Sebastian Bielak - Podróż po Alasce

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

Expedition to Alaska as a journey of my life

Some time ago I spent three months in Alaska. This unique moment of my life has infected me for ever with a desire for distant travels and exploring wild places on the earth. During almost twelve weeks I visited southern Alaska (the Kenai Peninsula) and its central part covering the Central Yukon River Upland. My stay in Alaska was connected to scientific internship in three National Wildlife Refuges (Kenai, Koyukuk and Nowitna), 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 and helped with refuge 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, finally everything turned out well and one of my dreams came true – I saw famous Alaska.

Adventures in the depth of Alaskan Wilderness

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

Odwiert
Exactly in this place of the Kenai Peninsula first crude oil and natural gas deposits in Alaska were found in 1957

Fascinating places and 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 and I was in small harbour Homer called "Halibut Fishing Capital of the World". Close to the Arctic Circle I listened to the Indian stories about mysterious and at the same time dreadful Forest People who even today seem to inhabit 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 will publish this book next year and in the meantime I have published a photo album devoted to Alaskan wildlife entitled ”From the Aleutian Range to the Arctic Wilderness. National parks and wildlife refuges of Alaska”.

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

The Last Frontier – the farthest border of the USA

Alaska is the largest state among all fifty states of the USA. With acreage of 572 000 square miles (nearly 1.5 million km2) this land is five times bigger than Poland. It is situated in north-western corner of the North America where it borders with Canada from the east side and is washed by the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Ocean from the west side. Its northern extremity (Point Barrow) reaches far behind the Arctic Circle. Alaska was bought from Russia in 1867 for very attractive price of 7.2 million dollars which means that each acre of this land has cost 2 cents (5 cents per hectare). Comparing this amount with the value of actual American currency it appears that Alaska was sold for about 115-120 million dollars so it seems that Russian tsar Alexander II Romanov sold this country for a song. Alaska became 49th state of the USA on January 3rd 1959 and has been called “The Last Frontier” on account of its very distant location.

Due to the Klondike Gold Rush a lot of small trading posts became big towns in the 19th century (photo by A. H. Brooks, U. S. Geological Surveys)
Due to the Klondike Gold Rush a lot of small trading posts became big towns at the end of the 19th century (photo by A. H. Brooks, U. S. Geological Surveys)

Gold Rush in Alaska – crazy race of prospectors

At the end of 19th century great resources of gold were discovered at the border of Alaska and Canada. This event initiated a crazy gold rush among many citizens of the United States and Canada. At those times, during period of barely six months, over one hundred thousand adventurers set off from various places located in mentioned countries in search of desired gold. However most of these people were quite well prepared for such journey finally only 30-40% of them reached their destination. Some changed their mind and retreated but some died. What is really interesting, only several percent of these persons was lucky enough to find precious ore and only few of them gathered enough gold to become rich. Most gold prospectors stayed poor because of incredibly high costs of life on gold-bearing fields, e.g. one fresh egg cost 5 dollars, an onion 3 dollars and a bottle of whisky 40 dollars. Funny thing is that gold was the only currency because nobody accepted American or Canadian money.

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

Vast expanses and only a handful of inhabitants

Alaska is a huge land inhabited by both white settlers, originating mostly from Europe, and Native Alaskans including: the Innuits (also known as the Eskimos) who inhabit the Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea coasts in north-western Alaska; the Aleuts living on volcanic Aleutian Islands and on the Alaska Peninsula (south-western Alaska) and the Athabascans inhabiting central part of the state known as continental Interior. Today the population of Alaska counts about 700-750 000 people and population density is on the level of 1.3 person per square mile (0.5 person/km2). Almost half of all Alaskan inhabitants (circa 300 000 persons) lives in Anchorage – the biggest city of the state and its informal capital. Natural landscapes of Alaska are dominated by boreal coniferous forest also called the North American taiga, great river valleys with wetlands, peatlands and myriads of lakes, volcanic mountain ranges covered by snow, vast ice fields and glaciers stretching for hundreds of miles.

Inhabiting boreal forest the Alaskan spruce grouse resembles the Polish partridge (photo by Sebastian R. Bielak)
Inhabiting boreal forest the Alaskan spruce grouse resembles the Polish partridge (photo by S. R. Bielak)

Wild nature of the Far North

Alaska is not only a country of freedom and beautiful landscapes. First of all it is a land of absolutely wild nature. Here occur three different species of bears: black bear (baribal), brown bear (grizzly, kodiak) and polar bear. On the south coast of Alaska population density of these skilled predators is so high that statistically there is one bear per each two square miles (one bear/4-5 km2). Bears living on the Kodiak Island are the biggest brown bears in the world as they can be 10 feet (3.1 m) high and weigh up to 1500 pounds (700 kg). Besides bears there are other interesting animals in Alaska: a wolverine also called the Hyena of the North, a mountain goat living in the mountains at the height of 10 000 feet a.s.l. (3000 m a.s.l.), a moose with antlers being 5-7 feet (1.5-2 m) wide and weighing 55-65 pounds (25-30 kg), a porcupine whose body is covered with 30 000 quills, lemmings inhabiting Arctic tundra, muskoxen which are relics of the last Ice Age and caribou (North American reindeers) wandering across the Arctic in herds counting hundreds of thousands of individuals. During annual migrations thousands of Pacific salmons swim up the rivers to their spawning grounds and pass distances of two thousand miles (over 3000 km), huge humpback whales spend summer in fiords and bays as well as pelagic birds which build their nests along inaccessible rocky coast in colonies counting several millions of specimens. This is Alaska!

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

National parks and wildlife refuges of Alaska

Alaska owes its great wilderness and lack of significant changes in environment, caused by the human civilization, not only to its remote location but also to the long-lasting protection of wildlife. The first Alaskan national park was established in 1917 and it was the McKinley National Park (today the Denali NP). Since that time many parks have been created and the acreage of law-protected wildlife has expanded significantly. Actually, in Alaska there are twenty nine federal wildlife protected areas, including eight national parks, three national preserves, two national monuments and sixteen national wildlife refuges. The total acreage of all law-protected natural areas equals over 200 000 square miles (530 000 km2) which is over one third of the whole state and almost twice as big as the territory of Poland! A lot of interesting information about Alaskan wildlife, its rare species of flora and fauna and particular parks can be found in my book entitled “From the Aleutian Range to the Arctic Wilderness. National parks and wildlife refuges of Alaska”.