Well, you can’t say Alaskans lack humour. Driving up to the information office at Denali National Park, I could see a welcome sign that showed a cartoon of a large mosquito carrying off a human being. You think they’re joking? Just put “Denali” and “mosquito” into YouTube and you’ll be scurrying off to your nearest camping shop for a hat with netting quicker than you can say “isn’t Mother Nature wonderful?”
But please don’t let the 35 species of the little blighters – who are at their buzziest mid-June to the end of July – put you off, though. Alaska is totally amazing, and after all, wildlife, from the tiniest insects to the most massive bears and whales, wolves and eagles, is the reason most people come to “The Last Frontier”. But not the only one.
They come for the wilderness and the solitude, of course, along with the spectacular scenery, both on land or cruising up the coast. Outside of summer it’s one of the surest spots from which to view the Northern Lights. And in an increasingly-busy and puzzling world, people come for the get-away-from-it-all vibe and the chance to escape your fellow man, and woman. (The population per square mile in Alaska is 0.1. Compare that to say, Monaco, where it’s just over 16,000.)
I flew over mountains and rivers into the small interior city of Fairbanks last July for the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, an annual event that brings native peoples together from across the state in feats of strength and endurance, along with dancing and drumming. All are welcome to watch.
“Eskimo” by the way is the title the indigenous groups use themselves at the event. It’s a term that is still acceptable to most, if not all, as I discovered when I asked those taking part.
Games were, and are, used by native Alaskans partly to occupy time during long, dark winter months but also to toughen up for long hunting raids, with games such as a tug of war using just their ears, and “knuckle hopping” where only knuckles and toes touch the ground: it’s said to mimic the lumbering actions of a seal.
Perhaps the most spectacular is nalukataq, or blanket tossing. When groups went hunting for seals, there were no trees to climb for a better look across the ice, so members would be tossed high into the air on blankets of skins sewn together with animal sinew. Now up to 50 people take hold of the blanket and undulate it up and down, eventually tossing someone almost 10m into the air who has to land back on their feet when they come down. There’s also salmon skinning and muktuk-eating…muktuk being frozen whale blubber: definitely an acquired taste!
Afterwards I drove to Denali, about two hours away, which, despite the warnings, was thankfully, mosquito free. On my trip the 6,190m-high mountain of the same name (North America’s tallest) remained shrouded in cloud, although from a safe distance I did manage to see grizzly bears, foxes and golden eagles. And yes, you can go camping if you want, but there’s plenty of quality lodging around too.
In a seemingly “samey” world, there is something about Alaska that makes it stand out as an awe-inspiring destination to visit. Partly it’s the size and tranquillity, and of course the mind-blowing landscapes. But also, it’s the feeling that humans take a back seat here to nature, and it’s nature that’s in control, not us. And sometimes it’s worth just taking a step back and letting that all soak in, in one of the most humbling places on earth.