Head on with the wilderness

In country this formidable, adventures are in order, writes Lance Richardson.

LIKE many things in Alaska, the beauty masks a deeply unsettling potential for danger. With its densely wooded groves giving way to mudflats that stretch out into the Cook Inlet, the Anchorage foreshore offers a shady path for a rigorously active urban population.

Called the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, this 16-kilometre route winds all the way to Kincaid Park in the south. It's a popular track for walkers and skaters looking to stretch their legs and enjoy the brief respite of Alaskan summer.

Wind back the clock a little, however, and things looked very different by the water's edge. There were houses, for example - and less mud. There was an entirely different coastline. On Good Friday in 1964, the Great Alaskan Earthquake struck with such ferocity that whole sections of land slid into the inlet, dragging houses beneath the water. People recovered slowly, shrugging off the magnitude 9.2 disaster in all but memory, and turned its devastation into a bicycle trail.

A drive along the Seward Highway only demonstrates this attitude further. Girdwood sank into mud under the force of tsunamis during the earthquake, leaving a ghostly forest of petrified trees. The townsfolk just moved further up the glacier valley. The nearby hamlet of Portage was utterly destroyed and abandoned but today is marked by a wildlife refuge housing a one-winged bald eagle named Adonis.

Rather than being beaten down by the forces of their environment, Alaskans, it seems, take them head on, either building anew or exerting their dominance by conquering through recreational activities.

To reach Girdwood and the old site of Portage from Anchorage, for example, the Seward Highway snakes between high cliffs and the wide fiord of Turnagain Arm. On any day of the week these high cliffs are covered with rock climbers unperturbed by the rushing traffic below.

One of the best places to take part in this unusual bid for mastery is Girdwood itself, a world-class ski resort in winter and home to extreme adventures in the summer time. Once a gold mining village in the early 20th century, Girdwood's declining fortunes began to reverse when Ernie Baumann renamed the closest peak Mount Alyeska and bought a large parcel of land at its bottom. Today a luxury hotel, the Alyeska Resort, operates year round as a base from which to explore the last great glacial advance, punctuating the valley peaks like frosting oozing between the fingers of a tightly clenched fist. The US nationals are also held here in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics. Take the tram to the top of the mountain - a vertiginous ascent - and it's easy to understand why.

Though snow is reduced to scarce patches on the distant peaks when I visit, Mount Alyeska is alive with visitors anyway. The resort has started a new season of mountain biking and the tram is in full swing, with people wanting to test the mountain's might with two wheels.


Given that my own preference in wheel count is a firm four, I try an alternative tactic and head into the rainforest near Bird Creek down the road. This is the site of an All Terrain Vehicle track, tracing the old route of a mining trail as it snakes under towering pines. There is, it turns out, something exhilarating about speeding through the Alaskan wilderness alongside a man with a handgun strapped to his waist. This man - our guide - is large and cynical, approaching the environment with a hardened attitude of "do your worst". When I ask him during the introductory tutorial what the handgun is for, he looks at me with pity and replies, as if it were obvious: "To shoot any bears who try to attack us."

None do, of course, though in their stead are a ravenous army of giant mosquitoes, often referred to as Alaska's unofficial state bird. A hotel employee had told me that in Alaska humans are fairly mid-level on the food chain - not in jest.

Emboldened by a sense of accomplishment, the following day I turn my attention skyward and join a hike to Byron Glacier in the valley of Portage. Despite the potential of rock slides, avalanches, ice falls and crevasses, we climb all the way to the glacier's midpoint, where an outcropping of blue ice forms a vast wall of curls and frozen waves. Our guide climbs vertically, unassisted, to fix an anchor point through the ice while I nervously consume peanut butter sandwiches and pace in circles below. Then I am introduced to an arsenal of ice tools and giant hooks you slam into the ice in lieu of any actual grip.

Imagine rock-climbing up a wall of frozen water, giant boulders shattering off to your right, avalanches in the distance and an unforgiving sun tracing tattoos across your neck. Perhaps it's the shame of admitting defeat in a national publication but I make it to the top, planting my metaphorical flag. Here, Girdwood, I beat the wild.

Then I peer down over the edge of the glacier and ask where the lift is.

The writer travelled courtesy of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

Trip notes

Getting there

V Australia flies from Sydney to Los Angeles from $1689 return a person; vaustralia.com.au. From Los Angeles, Alaska Airlines fly direct to Anchorage; alaskaair.com. Girdwood is a 40-minute drive.

Staying there

Alyeska Resort has 304 rooms and a mountain-top restaurant called Seven Glaciers. Rooms start at $US300 ($316) a night in summer, which includes tax and resort fee ($US199 a night in winter). +1 800 880 3880, alyeskaresort.com.

See + do

The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is free. A good bicycle rental is located near 440 L Street.

Passes for mountain biking on Mount Alyeska are $US40 a day, available at the resort along with equipment hire. Check website for conditions, as well as information about the ski season (mid-November until the end of April).

Three-hour All Terrain Vehicle trips near Bird Creek with Alaska ATV Adventures cost $US165 a person. +1 907 694 4294, alaskaatvadventures.com.

A day of ice climbing on Byron Glacier with Ascending Path costs $US220 a person. +1 907 783 0505; theascendingpath.com.

More information