One-Man Towns, Eight Paved Highways, 129 Million Acres of Forest. Alaska? Naturally.

From the Arctic Circle to the shores of Kachemak Bay, a sporting guide to the wilds of the 49th state.

Jun 1, 1998
Outside Magazine

Contemplating the full reality of Alaska tends to catalyze a very specific physiological response. It's a phenomenon that Alexander Baranov, an early Russian trader who explored the coast, described as "terror and awe." What he was referring to, I think, is the landscape's ability to leave you pixilated, unhinged, at sea. Alaska, like most imaginary kingdoms, regards humans with primordial indifference. It unfurls itself to the horizon, looms heavenward, and poses questions that set the heart to pounding. To understand it, says John Haines, the state's masterly and curmudgeonly poet emeritus, requires that we "Look deeply into the wind-furrows of the grass, into the leaf-stilled water of pools. Think back through the silence... " Then again, don't think too much. Last year, Haines relocated to the more civilized climes of Montana. Said he could use a change.
For those who stay, the desire to wrestle Alaska into comprehensibility is irresistible. We festoon our walls with maps. We pore over digitized satellite photos. We brush our fingertips across topographics as if they were Braille. In desperation, we turn to the sacred catechism of tour-bus narration: Alaska possesses glaciers the size of Rhode Island. It possesses school districts the size of California. It possesses 20 percent of the land and twice the coastline of the Lower 48. It possesses fewer miles of highway than Vermont and fewer people than Columbus, Ohio. Yet the thing itself eludes possession. Alyeska—the Aleut word means Great Land—remains fundamentally ungraspable, a sprawling, monstrous cap-piece of the continent, its center pushed three miles high by the pressure of the Pacific tectonic plate, the islanded fringes strung with volcanoes and rainforests, the northern reaches planing off into infinities of white. It's a 365-million-acre fastness traversable only in fiction.

In fact, the earliest renditions of this place were literally fantastical: The first map of the region, accurate down to the scraggly-coot profile of the western coastline, was drawn not to enlighten navigators, but to decorate an edition of Gulliver's Travels published in 1726, 15 years before Vitus Bering set sail and changed the name from Brobdingnag to Russian Alaska.
Today the spirit of this place remains that of a loosely run colonial outpost, a nation whose identity resides neither in itself nor in the motherland, but somewhere in the cold air between. To be sure, the colonizers have left their mark—the glittery Erector-set pipeline, the native villages abloom with satellite dishes, the malls and sprawls of "Los Anchorage." But the scars, significant as they are, serve mostly to accent what remains. Places like Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, an expanse of icy peaks six times the size of Yellowstone. Places like the Brooks Range, in the far north, where thousand-pound grizzlies range like lordlings. Places like Iditarod, a lonely outpost that once bustled with gold miners but now welcomes only mushers and, in summer, the most stouthearted of mountain bikers.
These and the other places described in the following pages are the favorite breakaways for those of us who live here, aiming with our every trip into the backcountry to gain a better understanding of our elusive homeland. These aren't the spots most visitors know. They're not on the cruise-ship itineraries. But they may help you grasp why some of us won't leave. They're places that, with skill, forethought, and faith in an unknowable landscape, can allow you, too, to become a little bit unhinged.