On the move in Alaska
Way up north by plane, train and husky sled
EVENflying to Alaska is an adventure. Four hours after leaving Iceland, a glance out of the window reveals another ice land — of floes and glaciers, mountains and valleys, and endless miles of dazzling untouched snow.
Nor was this just a glimpse. On a flight that takes us as far as the Thule Air Base, 1200km north of the Arctic Circle, the wilderness of Greenland and then Alaska itself rolls past that window for hours.
And then as we near Anchorage, seven hours or so after leaving Reykjavik, Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in the US at 6194m, appears majestically to the north. This newish route is a real alternative to visiting Alaska by cruise (80 per cent of tourists arrive by ship).
Planes are the real story here and if you’re not on a cruise there is going to be a lot of flying, often in very small aeroplanes or helicopters. Alaska is a place whose whole existence owes much to flying; one in every 85 residents can fly a plane. A schoolteacher tells us that in one of her classes of teenagers only two students could drive but 11 had pilot’s licences.
Just outside Anchorage there is what seems to be a giant communal back garden behind a line of houses. It is only when you see the small planes parked like cars behind every home that you realise you are looking at a fully working airstrip.
Wetake off ourselves from Anchorage in a six-seater Cessna a couple of days later and our thrilling two-hour flight gives us a closer look at McKinley. It is hard not to feel like Indiana Jones as, in a series of swoops and climbs, we thread our way through the valleys of the lower slopes and then gloriously through the clouds and around the summit. Back on earth, Anchorage proves to be a pleasant, small American city, best seen by visitors as the place to start their wider exploration of the US’s largest state.
And so we join the Alaska Railroad to head through breathtaking wilderness to the port of Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. It is a tourist service, taking an impractical amount of time to travel a comparatively short distance (four hours from Anchorage to Seward) but the carriages are designed with sightseeing in mind and have viewing platforms outside. Weare just too early, in May, to see bears but we see porcupines, bald eagles and moose among the many creatures that have grown used to the daily intrusion of our stately train.
We clock up more wildlife at Seward. Although our grey whale cruise is a bit of a misnomer, with no grey whales making an appearance, we see two pods of killer whales cavorting, heedless of us, along the shoreline of Resurrection Bay (which is actually a fiord); sea lions basking in the weak spring sun; porpoises; a pair of sea otters, paddling along on their backs side by side; and many varieties of birds.
Then we come across some feeding humpback whales; one of which, sensing food beyond our boat, suddenly performs its characteristic ‘‘fluke’’ dive, whip- ping its mighty tail out of the water and plunging under our boat.
The next day we try something almost as exotic. Dog-sledding is a big sport in Alaska with the annual Iditarod Race (from March 1 next year) being something like an Alaskan cup final, starting and finishing before big crowds. The Seavey family has won three Iditarods and have been breeding the hardy, speedy dogs that pull the sleds for generations. A visit to their kennels not only allows you to see how these dogs live but provides the chance to take them for a sprint. Our team of 16 runs us round their training route with boundless enthusiasm.
Then back to Anchorage and on to Juneau, the state capital. Barely 30,000 live in this community squeezed between the mountains and the Gastineau Channel. Much of its business comes from the cruise ships that visit in season (four a day while we are there) but beyond the waterfront is a delightful town nestled against the mountainside, with the feel of a mini San Francisco.
We take the Mount Roberts Tramway 610m up the peak for a fabulous view of the city and the channel with the mountains beyond, before setting off for the Mendenhall glacier. This astonishing river of ice is one