Sebastian Bielak - Podróż po Alasce

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A map of Alaska with the route of my journey (photo by U. S. National Park Service)
Tajga
During two weeks of scientific field research in the Yukon River we traveled almost 400 km downriver (photo by Dan Bogan)

Travel to Alaska as a journey of my life

Three months which I spent in Alaska not long ago infected me for ever with a desire for distant travels and exploring virgin, wild places on the earth. During almost twelve weeks I visited south of Alaska (mainly the Kenai Peninsula) and its central part covering the Central Yukon River Upland. My stay in Alaska was connected with the scientific internship in three natural protected areas, i.e. Kenai, Koyukuk and Nowitna National Wildlife Refuges where I was acquiring practical experience and knowledge on the forms of wildlife protection in this part of North America. I was a volunteer who co-operated with refuges' staff in everyday duties. I had been preparing to the expedition for half a year and although I was not sure up to the last moment whether the trip would take place or not, everything turned out well and finally one of my dreams came true – I saw famous Alaska.

Adventures in the depth of Alaskan Wilderness

Although my voyage had nothing in common with extreme escapades that are so trendy nowadays because it was a well planned and thought-out natural and geographical expedition, I had an opportunity to experience many adventures there during these three months spent in Alaska. I took part in rafting on the Kenai River, covered a few hundred kilometers in boat or canoe along the Yukon River, the biggest river in Alaska, I observed birds of prey like eagles, falcons and eagle owls, I was fishing in wild rivers full of Pacific salmons and huge pikes, roaming alone along forest footpaths with lots of fresh tracks of black bears, survied river tsunami and experienced taiga fire.

Odwiert
Exactly in this place in the Kenai Peninsula first crude oil deposits in Alaska were found in 1957 (photo by Clare Caldes)

Fascinating places, interesting people

Expedition to Alaska was one of the greatest and most wonderful adventures of my life. It enabled me to see the last places in the earth where nature acts on its own and a man is only one of its less important elements. During my trip I met a lot of interesting people, including Americans with Polish roots and Athabascan people whose life is a combination of modern American culture and traditional style of life inherited from their ancestors. I visited many fascinating places, among others I was on the Kenai River where huge Chinook salmons are caught (here in 1986 Alaska record was set), I saw a place where first crude oil deposits in Alaska were found, I was in small harbour Homer called "Halibut Fishing Capital of the World" and close to the Arctic Circle I listened to the Indian stories about mysterious and at the same time dreadful Forest People who seem to inhabit even today inaccessible areas of Alaskan taiga. During my expedition I kept travel journals on the basis of which I wrote a book about my adventures in Alaska as well as experiences and observations arising of the clash of Polish way of thinking with American culture and Indian mentality. I am planning to publish the travel book at the end of this year and in the meantime I have published a photo album devoted to Alaskan wildlife entitled ”National parks and wildlife refuges of Alaska”.

Anchorage – the biggest city of Alaska and informal capital of the state (photo by S. R. Bielak)
Anchorage is the biggest city of Alaska and informal capital of the state (photo by Sebastian R. Bielak)

The Last Frontier

Alaska is the largest out of fifty states in the USA. Its area is nearly 1.5 million square kilometers that is almost five times as big as Poland’s. It is situated in the northwest extremity of the North America where it borders Canada to the east and in the other sides it is washed by the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Ocean. Alaska was bought from Russia in 1867 for not very high price of 7.2 million dollars which taking into consideration prices of that time meant that each hectare was worth 5 cents. Comparing this amount with the value of today’s American currency it appears that Alaska was sold for about 115-120 million dollars, so we can easily say that Russian tsar Alexander II Romanov sold this country for a song. Alaska became 49th state of the USA on January 3rd, 1959 and was called “The Last Frontier” on account of its distant location.

Due to the gold rush a lot of small trading posts in Alaska grew to big cities at the end of the 19th century (photo by A. H. Brooks, U. S. Geological Surveys)
Due to the gold rush a lot of small trading posts in Alaska grew to big cities at the end of the 19th century (photo by A. H. Brooks, U. S. Geological Surveys)

Gold Rush in Alaska

At the end of 19th century gold was discovered in Alaska which initiated a crazy gold rush in the United States and Canada. At that time, during only six months, over 100 thousand adventurers sat off from various places of the United States in search of Alaskan and Canadian gold, however only 30-40% of them reached their destination and only 4% of most lucky ones found this precious ore. Only few of them managed to gather enough gold to be able to secure themselves affluent future because costs of leaving on gold-bearing fields were very high, for example one fresh egg cost 5 dollars, one onion – 3 dollars and a bottle of whisky – 40 dollars and what is more gold was the only currency because nobody wanted American or Canadian money.

Indian children from Galena during one of the competitions at the picnic organized to celebrate the Independence Day (photo by S. R. Bielak)
Indian children from Galena during one of the competitions at the picnic organized to celebrate the Independence Day (photo by Sebastian R. Bielak)

Vast expanses, not many people

Alaska is a huge land which is inhabited by both white settlers originated mostly from Europe and Native Alaskans including: Innuits referred to as Eskimos who inhabit the Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea coasts (northwest Alaska); Aleuts living on volcanic Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula (southwest Alaska) and Athabascans inhabiting the central part of the state. Today the population of Alaska is about 650-700 thousand people and population density is at the level of 1 person per 2 square kilometers. Almost half of the population (300 thousand) lives in Anchorage – the biggest city of the state being its informal capital. Alaskan landscapes are dominated by boreal coniferous forest called also North American taiga, picturesque river valleys covered with marshes and peat bogs, volcanic mountain ranges and vast ice fields and glaciers stretching sometimes for thousands of kilometers.

Alaskan spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) resembles Polish partridge (photo by S. R. Bielak)
Alaskan spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) resembles Polish partridge (photo by S. R. Bielak)

Wild nature of the Far North

Alaska is not only a country of freedom and beautiful landscapes. It is first of all a region of absolutely wild nature. Here you can meet three different species of bear, i.e. black bear or baribal, brown bear (grizzly and kodiak) and polar bear. On the south of Alaska population density of these skilled predators is so high that there is statistically 1 bear per 4 square kilometers. The bears living on Kodiak Island belong to the biggest brown bears in the world as they can be 3.1 m high and weigh up to 700 kg. In spite of bears you can meet a lot of other interesting animal species in Alaska, including wolverine called also the hyena of the North, mountain goat living in the mountains at the height of more than 3000 m above the sea level, lemmings inhabiting Arctic tundra, flocks of wild geese counting tens of thousands of birds, muskoxen being relics of the Ice Age, North American porcupines which are covered with 30 thousand quills, herds of caribou counting 500 thousand animals and huge moose with antlers (so called blades) which can grow even up to 1.5-2 m and weigh 25-30 kg. In Alaska you can also find Pacific salmon which migrate upriver to the spawning grounds in schools as numerous as a dozen or so thousand fish and travelling a distance of 2-3 thousand kilometers, huge whales which spend summer in fiords and bays as well as pelagic birds which build their nests in colonies counting a few million specimens along inaccessible rocky coasts of southwest Alaska.

Very deep and ice-cold lake Kenai with turquoise colour of water is fed with numerous mountain glaciers (photo by S. R. Bielak)
Very deep and ice-cold lake Kenai with turquoise colour of water is fed with numerous mountain glaciers (photo by S. R. Bielak)

National parks and wildlife refuges of Alaska

Alaska owes its wilderness and lack of significant influences of human civilization not only to its location at the end of the world but first of all to its long-lasting protection of the nature. The first Alaskan national park was established in 1917 and it was McKinley National Park (nowadays Denali). Since that time many parks have been created and the area of protected wildlife has been expanded significantly. Actually in Alaska there are 29 natural protected areas at the federal level including: 8 national parks, 3 national preserves, 2 national monuments and 16 national wildlife refuges. The total area of protected wildlife territories is 530 thousand square kilometers which means that it covers almost one third of the whole state and is almost twice as big as the territory of Poland! A lot of interesting information about Alaska’s wildlife including some rare species and natural areas may be found in my book entitled “National parks and wildlife refuges of Alaska”.