9 Fun Facts About Alaska
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9 Fun Facts About Alaska

Did you know Alaska’s official state nickname is ‘The Last Frontier’? This moniker reflects its rugged landscapes, frigid climate, and status as the least densely populated state in the United States. However, the state name ‘Alaska’ is derived from the Aleut word “Alyeska,” meaning “The Great Land.” And Alaska is indeed great in so many ways.

Alaska is a haven for travelers who love the great outdoors. It is filled with outdoor wonders ready to be explored by adventurous travelers. Alaska’s natural wonders include Kenai Fjords National Park with its 40 glaciers and the Denali National Park and Preserve that’s home to North America’s highest mountain. On top of this, Alaska’s coastal waters are teeming with marine life, ranging from seals to whales.

Fun facts about Alaska. Searching for marine life in Alaska, Photo by: Rustic Pathways Student Charlotte Bell
Searching for marine life in Alaska, Photo by: Rustic Pathways Student Charlotte Bell

The state also has a rich history, welcoming people, and many indigenous cultures. Plus, there are innumerable opportunities for adventure in Alaska’s interior, including ice climbing, boating and hiking.

If you’re considering a journey to Alaska, it’s helpful to get key information about all these aspects before you travel. Here are some fun facts about Alaska to get you started.

9 Fun Facts About Alaska:

  1. Alaska is a land of superlatives.
  2. The Klondike Gold Rush brought many fortune seekers to the state.
  3. Sled dog racing is Alaska’s official state sport.
  4. The indigenous population has grown after substantial declines during European exploration.
  5. Alaska has thousands of glaciers.
  6. No surprise! You can expect cold temperatures and dark days in Alaska during the winter.
  7. Alaska is one of the best places to see the northern lights.
  8. Alaska is the only place in North America where a land battle was fought during World War II.
  9. The 800-mile-long trans-Alaska pipeline cost $8 billion dollars to build in the 1970s.

1. Alaska is a land of superlatives

Alaska’s dramatic geography is noteworthy on so many levels. Among its superlatives are:

  • Alaska is the largest state by land area but also has the lowest population density in the United States. To put this into grizzly context, Alaska has a population of approximately 30,000 grizzly bears and a human population of around 733,000. This means there is roughly 1 grizzly bear for every 24 people in Alaska.
  • Denali is the highest mountain in North America.
  • The state has more coastline than the rest of the U.S. combined, covering more than 34,000 miles.
  • Alaska is the only state that borders both the Arctic Ocean in the north and Pacific Ocean in the south, specifically the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.
  • Alaska has the most lakes and glaciers in the United States.
  • The state has the largest forests in the country. The largest national forest in the United States is the Tongass National Forest. Located in Southeast Alaska, it stretches across 16.8 million acres.
  • The state has the largest national park – Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which has 13.2 million acres.
The landscapes are stunning in Alaska. Copyright @ Rustic Pathways
The landscapes are stunning in Alaska. Copyright @ Rustic Pathways

Overall, Alaska has a huge amount of land, stretching across 663,300 square miles. That’s larger than Texas, California and Montana combined. The landscape is home to a large variety of wildlife, including bears, moose, and humpback whales.

Another unique aspect of its geography is that the state capital of Juneau is inaccessible by road. This is because a large icefield separates Juneau from British Columbia. If you want to visit, you can only get there by sea or air.

2. The Klondike Gold Rush brought many fortune seekers to the state

The Klondike gold rush brought scores of people to the Yukon territory in Alaska from 1896 to 1899. Before this time, the United States was criticized for purchasing Alaska from Russia in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars.

Critics of the purchase called it “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox.” That declined when gold was discovered in Alaska’s Klondike region in northwestern Canada.

Local miners spread news about the gold. It’s said the indigenous people in the region knew about the gold but didn’t consider it valuable.

Overall, it’s estimated that 100,000 people rushed to Alaska to seek their fortune. Because of the remoteness of the location, Canadian authorities required prospectors to bring a year’s supply of food with them. Many of them had to take several trips to bring that much food. In a number of cases, there was little gold left once they got settled in the region with their food supply.

Despite the emphasis on food, some miners ended up trading gold for potatoes to get their needed vitamin C. A few people got wealthy during the rush, but interest in the Klondike region declined as gold was found elsewhere in the state.

Speaking of food, the Klondike ice cream bar, created by a Ohio-based dairy company in the early 1920s, was named after the Klondike River of Alaska and Canada. This popular ice treat still bears the familiar polar bear mascot.

3. Sled dog racing is Alaska’s official state sport

Sled dog racing became Alaska’s state sport in 1972. Long before then, the use of sled dogs was widespread in Alaska. In fact for thousands of years indigenous people in the region used sleds pulled by dogs to travel across treacherous landscapes and carry goods.

Sled dogs in Alaska

Sled dogs travel through the snow in Alaska.

Sled dog breeds like the Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute are relatively small but strong. They do well in cold temperatures, have a high stamina level and can thrive on the high-fat diet you’d get in this region of the world.

The Alaskan Malamute is also one of the oldest domesticated dog breeds in the world, tracing back 2,000 to 3,000 years. Its genetic makeup allows it to avoid Alaskan hazards that would cause the paws of other dogs to freeze. Still, moose are a large threat to the dog teams. Dog mushers have to be prepared for these types of wildlife hazards.

Despite the challenges, the desire to make dog mushing a sport led to the creation of the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It’s the state’s largest sporting event. The current version began in 1973.

The annual race is held in March and requires competitors to travel about 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome. The competitors bring a team of 16 dogs. At least six of them must be on the towline at the finish. Each year between 60 and 100 teams participate.

Each team is required to take a 24-hour break during the race. Overall, it takes most teams about 8 to 10 days to finish the race. The longest time it took a team is 32.5 days. Today it’s a highly competitive race, so times have gotten a bit faster over the years.

4. The indigenous population has grown after substantial declines during European exploration

The Alaskan Native population has surpassed 130,000, making up nearly 20% of the population. This regrowth has occurred after large declines when Europeans arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The five main indigenous groups in Alaska are:

  • Aleuts – Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula
  • Inupiat – Northern Eskimos
  • Yuit – Southern Eskimos
  • Athabascans – Interior Indians
  • Tlingit and Haida – Southeast Coastal Indians

The Yuit, who speak the Yup’ik language, were the largest group when the Europeans arrived. The Aleuts were known for their ability to adapt to the cold weather during their maritime activities. Much of the Aleuts’ history was lost after Russians arrived in their territories.

Today the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) represents 209 federally recognized tribes. They still split their tribes by geography, but recognize 11 different cultures within those regions:

  • Southeast – Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples
  • North and Northwest – Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik
  • Southwest – Yup’ik and Cup’ik Alaska
  • Interior – Athabascan
  • South Central Alaska and the Aleutian Islands – Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) and Unangax

Inuit is used as a collective term to represent the Inupiaq and Yupik people. Some non-native people incorrectly use the word Inuit to refer to other groups.

Among the misconceptions of the Alaska Natives is that they live in igloos. Most Alaskan Natives live in traditional housing. The indigenous people in Alaska used igloos as temporary shelter while hunting.

For more permanent housing, they relied on nature, just like they did for everything else. Coastal groups, for example, built homes made with driftwood and whalebone and covered it with sod and turf.

Each group has their own language. Overall, Alaska recognizes 20 native languages, including Ahtna, Unangam Tunuu/Aleut, Alutiiq/Sugpiaq and Dena’ina. Their influence is evident in the names of the many of the most common places in Alaska.

Krauss, Michael, Gary Holton, Jim Kerr, and Colin T. West. 2011. Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska. Fairbanks and Anchorage: Alaska Native Language Center and UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research. Online map

Krauss, Michael, Gary Holton, Jim Kerr, and Colin T. West. 2011. Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska. Fairbanks and Anchorage: Alaska Native Language Center and UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research. Online map

Other names of places that stem from native languages include: Kodiak – from the Alutiiq word qikertaq, meaning “island” and Kenai – from the Dena’ina word dena, meaning “flat meadow.”

Alaskan Native groups also can have different names for the same place. At least nine native groups have used unique names for Denali Mountain. Those names generally translate to “the tall one” or “big mountain.”

Many Alaskan Native religions follow animism, which is a belief that objects, natural phenomena, and creatures have a spiritual nature. They also generally believe that shamans can interact with these spirits.

The Inuit are among those who have followed such religious ideas. However, today a number of Inuits have adopted Christianity as their religion and pass along native beliefs as part of their cultural tradition.

5. Alaska has thousands of glaciers

A geographic survey in 2011 found there were about 27,000 glaciers in Alaska. About 600 of glaciers have names.

The largest glacier is the Bering Glacier. It’s located near Cordova, Alaska and covers about 1900 square miles. This glacier is among those that are under threat because of climate change.

Cumulative climatic mass balances (kg m-2) for glaciers in five regions of the Arctic, Source: Wolken et al., 2017, National Centers for Environmental

Cumulative climatic mass balances (kg m-2) for glaciers in five regions of the Arctic, Source: Wolken et al., 2017, National Centers for Environmental Information

The effects are most noticeable at the Harding Icefield in the Kenai Mountains. The icefield area is considered one of the top ten places in the world to hike. Exit Glacier in the icefield area got its name for serving as the place where a team completed the first recorded crossing of the Harding Icefield in the 1960s. Ten people attempted the crossing during that expedition, but only four made it across. It took them eight days to complete the journey.

Rustic Pathways students enjoy views of Exit Glacier during the Off the Map: Alaska program.

Rustic Pathways students enjoy views of Exit Glacier during the Off the Map: Alaska program.

Today the Exit Glacier shows the dramatic effects of climate change. The roadway leading to the glacier’s parking lot is lined with signs that show how far the glacier extended in the past. The first sign has a date in the 1800s. You have to drive for miles to reach the next marker from the early 1900s and miles more to get to signs with dates later in the century.

6. No surprise! You can expect cold temperatures and dark days in Alaska during the winter

Almost one-third of Alaska’s land is in the Arctic Circle, so cold and dark days are not surprising. The lowest temperature recorded in Alaska was -80 degrees Fahrenheit at Prospect Creek, north of Fairbanks in 1971.

Alaska’s winter generally lasts from October through March. Coastal areas are a little more temperate, but you can expect to see snow as early as October in the interior. Temperatures can dive below -30 degrees Fahrenheit.

The northern parts of Alaska are in the Arctic’s so-called “polar desert.” These areas do not get much snowfall but are cold and inhospitable.

As for darkness, only the most northern regions of Alaska have complete darkness during the winter. The northernmost town in Alaska, Utqiagvik has about 67 days of darkness in the winter.

On the flip side the town is sunny all the time in the summer. Other parts of Alaska are not as extreme. They may see a few hours of daylight in the winter.

Temperatures are more mild than some people think in the summer. In the summertime, the average temperature is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the Alaskan interior.

7. Alaska is one of the best places to see the northern lights.

The northern lights are also known as the aurora borealis, and they are visible year round in Alaska. However, they’re harder to see when the daylight is long. The best time to see the northern lights in Alaska is between August and April.

The colorful bands of lights happen when energized particles from the sun collide with Earth’s upper atmosphere. These particles reach speeds of up to 45 million miles per hour, so the clashing with the atmosphere is rather dramatic.

Northern lights

Northern lights

The best places in Alaska to see the northern lights are ones without artificial light. It also helps to go farther north. The area around Fairbanks is one of the most popular viewing spots.

8. Alaska is the only place in North America where a land battle was fought during World War II

The little-known Battle of Attu broke out after the Japanese invaded Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The battle was one of the war’s deadliest with more than 2800 people dying in the conflict.

The Japanese first bombed the Unalaska Island and then invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska. About 40 Aleut residents were captured and sent to Japan, with about 40% of them dying on the way.

The U.S. military sent about 12,500 soldiers to Attu to expel the Japanese. The Japanese soldiers used the rough terrain to their advantage and hid in the landscapes to attack the Americans with sniper fire.

The U.S. military had not given proper gear to their soldiers to handle the frigid temperatures, along with the high winds and the rain. They suffered from frostbite and illness. They also ran out of food, and supply planes could not find them amid the island’s fog. Some Americans fought Japanese forces for food.

Eventually the Americans took charge of higher ground on the island. Following the Samurai warrior code, the Japanese kept fighting since it was dishonorable to surrender.

By the end of the battle, only 28 of the Japanese soldiers survived. The rest died in battle or by suicide. The Americans buried 2,351 Japanese fighters. 549 Americans died and hundreds more suffered severe injuries and illnesses.

The surviving Aleuts were released by the Japanese and sent back to the states but were not allowed to return home. The U.S. government said the cost of rebuilding their village was too high.

9. The 800-mile-long trans-Alaska pipeline cost $8 billion dollars to build in the 1970s

The trans-Alaska pipeline was considered an engineering feat when it was built. The cold temperatures and rugged terrain proved to be huge challenges.

Half of the pipeline was installed above ground so the heated oil would not thaw the permafrost. It was placed high enough off the ground to allow wildlife to pass underneath it. The construction workers also built bridges so the 48-inch pipes would not have to be buried beneath rivers. Plus, portions of the pipe were placed in zig-zag patterns so it would flex during an earthquake.

U.S. Geological Survey Photo

U.S. Geological Survey Photo

The pipeline goes over three earthquake fault lines and three rugged mountain ranges. It also crosses 800 bodies of water. Overall, the pipe was laid from Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope to Valdez on Prince William Sound in Southcentral Alaska. At the Valdez Marine Terminal, the oil is loaded onto oil tankers for shipments.

It took 70,000 construction workers to build the pipeline and 11 pump stations. It’s estimated that every hour, about a million dollars worth of oil flows through the pipeline.

Environmental groups filed lawsuits to try to stop the construction, and because of the controversy it took years to get approval. More environmental attention was drawn to the pipeline in 1989 when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound. Eleven million gallons of oil were spilled and photos of oil-slicked sea birds and otters grabbed the nation’s attention.

Today the pipeline still is controversial in many regards. However, despite the obstacles, the pipeline has injected billions of dollars into Alaska’s economy and carried billions of gallons of oil to the market.

Despite only 13% of Americans having visited Alaska (the lowest of any state), there are so many amazing things it has to offer. Experience the adventures of a lifetime in the Americas with Rustic Pathways Travel Programs. In our Off the Map: Alaska program, students can backpack through the wilderness and try their hand at glacier ice climbing.

About the Author

Scott Ingram

Scott is the Director of Admissions at Rustic Pathways. He has spent the last 15 years in the student travel and experiential education world. Before helping families find the perfect Rustic Pathways program, he led gap year programs that took students around the world and spent three years teaching English in Japan.