Only in Alaska: Welcome to the 49th state

Alaska is one of those places where your expectations are met and often exceeded: the mountains are gargantuan and they’re everywhere, there are moose wandering the cities, and folks still run trap lines and live in log cabins. Yes, people still mush dogs (an Iditarod champion even lives in my small town), and many Alaska Natives still practice subsistence living.

Though the stereotypical Alaska is alive and kicking, there’s a whole lot more to the state. Environmental issues such as climate change and Pebble Mine, the political scene in 2008 (remember Sarah Palin? We’ve still got her), and an 800-mile pipeline that supplies a sizable sip of oil to the rest of the country all make Alaska more than simply a vast and beautiful place where hairy hippies live in off-the-grid harmony.

I hope to highlight some of the quirky qualities of living in or visiting Alaska – and there are plenty. Here are some stats, just to get you started:

  • Alaska is the largest state in the US. It’s more than twice the size of Texas, which means that if you cut Alaska in half, Texas would be the third largest state. In general, it’s about the one-third of the size of the continental contiguous US.
  • Though it’s not the least populated state (that would be Wyoming), it’s the least densely populated. There’s just under one square mile per person.
  • The population is approaching 600,000. Around half that number lives in Anchorage (279,000), and another 35,000 are in Fairbanks. The state capital, Juneau, has 31,000 residents, while Ketchikan, Sitka, Homer, Soldotna, Wasilla, and Seward collectively add roughly another 40,000. That leaves only 215,000 residents scattered across a massive sweep of land. It can be pretty quiet up here.
  • It’s the only state with a capital that’s not accessible by road.
  • Alaska has the US’s largest national park (Wrangell-St. Elias, 13 million acres), national forest (Tongass, 17 million acres), second-largest national forest (Chugach, 5.5 million acres), and the highest mountain (Mt. McKinley [locals call it ‘Denali’], 20,320 ft).
  • Though English is the official language, it is still possible to hear Yupik and Iñupiaq spoken. It’s not common in the cities, but in rural villages many residents still use their native languages.

With the widest spaces, the highest peaks, a somewhat surprising political influence, and a romantic place in Americans’ imaginations, it’s no wonder that Alaska receives $1.6 billion in tourist dollars. But if you can’t afford the trip this summer, I hope to provide a virtual tour of some of unique aspects of the state. Stay tuned!