become. I have seen aurora so bright that we were able to cross country ski on a moonless night without headlamps. Just keep in mind that during the summer it doesn’t get dark enough to see the lights.
Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas and has less than 750K people. Opportunities for solitude are everywhere. The biggest National Park in the lower 48 is Death Valley at 3.7 million acres. In Alaska, places like Katmai, Lake Clark, Denali, Gates of the Arctic, are all bigger than Death Valley. The biggest is Wrangell-St. Elias at 13.17 M acres. In two summers of hiking in Denali, nearly 400 miles, I saw less than 10 people.
Not only are the mountains in Alaska high, they are surrounded by lowlands. This makes for some of the most dramatic relief on the planet. North America’s tallest peak, Denali a.k.a “The Mountain,” has nearly 18K ft of vertical relief when viewed from Wonder Lake. Pictures DON’T do it justice. I remember the first time I saw it, I actually giggled. I am a grown man with a big red beard and I giggled. It’s something that stays with you forever.
8. The People
One of the most spectacular things about AK are the people. They are connected to the land. People catch salmon and halibut and will barter it for other wild game like moose, caribou, and Dall sheep. They have gardens in the summer, gather blueberries in the fall, and live off what they have grown and harvested in the winter. They are interesting, some say quirky. But they have amazing personal stories. Listening to them is a reminder about what humans are capable of, and what really matters most in life.
All photos taken by Jacob W. Frank
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.