Have you ever wanted to be immersed in the wilderness? I’m not talking about the kind of wilderness that you find in the continental United States, with interstate traffic rushing by and a seven-eleven just down the corner. I mean Alaska, the last frontier. With an area one-fifth the size of the lower 48 states and a population less than your average sized city, Alaska has more wildernesses that it knows what to do with.
For those with time on their hands and an adventurous spirit, driving the Alaska Highway can be the trip of a lifetime. Winding through countless miles of Northern boreal forest, the trip from the United States, through Canada and into Alaska can take anywhere from four to fourteen days. For those looking to head north as fast as possible, the fully paved highway can be driven in a matter of days. But the real treat is for those whose philosophy runs more along the lines of “it is not the destination, but the journey that is important.” An extended RV or camping road trip up the Alaska Highway can be immensely rewarding. For those who linger, the days can be filled with wildlife, hot springs and interesting characters.
However, the word “day” can be misleading, since the further north you go, the longer the sun stays above the horizon. In fact, by June, most of Alaska is bathed in almost continuous sunlight. Above the Arctic Circle the sun never sets, while in the rest of the state, the sun dips below the horizon for an hour or two of twilight before rising again for another 22 hour day.
So summer is the time to visit Alaska, unless it’s the Northern Lights you’re after. If you are willing to brave subzero temperatures, you might be treated to the Aurora Borealis, the effect seen when a stream of solar particles interacts with the upper atmosphere to produce a shimmering curtain of phosphorescent lights dancing in the nighttime sky. The “shows” can be magnificent, with greens melting into reds and purples across a canvass of stars.
You probably won’t see the Northern Lights in June or July when the sky never darkens, but you may be treated to wildlife, both large and small. Wildlife ranges in size from tiny rabbits to massive moose and caribou. And if you’re not lucky to see these animals in the wild, the University of Alaska Fairbanks runs a large animal research station, where they have herds of caribou and musk oxen. You can view these amazing animals from afar, or take a closer look on a daily tour.
Fairbanks proper is a small town that developed because of one item. Gold! A stampede of miners flooded the area one hundred years ago, and many of them never left. Today this legacy remains in the both spirit and fact. There are several historic gold camps and dredges, or, if you want to see the real thing, the Fort Knox Gold Mine, just twenty miles north of Fairbanks, is the largest working gold mine in America. Tours are run through the machinery of this complex operation.
Fairbanks is the largest of several towns nestled in the sprawling forests of the interior. North Pole, where each yuletide tens of thousands of children’s letters to Santa are sent lies a few miles away. Heading North, East and West are hot springs that have developed into small centers of relaxation. South is Denali National Park, home to North America’s highest peak, Mt. McKinley, at an imposing 20,320 ft above sea level. And if you want to get that high, but without the work, then a small plane charter is your best bet. Flying with an expert bush pilot above Alaska gives you the chance to see the scale of the 49th state. From the air, forests, rivers and mountains stretch to the horizon in every direction. Seeing such an imposing wilderness, you’ll truly understand why this state is called the Great Land.