Journey into the Alaskan wild

Take a road trip through the US state that has long drawn those looking for riches, adventure and the purity of its mountainous landscape.

Half past eight on a cool, damp September morning, and the Black Bear Coffee House is already a-bustle, its mix of regulars and out-of-towners rubbing elbows at the counter. ‘Americano for Keith… latte for Shawn…’ a girl’s voice calls out from behind the till. A pirate flag hangs on the wall behind the espresso machine and, in the background, Steely Dan’s Reelin’ in the Years is playing softly on the stereo. The place feels like the sort of independent café you might find in the student quarter of a fashionable university town somewhere back east.

Instead it’s located near milepost 239 on Alaska’s remote George Parks Highway – a lonely ribbon of bitumen that stretches between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and not far from the turn-off to Denali National Park. Among the early-morning crowd calling in here for their double shots of espresso are game wardens, white-water rafting guides, wildlife biologists, wilderness hikers and road-trippers.

‘This is my seventh summer in Alaska,’ says barista Wendi Schupbach, a philosophy graduate from a college in America’s heartland who, for the past seven summers, has driven up from the Midwest. ‘There is something special about Alaska that gets into your blood and brings you back again and again.’ Indeed. Big and bold, more than twice the size of Texas and infinitely wilder and more remote, Alaska has been a draw for generations of footloose romantics, dreamers and adventurers. It makes for the ultimate American road trip. Like Route 66, the very name resonates with the idea of going somewhere. Unlike Route 66, which faded into memory and legend some 30 years ago, the Alaska of the imagination is still alive, and flourishing. Its open highways remain a captivating blend of vast distances punctuated here and there by the same sort of delightfully tacky bits of roadside Americana that made Route 66 what it was. It’s all still here, Alaska-style: everything from the mechanical bucking-bronco grizzly bear in the bar in Healy to the cavalcade of roadside trading posts with their taxidermied bears, totem poles, sculptures made of moose antlers, and five-and-dime souvenirs.

‘For my part I travel not to go anywhere, but to go… the great affair is to move,’ Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in 1879. He was writing about a journey by donkey through the Cevennes in France, but could just as easily have been invoking the spirit of the American road trip, where it’s the joy of motion that’s all the fun. Like so many others before me, I’d been lured north by the same wanderlust that drew the likes of Jack London and Wyatt Earp up here during the gold rush days more than a century ago. ‘It draws some of us like a magnet,’ Donald ‘Smitty’ Smith, a Pennsylvania policeman turned fur trapper, tells me a few days later when I call in at his log cabin along the highway. A great bear of a man with a long white beard, he and his wife came up to Alaska 13 years ago and have been here ever since. They live in a snug, neat cabin Smitty built that first summer and subsist on whatever they grow in their garden and on the game he traps or shoots with his muzzleloader rifle – a replica of the models the frontiersmen used in the 18th century. ‘Up here we can live our lives free and clear, without having to answer to anybody,’ says Smitty. ‘There aren’t many places left in the world where you can enjoy this sort of freedom.’

Of course, it’s all very well to say, as Stevenson did, that you travel for travel’s sake alone, but even the most insouciant of road-trippers are still heading somewhere and, for nearly everyone cruising the George Parks Highway, that somewhere is likely to be Denali National Park – a near-10,000-square-mile tract of forest, the bogland known as muskeg and tundra crowned by the mightiest mountain in North America – the snow-capped 20,320-foot peak of Mount McKinley. Only one road penetrates this unbroken wilderness – a gravel track winding 77 lonely miles from the Savage River Trailhead to the old mining camp at Kantishna. There is no driving this road, at least not without a special permit. Here, you leave the car behind and hop aboard one of the lumbering old American school buses the US Park Service uses to ferry sightseers and hikers around the park, which is itself larger than the state of New Hampshire. Once inside, you’re in a world of tundra and grizzly bears, moose, elk, caribou, eagles and bighorn sheep, passing through a succession of histrionic landscapes that look as though they’ve been lifted from one of Albert Bierstadt’s more melodramatic 19th-century wilderness paintings.

‘Sorry if we’re a little whiffy,’ a pair of young hikers say as they climb aboard the bus 50 miles or so down the track, cadging a lift back to civilisation. ‘We’ve been out here for the past ten days – we could probably use a shower.’ Flopping into their seats, they treat us to breathless tales about what it was really like ‘out there’ – grizzly bear encounters and nights spent camping miles from anywhere. And all the while the bus rambles along the rough gravel road, the sense of community inside and our cheerful conversations a counterpoint to the echoing autumnal vastness of the tundra.

Seeing Alaska passively like this, through the windscreen of a car or bus, can blur the reality of just how wild this place truly is. ‘You know, it was just a few miles up the road from here that Christopher McCandless walked into the woods 21 years ago and never came out,’ Brendon Ferguson, a white-water rafting guide, tells me over breakfast the next morning back in Denali – the little village that has sprung up near the park entrance. He is referring to the daydreamer whose Byronic death in the Alaskan wilderness was retold in Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild and in a movie directed by Sean Penn. Inspired by Jack London’s adventures and the writings of 19thcentury philosopher Henry David Thoreau, McCandless gave away most of his worldly goods, hitchhiked to Alaska and set off along the Stampede Trail, a track that branches off the main highway about 12 miles north of the Black Bear Coffee House. He had planned to live out his own abbreviated version of Walden – three months of wilderness solitude. He took with him 10 pounds of rice, a .22-calibre rifle, some ammunition, no compass, and, to hear Alaskans tell it, very little common sense. He survived for 113 days.

His emaciated body was found by hikers later that autumn in the rusted-out hulk of a 1946 Fairbanks City Transit bus, which had been abandoned in the woods by a work crew many years earlier after breaking its axle along a remote stretch of the trail. According to the journal discovered with his body, McCandless had tried to hike out after three months but had found his way blocked by the swollen waters of the Teklanika River, which had risen dramatically since he forded it on his way in. Unaware that there was a hand-operated tram nearby that would have allowed him to cross with ease, he returned to the shelter of the bus, where the final act of his quixotic adventure played out as tragedy. ‘SOS I need your help,’ he wrote in a note posted near the bus and found a fortnight later by the hikers who discovered his body. ‘I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?’

All these years later the old Fairbanks bus – the ‘Magic Bus’, as McCandless referred to it in his journal – is still there, sitting in a clearing in the middle of nowhere, a poignant reminder of a broken dream and a lost life. It is a site of pilgrimage for wilderness trekkers and dreamers. ‘It is a very tough hike to get out there,’ Ferguson says, as he picks up a coffee ahead of a day taking clients down the Nenana River. ‘When he went into the wild, he really went into the wild.’

Historic Milepost 1,520 in Fairbanks marks the unofficial northern terminus of the famed Alcan Highway, the original truck route that crosses Canada’s Yukon Territory and British Columbia, and connects Alaska with the ‘Lower 48’, as Alaskans like to refer to the rest of continental America. The Alcan Highway’s official terminus, however, is 98 miles further south, at a place called Delta Junction. Here it joins the Richardson Highway as it winds north from the seaport of Valdez. If the Alcan represents Alaska’s connection with the distant lights of the rest of America, the Richardson Highway is its link to the state’s gaudy gold-rush past, Alaska’s own memory lane and its first major highway.

I set off from Fairbanks on a grey September morning, enjoying a sense of escape from city trappings as the highway opens up around me. The dampness in the air enhances the autumn colours in the landscape, the vibrant reds of the tundra and the gold of the aspens. The road began as the result of a scam back in the Klondike days of 1898, when thousands of prospectors were scrambling to get to the diggings in the Yukon. Eager to tap into the get-rich-quick mood of the moment, scheming American steamship proprietors began promoting the idea of a swift, sure route to the gold – by steamer from Seattle to the Alaskan port of Valdez and from there by foot through the Chugach Mountains and up to the diggings along the easy and safe ‘Valdez Glacier Trail’: your very own shortcut to riches.

Alas, there was no such trail, but the would-be prospectors only found this out after they’d paid their money and sailed north to Valdez, where they were confronted by an enormous craggy glacier and a pass which was twice as high and many times tougher to cross than they had ever been led to believe. ‘How I pitied some of these people,’ a prospector from Nebraska named George Hazelet wrote to his folks back home, in describing his own struggle over the pass in 1898. ‘Footsore and weary, they trudged along looking as though they could go no further.’ He at least survived the crossing. Many less fit and able men perished, while thousands more lived in appalling conditions in overcrowded camps back in Valdez, unable to go on to the diggings or afford the extortionate passage back home.

Eventually the US government stepped in, sending the army under Major Richardson to construct, for real, the fanciful route into the hinterland the steamship companies had promised. Within a few years, the pack-horse trail had been widened into a proper road, stretching 368 miles from Valdez to Fairbanks, and the Richardson Highway was born. The first car, an open-topped Ford tourer sporting flags and bunting, traversed it in 1913.

While the road’s surface has smoothed considerably over the past century, the Alaskan landscape through which it passes has lost none of its mystery or drama. ‘They call that the galloping glacier,’ explains 84-year-old geophysicist and mountaineer Charles ‘Bucky’ Wilson at the Lodge at Black Rapids – a remote b&b located at the site of an old prospector’s roadhouse. Pointing towards a bluish mass of ice in a distant valley, he explains that in the 1930s the Black Rapids Glacier became the fastest moving ever recorded, sometimes advancing as much as 200 feet a day. These days it is in full retreat, having lost several miles of its ice tongue in the past few years.

In the easy-going informality between strangers in the Alaskan bush, Bucky tells me about his life – how he came up here as a student from the east coast more than 60 years ago and became captivated by Alaska’s mountains and wilderness. With a few of his climbing buddies, he made the first ascent of the northwest buttress of Mount McKinley back in ’52 and has been living in Alaska ever since, hiking and climbing these mountains and, along the way, becoming professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska.

As TS Elliot’s J Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in teaspoons, so an American road trip can be measured out in cafés, roadhouses and conversations with locals – more often than not over cups of black coffee. Mid-morning the next day finds me 80 miles down the Richardson Highway at the Sourdough Roadhouse (milepost 147), talking with Patty Denton, a doughty septuagenarian, and eating some of her pancakes made with the original strain of sourdough yeast brought up by the Klondike prospectors back in 1903. ‘Until the original place burned down in 1992, this was the oldest continually operated roadhouse in Alaska,’ she tells me, although she and her husband have been running it for ‘only’ the past 30 years or so.

Like so many people in the far north, she came from somewhere else – Idaho, in her case. ‘I first came up to Alaska in 1975,’ she recalls, ‘and I’ve never wanted to leave or live anywhere else. Not once. It’s the freedom up here that makes it so special. There’s nobody telling you what to do all the time.’ And by the sound of things, nobody better try – at least not to this sweet little old lady, with the sparkling eyes and the blueberry pie baking in the oven. When our topic of conversation segues to wilderness, wildlife and (naturally, in Alaska) big-game hunting, she casually tells the story of the grizzly bear she spotted from her bedroom window, just behind the roadhouse. ‘Yep, that’s him, right there,’ she says, pointing to a large bear skull hanging on the wall above the till. ‘Got him with one shot. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I better go check on that pie.’

Of course, it wasn’t always the freedom of the frontier that drew people here – many came to get rich. Gold was the most famous draw card, but copper made a lot of fortunes too, and around an hour up the highway from the Sourdough Roadhouse is a turn-off to one of Alaska’s most famous mines, and one of its greatest tales of rags to riches. In 1900, a couple of prospectors spotted what appeared to be a patch of nice green pasture on a distant hillside, just right for grazing their horses. It wasn’t. The greenish stuff they were looking at turned out to be the exposed face of a mountain of copper ore – the richest ever found, assaying 70% pure copper, with some gold and silver mixed in.

They became rich – fabulously rich. But they could have been even richer. Keen to start enjoying the good life, they sold their claim for a risk-free $275,000 to interests associated with JP Morgan and the Guggenheim family – some of America’s wealthiest and most powerful businessmen. Those guys knew a good investment when they saw one. They poured in their money, built a railroad to haul out all that lovely green ore and, within a few years, the remote Kennecott Mine, as it became known, was earning them millions.

It is all old history now. The mine shut down in 1938, having produced more than $200-million-worth of copper in its brief lifetime. Nowadays it exists as an eerie ‘ghost mine’, a sprawling multi-storeyed complex untouched since the day it was abandoned. It is set deep in the heart of the biggest tract of protected wilderness in North America: the combined vastness of the Wrangell-St Elias National Park and the Yukon Territory’s Kluane National Park – together more than 20 million acres of primeval mountain and forest.

‘You really have to want to get here to come out all this way,’ laughs Neil Darish, who owns the Ma Johnson Hotel at McCarthy (population 28), an almost impossibly remote town four miles from the remains of the old mine. Getting there means a 100-mile detour through the mountains, first on the Edgerton Highway, then a rough gravel track for the last 60 miles. It is worth the drive. Here’s an Alaskan mining town straight out of 1911. McCarthy is the real deal: the rutted muddy main street, a hotel that looks just as it did in the sepia prints on the parlour walls and, next door, the old-West-style Golden Saloon – a restaurant with an elegant wine list and serving such epicurean niceties as seared Kodiak scallops and Copper River salmon in an old-fashioned boarding-house setting. ‘The New York Magazine’s picked the best destination restaurants in each state,’ recalls Neil. ‘They named us the best in Alaska, and then gave us extra points for being the most remote “destination restaurant” in the world.’

 Back on the Richardson Highway, it’s another 82 miles south to Valdez up and over the wild Chugach Mountains, via Thompson Pass – the route that killed so many prospectors in the gold rush days. In winter these are amongst the snowiest mountains in Alaska, with upwards of 80 feet of snow falling on the peaks. Even Valdez, the pretty salmon-fishing town on Prince William Sound at the foot of the mountains, receives an average of eight feet of snow on its rooftops each winter. I come over the pass in a hard rain, the windscreen wipers on the car thumping madly on the long curving descent, the town below obscured by mist.

‘To travel hopefully is better than to arrive,’ as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. He was right. After dropping down into Valdez, it seems a pity to have to ‘arrive’ and lose all that wonderful sustaining momentum of the open road. And so I don’t. While the Richardson Highway might have come to an end at the Valdez waterfront, my journey hasn’t. I continue south, by sea, for the day at least, aboard the Valdez Spirit on its circuit of Prince William Sound and Columbia Glacier.

As we purl through the ice-strewn waters around the glacier, I find myself thinking not of the prospectors who arrived here from Seattle, but of the 19th-century railway baron, EH Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad. When advised by his doctors to take a break from his cares as one of the richest men in America, he astonished the rest of polite society by taking a pass on the suggested world cruise and came to Alaska, of all places, instead.

Over the summer of 1899, Harriman and his guests sailed these same inlets, breathing in their marvels, naming the glaciers they found for America’s old-school universities back east – Columbia, Harvard, Yale – and rediscovering in mid-life a joyful, childish wonder at the world.

‘One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books,’ wrote the naturalist John Muir, who accompanied Harriman on his trip. ‘See how willingly Nature poses herself upon photographers’ plates. No earthly chemicals are so sensitive as those of the human soul.’

And so it remains 114 years later. Time may have changed photographer’s plates – it’s all digital now – but not the human soul, nor the magic of Alaska’s wilderness.

The article 'Journey into the Alaskan wild' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.