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Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Sarah Marshall, travel editor for the Press Association, follows in the footsteps of prospectors and discovers her own brand of travel gold as she enjoys a front-row seat for Alaska’s dazzling wildlife, from grizzly bears to humpback whales breaching in glacial waters 

Bathed with the first rays of dawn, fierce, frosty mountain ridges slice through the surrounding landscape. Reflected in a still, shiny body of water ahead of me, the Alaskan Range floats above and below a shimmering horizon. Far off, in the distance, lower peaks trail off in the shadows.

With barely a breath of wind and not a single cloud obscuring the sky, the summer night is silent.

Legendary American photographer Ansel Adams was mesmerised by a similar scene 75 years ago, setting up his tripod at 01.30 to capture North America’s highest peak glistening in the Wonder Lake.

At that point in time, few people had visited Alaska’s first national park, Denali, a remote six-million-acre wilderness inaugurated in 1917. Today, it’s a very different story, with lodges proliferating around the entrance. But tucked away in Kantishna Hills, an area deep in park known as the ‘backcountry’, I’m enjoying the same undisturbed natural beauty that inspired Adams all those years ago.

Opting to travel by light aircraft – rather than taking a six-hour bus ride – I’m in the heart of bear country, where trails wind through knee-length dwarf spruce and bouncy tundra sprouts with the smallest azaleas in the world.

At the beginning of the 20th century, two major gold rushes brought hopeful prospectors to this region including the legendary Fannie Quigley, a tough woman with a pioneering spirit and larger than life character – despite her five-foot frame.

“Among her many talents, she was famous for baking rhubarb pies with bear lard,” reveals my guide, on a private tour of her former wooden cabin. “She came up with a clever method of refrigerating beer in mine shafts and became a skilled hunter who could even wrestle a bear.

Her colourful exploits demonstrate how hard life can be in the Arctic, often dictated by forces of nature. But Fannie was a fighter in every sense, tackling challenging situations with a steely resolve. In a tale reminiscent of Leonardo Di Caprio’s Hollywood movie The Revenant, she once climbed inside a freshly shot moose carcass to keep warm when she found herself stranded in the forest for the night.

Fortunately, my own accommodation at the Tonglen Lake Lodge is much more amenable. Sitting on the porch of my log cabin, I watch the day lazily segue into one of Alaska’s long summer nights, imagining the various adventurers who’ve passed through these parts.

Living in a place this remote does require resilience, demonstrated by the Arctic squirrels I encounter on a trek the following morning. An ability to adopt the lowest body temperature ever measured in a mammal allows them to endure below freezing conditions during hibernation, I’m told, as we watch the tiny critters scurry in and out of underground burrows.

Wherever I go in the park, the outline of Mount Denali always looms above me, occasionally resplendent in all its glory but often embroiled in a game of hide and seek with the clouds. Attempting to predict the weather can be a lottery, but one way to guarantee sightings of the peak is by taking to the air.

“Don’t worry, we can cut through that,” says pilot and owner of Kantishna Air Taxi, Greg LaHaie, as I gaze nervously at the grey smudge above me. Falling in love with this area more than 30 years ago, he never tires of bringing guests eye-to-eye with the scared mountain’s giddy peaks.

Flying into the light, our 45-minute adventure takes us above ant lines of brave climbers making their way to a base camp, their tents scattered like colourful sweetie wrappers in the snow. We follow the curving trails of glaciers, where meltwater drizzles through the moraine in silvery threads, and we’re almost blinded by sunbeams reflected in myriad kettle ponds below.

With no roads connecting this wild country, flying is one of the only ways to explore. But once winter comes and the snow falls, another option presents itself: travelling by dog sled.

Dozens of professional mushers have made a base for themselves in Talkeetna, a small town in the Matsu Valley, south of Denali, where miners and trappers would historically pick up supplies. Regular winter snowfall and proximity to mountain foothills provide ideal conditions to train for the annual worldfamous Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome.

The sun is blazing when I arrive at AK Sled Dog Tours, but the resident dogs still bark loudly, forever eager to hit the road and run. On a tour of the kennels, I learn about what it takes to become a champion and am shocked to discover in winter each dog needs to consume up to 12,000 calories per day.

Although it’s possible to take a helicopter ride above glaciers to an area where mushers have a summer camp, I choose to try a dryland race rig – experiencing the rush of racing on a wooden cart with wheels. The sound of paws charging along roads and meadows as the dogs follow my commands is just as exhilarating as it might have been on snow. The added bonus is these energetic animals don’t need to eat as much food when we arrive back at the kennels, leaving more time for play.

Wildlife is one of Alaska’s biggest drawcards: from grizzly bears hulking through temperate forests to whales bubble-netting in the shadow of glaciers, encounters are of the quality seen in wildlife documentaries. On a half-day boat trip from Seward into the Kenai Fjords National Park, I witness some of this icy coastline’s most charismatic marine species. Charming sea otters backstroke close to shore, clinging to stones used to crack open shellfish, and humpbacks breach from below the ocean with the force of a rocket firing into space. Searching for salmon, a pod of predatory orcas weaves between islands numbed with petrified forests, disappearing into a labyrinth of fjords. But not every wild, dynamic attraction has a pulse. Almost 60 per cent of the park is covered in ice, with 40 glaciers making up the Harding Icefield, where Sugpiaq people once survived in forests surrounding a frozen land. A challenging trail rises above the mass white-out, but I choose the easier Glacier View Loop Trail for views of a remarkable coastline where mountains and ocean meet.

One of the biggest indicators of climate change, glaciers are rapidly receding globally. But that doesn’t diminish any of their magnificence. Prince William Sound, on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula, is home to such a vast number of glaciers, many remain named.

Keen to acquaint myself with a few, I float between gentle bays in kayak, settling into the slow rhythm of my paddle slicing through the cool, viscous water.

I’m not a professional photographer, but it’s a scene I imagine Ansel Adams might have framed in his viewfinder. Angel-white peaks soar towards the heavens, scattering a trail of icy diamonds flickering around me, while the high-pitched squeal of bald eagles is as rousing as a bugle call.

It’s a lifetime for most, but 75 years is a blip in our Earth’s existence. During that period, so much has changed, yet these millennia-old rock formations and pristine landscapes are equally as resplendent as they were almost a century ago. Alaska dazzles with a timeless and enduring beauty that will no doubt outlive us all.

See our Discover Alaska itinerary or take a look at our range of Alaska luxury holidays for more inspiration.

Ten days from £9,475 per person based on two sharing and includes economy flights.