Just a few feet away from us the sharp claws, long fangs and angry dark eyes are all too clear. We keep silent, hoping the powerful looking grizzly bear slowly lumbering past can’t hear us, or smell our fear.
Despite our anxiety, we’re thrilled to get an up-close glimpse of the six foot tall, brown hairy beast. This is one of the reasons we traveled deep inside Alaska’s Denali National Park, where wild animals, including reindeer, caribou, lynx, foxes, wolves and bears are in abundance, in their natural habitat.
Alaska is becoming a popular vacation destination for those who want to be close to nature.
Locals in the “last frontier” say it’s not unusual to see an elk or a moose walking down the street between the houses. “One moose had a baby right in my backyard” an Anchorage resident told me. It seems the popular 90’s TV show Northern Exposure was not so farfetched.
Here the animals always have the right of way. Alaska seems like it could be its own country, with vast expanses of land unspoiled by humans.
But if you come here expecting to see Eskimos living in igloos, like the type depicted in movies and cartoons, you won’t find them. “Any igloos found in Alaska will be tourist traps created from wood or concrete as opposed to ice,” said historian Jim Flook. “Native Alaskans used a variety of housing designs, but most were semi-subterranean houses built of wood and earth, not ice.”
There are villages in the northern half of the state where “people live the way they always did for hundreds of years. They never leave. They have no idea what’s in the outside world,” one Alaskan woman who comes from a village of 900 people told me.
Only about 720,000 people live in the nation’s 49th state, so there’s plenty of elbow room. Natives like to brag that their homeland is twice the size of Texas. You can even buy a t-shirt in the tourist shops that says so.
There are more than 3,000 rivers, over 3 million lakes and almost 34,000 miles of shoreline. Tourists fill charter boats that glide through the water past whales, puffins and sea lions sunning themselves.
If it's glaciers you want, Alaska has about 100,000. Climbing and hiking across the icy mass is a unique experience, like scrawling across a floor made of cold glass.
Alaska is home to Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. On a clear day you can see its frosty white summit reaching to the sky from halfway across the state. On a foggy day you can barely see it up close, and rangers post daily tallies of climbers brave enough to take on the climb.
The land of the midnight sun is a place where you can breathe deeply and inhale the beauty. And while you can have a very active vacation here, it’s not necessarily a place to go if you are a connoisseur of fine dining. Living this close to nature does impact the local cuisine.
With so many bodies of fresh water there is no shortage of salmon in Alaska. Not only can you find it grilled, sautéed, stuffed or fried in restaurants throughout the state, but dried salmon and salmon jerky hangs from racks at every tourist shop, convenience store and gas station. You can even find pre-packaged salmon pate in small cans.
When you get tired of seafood, there are plenty of restaurants with all types of game on the menu. Often those restaurants are also decorated with furry creatures stuffed and hanging from the walls.
There are even food carts in Anchorage selling bison dogs and caribou burgers. Gyros may be Greek cuisine but with a shortage of lamb in Alaska you’re more likely to find them made with elk or reindeer meat.
Paul Dum, who was visiting from Houston, ate a local gyro and declared it “delicious.” Dum, who works for NASA, didn’t get overly adventurous with food in Alaska, but joked that among the wildlife, he also was trying not to become the main entrée himself.
“While hiking in Denali, my chief goal was not to become a snack for a grizzly,” he said.
Flook, who moved to Alaska for work about a year ago, admits it’s tough getting access to fresh fruit, but said he is getting used to the local spread.
“I had herring for the first time here as well as caribou and smoked salmon,” he told me. “The wildest thing I have heard about is muktuk which is baby Beluga (whale) fat and blubber. I am told that it has a coloration ranging from pink to black.”
“I love Alaska!” exclaimed Donna Liah, who traveled from Atlanta for a month long vacation in the state. “But I can’t get used to the food. Next time I’ll bring my own” she said.