Last frontier

Craig Tansley embraces the splendid isolation of the Alaskan wilderness

Talkeetna is the Alaskan fantasy we all had as kids, the one Northern Exposure just served to make stronger. Locals will even tell you their tiny town was the supposed setting for the 1990s television series. But those same locals – and the life they lead out here in the wilderness – are the real stars. Oh, and the annual Moose Dropping Festival.

In the corner of the Fairview Hotel, right beside the newspaper clipping showing US President Warren Harding had his last meal on Earth here in 1923, an old trapper who was probably sitting there at the time doesn't move for five minutes. I'm worried he's died, beer in hand, soft scowl on his craggy face, but then he chugs his beer, grabs a banjo from below his seat, takes to the makeshift stage with a limp he's perfected to look graceful and plays a note-perfect bluegrass ditty. He sings in a voice that sounds 50 years younger than his tar-coated lungs ought to be able to manage. “He don't mind all you outsiders drinking at his bar,” Bob, a '60s refugee in a greasy bandanna, explains. “Unless you're German, of course, he got shot up pretty bad over there in '42, never did forgive them.

“I came up here in '68 because I didn't want to fight a war [in Vietnam], liked it too much to go back,” he says. “Not too many went back; come on, man, back to what?”

Across the country a hundred clicks or so, over roads covered in Indian potato and meandering moose, Talkeetna's sister town beats with this same wild colonial heart. It's a place called McCarthy, built right next to the reason it's there at all, Kennicott, former home of the world's most ingenious copper mine.

The railway built in 1911 to get there through this last frontier was one of history's great engineering feats, the equivalent of the Alaskan Pipeline, since those early settlers had to build those tracks on moving glaciers. They say McCarthy is Talkeetna 30 years ago; the bone-rattling 100-kilometre road stops tourists in their tracks, so the locals live a life of splendid isolation in the bush.

And therein lies the true Alaska; the reason you should all be visiting. Forget for a minute the six-kilometre-high mountains in cruise brochures and the milky rivers, fed by 300-metre-deep glaciers. They provide the backdrop but how many waterfalls and mountain peaks will you remember? It's the people here, in towns forgotten by time, living in a world like nothing you've seen before, that will stay in your mind.

Some don't live much differently to the bears, moose and caribou they hunt for food and warm winter clothing. The temperature can drop to 50 below and your nearest neighbour might be 20 kilometres away. Folk live in shacks deep in the forest – they call it "living off the grid". “Alaska only starts where the road ends,” Dennis, the Talkeetna trapper, tells me.

"Alaska's long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who thought the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives,” Jon Krakauer wrote in Into the Wild.

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Jack London could see a “laughter more terrible than any sadness” in this wild land. “It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life,” he wrote in White Fang. That this place is called the United States provides the biggest chuckles, however. “Sure haven't got much in common with a Floridian up here,” Dennis says.

This is one of the world's most sparsely populated areas, a state where you can set up a home wherever you like, provided you can survive the winter. Catch a train north of Talkeetna and you might see some of the true locals on one of the last remaining flag-stop runs in the world – if they need a ride they'll just stand on the tracks and holler. You'll spot them there with loaded rifle, dirty knapsack and clothes rotting right off their backs. They usually ride in the baggage car because they don't want to see you and you sure as hell don't want to smell them.

But don't assume just because you're visiting Alaska you'll get to meet them. Alaska's tourism is dominated by the cruising industry – 70 per cent of those who visit in summer come on big white ships – and head to the biggest tourist drawcard of them all, Denali National Park. In summer it's overrun by 5 million visitors. You won't see a single local in Denali; workers come from everywhere to cash in on the windfall each summer. It's as far removed from the magic of Talkeetna and McCarthy as you could imagine. The trick for tourists in Alaska, as it is for the locals, is getting off the grid.

If Denali National Park is bursting at the seams, surely it makes sense to head to Talkeetna, where the views of the mountain itself are far superior. On a clear day in Talkeetna you can see every one of the 6194 metres of Denali and there's an airstrip full of planes that take you so high you'll need oxygen pumped through a mask and you'll see some of the 1200 people who reach Denali's summit each season (four this year didn't survive the journey).

McCarthy, little Talkeetna, sits snugly in the middle of a park called Wrangell-St Elias – though very few visit it, it is the world's biggest national park. It's home to some of the world's tallest mountains and its largest glaciers but because it's not on most cruise itineraries the entire park receives only 40,000 visitors a year. McCarthy and Kennicott might be the only towns on Earth built a stone's throw from a glacier – the locals like to sit beside it in the evening and “hear it breathe”.

I fly in by Cessna 206 (the ute of Alaska) and land on a patchy dirt airstrip between two mountains. Moose and the odd bear wander through these parts, though the locals are far grizzlier. Through the trees I make out bush shacks cut from the forest. McCarthy has one permanent resident who owns the 100-year-old guesthouse.

The main street is not much more than a strip of dirt with a saloon, a general store and four sleeping dogs who don't bother looking up for cars – there's none here because they don't fit over the only bridge into town. In 1923, when the mine shut, everybody caught the last train out, lest they be stuck in the Alaskan wilderness. The only folk who ever came back to live were the type who would've fantasised about missing that last ride out. As in Talkeetna, the locals enjoy your company but when the snows begin to fall and we leave them be, that's when they're at peace.

And it's here, just as it is in Talkeetna, in the evening when the sun's still high in that gigantic Alaskan sky and I'm trying to separate my next day from my last, that I feel the warm breath of Alaska on my face. Far away from the masses in Denali lining up for the 5.30pm buffet, I smell the stink of wildflowers and watch a river rush past, swollen and white with glacial silt, and I imagine the lives of the human flotsam and jetsam bunking down for another night in the forest.

Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Travel Alaska and V Australia.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

V Australia flies to Los Angeles, see vaustralia.com.au for special offers; connect to Anchorage with Alaska Airlines, see alaskaair.com.

Getting to Talkeetna

Ride the spectacular Alaska Railroad, see www.alaskarailroad.com, three hours out of Anchorage, cost $US89 ($96), or drive north from Anchorage along the George Parks Highway and take the turn to Talkeetna.

Getting to McCarthy

Take the Glenn Highway east from Anchorage until you reach Glennallen, then take the Edgerton Highway to McCarthy; or take a scenic flight in from Chitina with Wrangell Mountain Air (round-trip costs $US229), see wrangellmountainair.com.

Staying there

In Talkeetna stay in a preserved trapper's cabin at Trapper John's Cabin ($US126 a night a couple), see talkeetnaroadhouse.com/cabins.html. In McCarthy stay in the fully restored Ma Johnson's Historic Hotel ($US169 a couple), see mccarthylodge.com.

More information

See travelalaska.com.

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