What is it that summarises the spirit of Alaska and the Yukon for me? Perhaps the scenery, the wildlife, the people or its history, In fact it’s all these things but two things really stood out for me.
The first thing is just how naturally beautiful Alaska and the Yukon really are – every corner we turned seemed to present another view that made me say “Wow!”. It was sometimes a wilderness landscape, at other times a glacier, and then a coastal view with a backdrop of snow covered mountains. It’s a stunningly beautiful natural wilderness that can be both hostile as well as creating great opportunities.
The second thing was the challenge and hardship faced by the people who live in such a remote place. We didn’t even see the western half of Alaska where there are no roads and the only way to get to remote communities is by bush plane. (one in five Alaskans has a pilots licence). Even in the eastern half where we could drive, small groups of people live in tiny communities separated by miles of uninhabited land. The entire Yukon for example, has a total population of 35,000 people, yet 25,000 of them live in the capital city of Whitehorse. Everything that they need has to be transported from somewhere else. The temperatures in many places that we visited can get as low as -50C in winter.
The original inhabitants – Athabaskan Indians and Inuits took care of the environment here. They were hunters and gatherers who relied on nature to survive. The Yukon and Klondike gold rushes of the 1890’s saw thousands of non indigenous people arrive, create settlements and treat the landscape with disrespect as they searched for gold. World War Two was a time of opening up the territory with the urgent construction of roads, tunnels and military bases to defend America from the threat of Japanese invasion, as well as to provide supplies to its Russian Ally. Then in the 1970’s a great environmental challenge arose with the discovery of oil in the Arctic Ocean and the construction of an enormous pipeline that crosses the entire state of Alaska from north to south in order to meet America’s hunger for petroleum products. Alaska is a young state with a dynamic past and people are optimistic about its future.
Climate change is apparent, although it can only be seen over a longer term. When you look at a lake or mountain, you can’t tell whether it has changed or not because you weren’t there in the past to see it. However, I had been to the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau, in 2003 and was able to compare a photo that I took then wirth one that I took on this trip. If you compare my first photo from 2003 with the second one from this trip, you can see the difference in the amount of ice over the last 13 years. How much of this is human caused v’s just mother nature doing work is too hard for me to tell.
This panorama that I took way up above the Arctic Circle typifies much of how I see Alaska. The mountains of the Brooks Range present a focal point of Alaska’s beautiful scenery while the pipeline provides a reminder of the endeavours of man in a very harsh environment. The surrounding wilderness provides a home to many various kinds wildlife that have adapted to its harsh conditions over millennia. Many people in Alaska are subsistence hunters and still rely on them for food.
I took the next photo of the trip meter on our rental car when I returned it at Whitehorse. Over 25 days of driving we had covered 3821 miles (6190 kms) without any incident. Our total driving time amounted to 107 hours, 48 minutes (the counter only went up to 99 hours). We drove on most of the available highways, or part of them. Many are well made bitumen roads, but some need careful driving as they are unmade or quite damaged by the frost and snow. Others need very special care as they are windy, narrow and slippery. There were a few times that I really appreciated the 4WD capability of your Jeep Cherokee. The roads shaded in green show the route we followed.
Well, I think that we did well on this trip. We saw some remarkable sights and had some interesting experiences. We met many fine people and had some interesting conversations. We might have not always liked the food (Hamburgers with Fries, alternated sometimes by Fries with Hamburgers) and the enormous serves were always far too much for us. However, we never went hungry and we could always find a glass of wine to have with our meal.
All we need to do now is think up our next adventure and start planning!