The Great Land

Inconceivably vast. Geologically complex. Ecologically essential. The “Great Land” of Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory will bring you face-to-face with the fundamental natural forces that shape and direct our planet. It is stunningly beautiful and unrelentingly dangerous at the same time. When the headlines and deadlines of “civilization” get to you, this is the place to come. It will cleanse your soul and re-sort your priorities if you let it. You would not be the first to allow it to do so.

The Alaska Almanac: Facts about Alaska is the best place to start to become familiar with the golly-gee-whiz facts about the State of Alaska. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. If you superimpose a map of Alaska over a map of the 48 continental states, Barrow, the northernmost point will be in Minnesota, Ketchikan, in the Southeast, will be over Jacksonville, FL, and the end of the Aleutian chain will be in San Francisco.
    Alaska and the Lower 48

    Alaska covers a lot of ground compared to the Lower 48.

  2. The northernmost, westernmost and easternmost points in the US are in Alaska, because the tip of the Aleutian chain is actually on the Asian side of the International Dateline.
  3. The north face of Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park rises from an elevation of about 2,500 ft. to the summit, at 20,320 ft., the tallest vertical rise of any mountain on earth. (In contrast, Mt. Everest begins around 15,000 ft. and reaches 29,029 ft., a rise of just over 14,000 ft.)

Alaska and the Yukon Territory are linked geologically, economically, historically and anthropologically in such a manner that they are really their own sub-continent. My favorite golly-gee-whiz fact about the Yukon is that it is twenty percent larger than California, yet it has only about 33,000 residents. That’s wilderness!

Based on recent geological research, the original North American continent formed about 3 billion years ago. As eons have passed, the ocean floor has been moving in a north-easterly direction and subducting below the original continental plate. This action has caused the continent to “grow” on the western and southern sides. In this manner, as many as a half dozen other tectonic plate fragments have collided with the continent, causing a pile-up on the west coast. It is this process that has built the several mountain ranges that run along the western part of the continent from Alaska to Mexico. The article at this link explains the process, http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2010/08/25/north_american_craton_layer_cake/.

This continent building process was particularly intense along the Alaska coast, creating the spectacular mountainous region running through the US and Canadian national parks from Wrangell-St. Elias to Kluane to Glacier Bay, continuing southward through the Juneau Ice Cap. Aside from the Arctic and the Antarctic, this mountainous area is the largest glaciated area on earth, and includes 8 of the ten tallest mountains in North America. This is brilliantly described in the Roadside Geology of Alaska (Roadside Geology Series)
. If you visit Skagway, and travel the 67 mile rail trip on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, you actually cross over a half dozen continental faults. These are the compressed remains of the continental fragments that have “slammed” (in geologic terms) into the original continental plate. The results are astonishing, creating one of the most forbidding mountainous regions on earth.

Denali Caribou

Autumn foliage surrounds a Denali caribou

Here in the Great Land, you will have the opportunity to observe and experience some of the best expressions of the awesome powers of Nature. In Glacier Bay, you’ll see icebergs the size of small buildings cascading off the toe of a glacier that is twenty stories tall. On the bridge over Ketchikan Creek, you’ll see thousands of salmon choking the creek in August and leaping out of the water like popcorn. In Stephen’s Passage, you’ll see fifty-foot-long humpback whales working in unison to corral and devour tons of krill and herring. On the North Slope, you might catch a glimpse of the tiny Bluethroat, who winters in Northern Africa and India and migrates across thousands of miles to nest for a few weeks in the scrub willow north of the Brooks Range before returning to foreign lands. From a small plane, you’ll get to see the endless vistas of mountains, valleys and meandering rivers that constantly reshape the land and the ecosystems of the endless wilderness. There are very powerful forces at work here. This is a photographers’ wonderland. Some of my favorite picture books include: Alaska: A Photographic Excursion, and The Inside Passage to Alaska. Another fascinating perspective in pictures and poetry is provided by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Poet Laureate of the former Soviet Union, in his book, DIVIDED TWINS:ALASKA AND SIBERIA.Dual language:Russian and English., which shows the similarities between eastern Siberia and Alaska. For the Yukon, check out Yukon: A Wilder Place, a wonderful collection of evocative images compiled by a veteran resident.