This is a guest post by Jesse Hasup, an adventure traveler/photographer based in Alaska.
I moved to Alaska for a four month long summer job. That was six years ago. This is a common story amongst the many transplants in Alaska; a temporary visit opens your eyes to one of the most spectacular places on earth, and you never leave.
It certainly has its drawbacks, but what makes Alaska special quickly gets under your skin, whether its the continuous superlative landscapes, or the near daily breathtaking wildlife encounters. Soon, the thought of living anywhere else seems impossible.
I don’t pretend to be an absolute expert. The sheer scale of Alaska is nearly incomprehensible, most of it not connected to the road system. The distances are vast, the logistics expensive, but its a land worth spending years exploring.
When I moved to Alaska I settled in Juneau, in the Southeast panhandle. Despite being the state capital, it is only accessible by boat or plane. I was blown away. Centuries old, hundred meter tall trees creak and crack in the breeze. They carpet epic mountains erupting out of the sea, cut through by massive glaciers.
The forests are filled with black and brown bears, the seas with humpbacks and orcas, rivers and creeks choked with thousands of salmon on their seasonal runs.
The Tongass National Forest, making up most of Southeast Alaska, a rainforest. The coastal climate means it stays temperate. At sea level, much of the precipitation is rain even in winter (not necessarily the case higher up). Weather can be nasty, but I’ll take a nice day there over anywhere else on the planet.
Living in Alaska is a blast; endless hiking trails and beach bonfires. The archipelago protecting the waterways from the harsh North Pacific and Gulf of Alaska means the region served as the historic entry to Alaska, from ambitious gold prospectors to naturalist John Muir. Today this route is served by the Alaska Marine Highway System.
An insider’s tip to explore Southeast AK, is to use these ferries. Gorgeous scenery, wildlife, interesting and hospitable characters onboard, makes it an excellent way to travel to the isolated communities, Glacier Bay National Park, and beyond.
The last stop on the ferry is Haines. Haines is a hidden gem of a town if I have ever found one. Site of the outrageously fun Southeast Alaska State fair each summer, its a gorgeous fishing town, a heli-skiing mecca, and artist community. More importantly, the end of the road system connecting you back to civilization.
I made this trip when moving to my new home. Driving along the Chilkat River, up and over the pass, takes you into Canada. A 15 minute stretch of British Columbia, and then into the Yukon.
This wall of mountains are what keeps coastal areas wet and temperate. Now you are in the Interior, where winter temperatures plunge to -60 (both Fahrenheit and Celsius).
You soon join the AlCan Highway which skirts along the borders of the Canadian Kluane National Park, contiguous with Glacier Bay and Wrangell St Elias, forming by far the largest wilderness area in the world.
Driving this highway in winter is an experience. You need to keep survival gear in your car, not your trunk, as if you are upside down in a ditch and can’t get to it, your as good as dead.
It took me two full days to get to Anchorage from Haines (1,200 km). In the summer, you see wildlife everywhere you look. In the winter, they are more rare, but I did slow down for wolves and moose. There were many photo ops I saw that I wanted to capture, but couldn’t slam on the breaks lest I skid on ice and land in a ditch.
This meant many a hundred meter backtrack for the right angle, which I often underestimated. Sometimes I would not bundle up appropriately.
What does such extreme cold feel like? The cold doesn’t hit you at once. -30 feel like 0 at first. I don’t think our nerves have evolved to tell the difference.
What does happen though, is that within minutes, your fingers, wrists, legs, all just lock up on you. Wobbling back to the car, I had to pry my fingers open to get back to the heat inside. It is mind boggling that Natives survived and thrived here for millennia.
Crossing the border and making it back over a pass you escape the interior and arrive in Southcentral Alaska, location of the state’s largest city, Anchorage, population 300,000, and most accessible hub of travel. If someone were to plan an Alaskan trip, this would be a natural entry and exit point.
On my recent journey, I turned south, to my new hometown in the Kenai Peninsula. But had I turned north, I would make it to Alaska’s superlative of superlatives; Denali National Park.
Home to North America’s tallest peak, the national park is beyond spectacular. It’s latitude and topography mean that only the heartiest trees grow here, often closely flanking rivers and streams. The bushes that drape the landscape don’t obstruct your views. You are rewarded with sweeping vistas of massive glacially carved valleys that stretch on forever.
Backpacking here is something else. I went alone, relatively new to the area, looking to test my metal on my first real backcountry trip. There is one road into the park, open to the public only by lottery at the end of the season. The park service offers buses in, and if you sign up and take the proper safety training, you are allotted a 120 square km plot of land to yourself. All yours.
No one else in the entire area. So after a bus ride with bear, moose, sheep, caribou and wolf sightings, at your request, they pull over, drop you off, and thats it. When the diesel engine rounds the next bend, all you hear is a rushing stream, the blowing wind.
You are alone.
There are no trails. If you see one, that means too many animals have been trampling the vegetation; get off of it. The solitude is not as relaxing as it may seem. Smelling bears around every corner, waking up with grizzly tracks surrounding my tent, I spent the entire time terrified, belting out songs to the wilderness to scare away the bears, and drinking whiskey so I could sleep.
Insider tip: a trip at the end of August, beginning of September will have less crowds, and the best fall colors you will ever see.
There is so much more of Alaska to cover. Having just moved to a new region, I will have to return for more photography and to give advice to others. I am looking forward to living on the road system, in the Kenai where I am based, where endless adventures abound. Follow along with me at my website HasupAdventure
That’s me in the picture below -Jesse Hasup