Geography and Landforms:

Alaska is by far the largest state in land area. If you placed it on top of the "lower 48," the Aleutian Islands would touch California's coast, the southeastern coast near Juneau would rest atop Georgia, and the North Slope would cover Minnesota. The population density of Alaska is only one person per 1.1 square miles.

Alaska borders Canada's Yukon and British Columbia to the east, the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Bering Sea to the west, and the Gulf of Alaska to the southwest. The coastline is the longest in the U.S., winding jaggedly over 33,000 miles if you include the islands. If you measure the coastline as a simple, straight line, it is still over 6600 miles long.

If you remember that the lines of longitude change from "west" to "east" at the 180th parallel, you discover that Alaska has both the easternmost and the westernmost points in the U.S. (and, of course, the northernmost!).

The landforms of Alaska are vast and varied. The long "Alaskan Peninsula" of volcanic islands known as the Aleutians, stretches far out into the Bering Sea to the west. The flat, treeless arctic tundra far above the Arctic Circle forms the "north slope" near Barrow. There are thirty-nine mountain ranges, the most famous being the Alaska Range across the central portion and the Brooks Range further north. Included in the Alaska Range is the highest mountain in North America: Denali (native name) or Mt McKinley, standing 20,320 ft.

Alaska also has approximately 100,000 glaciers of all sizes, with ice covering 5% of the state. The southeastern portion of the state extends down the west coast of Canada and includes rainforests. This section, including the capital, Juneau, can only be reached by boat or plane from the rest of Alaska. There are no roads for through travel to the southeast section.

Alaska's rivers and waterways include the Yukon, third longest in the US. The Yukon stretches East to West from Canada's Yukon Territories to the Bering Sea. If you travel upriver along many of the rivers in the glacier-formed valleys, you come to large glacier fields. Alaska has more glaciers than anywhere else in the inhabited world.

Alaska is known for its volcanic activity and related earthquakes. The Pacific Plate of the earth's crust collides and rides under the North American plate along the Aleutians, causing the Ring of Fire volcanoes. There are more than 70 active or potentially active volcanoes in Alaska. Much research on volcanoes and geo-physics is conducted in Alaska because of this activity.


The Russian discovery of Alaska in 1741 was the first introduction of Europeans to this unforgiving climate. Most of the people who traveled to Alaska from Russia were fur traders and whalers. They traded sea otter and other furs, and they set up a trading post and village on Kodiak Island in the late 1700s. For about twenty years the Russian- American company (owned by Russians) claimed exclusive rights to trade. Meanwhile, Captain Cook explored the coast, "discovering" Cook's Inlet where Anchorage is now.

The nineteenth century brought many explorers and traders to Alaska. Some encountered angry Tlingit natives who defended their territory along the southern coast. Explorers came from many countries, including Russia, the United States, and England. These groups reached various trade agreements with the natives, but the territory inland from the water remained largely unexplored by non-natives.

In 1848, an American whaling ship encountered large numbers of whales off the Alaska coast, causing many other whaling ships to join the hunt. In 1867, Russia "sold" Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million, a sale known as "Seward's Folly" by those who ridiculed the U.S. Secretary of State for wasting the money. Vast areas of Alaska's interior still remained unseen by white people, though one American scientist so impressed a native chief in 1869 by predicting a solar eclipse, that the chief gave him a very detailed map of interior Alaska.

In 1880, the first major Alaskan gold strike was made near Juneau. Several more strikes brought prospectors to Alaska over the next few decades, with the largest discovery on the Klondike River in 1896. Many prospectors rushed to Alaska as their chances for wealth died out in California.

Alaska continued as a US Territory, officially organized under a territorial government in 1912, and wildlife and hunting/trapping laws began to control some of the trade, though many species had suffered great losses. As Alaskans earned the right to vote in for non-voting members of the U.S. Congress, women of Alaska were given the right to vote seven years before the rest of U.S. women.

During the Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. government tried to transplant farm families from the lower 48 to Palmer in south-central Alaska. They were sent to start farms there on land given away in a lottery. Few of the settlers stayed to keep their claims once they tried to live in the bitter cold. Dairy farming proved a complete failure in this climate.

During World War II, Alaska's closeness to Japan brought some actual conflict on Aleutian Islands. That was the only fighting on U.S. land during the war. Because of the dangers from Japan, many U.S. military personnel were moved to Alaska, and they built a highway connecting Alaska with Canada and the rest of the U.S.

In 1959, after much lobbying and political arguing in Washington, Alaska became the 49th state. The headline in the Anchorage newspaper read, "WE'RE IN!


Today, much of the money used to run the state of Alaska comes from the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. When oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, it was not the first found in Alaska, but the quantity was astounding enough, and the demand for oil was high enough, to be worth building the pipeline, a project that took from 1974 to 1977. Construction of the pipeline brought many new people to Alaska. The workers were paid very well and given housing and food. Many more men than women came. Many of these new Alaskans decided to stay even after the pipeline was complete, having fallen in love with the natural beauty and outdoor recreation available.

The pipeline starts in Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska's "north slope" and ends at Valdez, about 800 miles to the south. At the end of the line, oil is pumped into tankers at the port of Valdez. In 1989, the waters of Prince William Sound off Valdez suffered the worst oil spill in U.S. history when one of the tankers hit a reef.

In order for all Alaskans to share in the wealth from the pipeline, an agreement was reached at the construction of the pipeline to set up a "Permanent Fund" for all Alaskan residents to receive a share of the proceeds each year. Alaska's teenagers who save wisely can use this money to fund their college education.

Alaska's rich natural resources, including silver, gold, copper, natural gas, and endless acres of pristine wilderness, encourage the hearty to continue exploring ways to turn resource into income. The tourism industry, mostly during the summer months, brings more and more people to experience Alaska every year. It has become a very popular destination.

The largest city in Alaska is Anchorage with over 260,000 people, a city much like many in the lower 48. The rest of the people live in a few much smaller cities, towns of a few thousand, villages of less than 100, or in "the bush."

One unusual part of Alaska's economy is the number of residents who live by "subsistence," or by hunting, fishing, and finding their own food in "the bush" (the vast, rural portions of the state). Outside of the city of Anchorage, as many as 85% of people's food comes from subsistence. Many of the native villages have lived this way for centuries. Alaska's fishing and hunting is a rich resource. Farming, however, is trickier in this cold climate. Cold weather crops, such as potatoes and carrots do very well in the very long summer days and grow to be very large. Wheat, however, cannot grow in the short season. As a result, Alaska imports many kinds of food, including dairy products and produce, much of it from the western part of the U.S. and Canada.

Transportation is a major challenge in Alaska and has a great impact on the economy. Very large areas of the state have no roads connecting them to other places. There are more pilots per capita in Alaska than anywhere else, since the seaplane (and planes with skis) provide the only way to move supplies to much of interior Alaska. Since the snowmobile (or snow machine) replaced the dog sled, people often use this as a primary means of travel in winter, moving up and down long frozen rivers covered with snow. Winter also allows engineers to pave "ice roads" by freezing large amounts of water on the tundra to bring in large equipment for constructing drilling platforms or other larger industrial complexes. When the ice road melts, there is no sign of the intrusion by trucks.

In may places, Alaska's frozen rivers are the only "highways" to transport large, heavy items that cannot be flown in, such as a new car or refrigerator or lumber for construction. Yes, people may still use cars in the road within their villages, but they keep a supply of "spare parts" (old wrecks) handy since it is not possible to go to the local Ford dealer for a repair in the bush. A warm winter such as 2003 can make interior transportation impossible, since the ice is not thick enough to support trucks traveling upriver.

The Internet has changed Alaska. Every village has at least a satellite link to the Internet at the local school that is kept open for residents to use after school. Children of Alaska benefit from online learning opportunities, and the "closeness" of email and online shopping have connected the bush much more than in the past.

In the bush, the lodges along snow machine/dogsled trails provide a place to stay and a view of the Alaskan culture of independence. If you visit Alaska, be sure to stop in at a lodge by one of the lakes or rivers to meet real Alaskans. If you can only get there by plane or snow machine, you are in the right place.

First Inhabitants:

The first native inhabitants of the area now known as Alaska probably migrated from Siberia, part of what is now Russia, at the end of the last ice age ten to twelve thousand years ago. Although experts are unsure whether they traveled a land bridge or by boat, archeologists have found signs of different native groups dating back thousands of years in Alaska.

The Athabascan nations traveled throughout the vast inland in areas, surviving the difficult interior winters from the Brooks Range mountains east to the Yukon and south to the Kenai Peninsula. The Athabascans were made up of at least eleven subgroups, speaking different languages. The Athabascans were nomadic, traveling long distances in harsh conditions to hunt herds of caribou and moose, fish the rivers for plentiful salmon, and take advantage of Alaska's seasonal berries and plants.

Further north, the Inupiaks and Yupiks of St. Lawrence Island lived along the northern coast, hunting for seals and whales and surviving arctic winters on the frozen tundra. They also hunted polar bear and migrating caribou.

To the south along the coast lived the Yup'iks, and Cup'iks settled along the more western coastal areas north of the Aleutian islands. These people developed the uluaq (ulu) knife, a unique curve-bladed knife used to skin fish and game as well as chop and slice just about anything. Early examples of early stone bladed knives date back centuries. The modern, steel-bladed ulu knife is a favorite souvenir from Alaska today.

Many of these native groups survive today, forming 16% of Alaska's population and contributing their cultural heritage throughout Alaska. Be sure to find out more about them at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Books Related To Alaska

Bright Star, Bright Dawn - Scott O'Dell
(978-0547053196) , Fiction
Interest level: 4-10, Lexile: 670, ESL level: 3 - 4
A young Inuit girl cannot rely on her injured father to help her when she enters the famed Iditarod sled race in Alaska.

The Call of the Wild - Jack London
(978-1613822081) , Fiction
Interest level: 5-12, Lexile: 1120, ESL level: 4
Buck, a mixed breed part German Shepherd, must adapt to his new life in the Alaskan wilderness after being kidnapped in this classic adventure novel for children.

Dancing at the Odinochka - Kirkpatrick Hill
(978-1442413528) , Fiction
Interest level: 3-8, Lexile: 970, ESL level: 4
Of Russian descent, Erinia finds her life at an Alaskan trading post changes when the area becomes part of the United States.

The Great Serum Race: Blazing the Iditarod Trail - Debbie Miller
(978-0802777232) , Non-fiction
Interest level: 1-10, Lexile: 910, ESL level: 4
This book relates the exciting true story of the husky Togo who helped delivery diptheria antitoxin to a remote location in Alaska during an epidemic.

The Hungry Giant of the Tundra - Teri Sloat
(978-0882405360) , Fiction
Interest level: 1-5, Lexile: 580, ESL level: 2 - 3
A ravenous giant loses his right to eat dinner in this modern version of a classic Yupik folk story.

Julie - Jean Craighead George
(978-0064405737) , Fiction
Interest level: 4-12, Lexile: 700, ESL level: 3 - 4
Julie returns to her family's home village while trying to save her beloved wolves despite all the changes taking place in the environment.

L is for Last Frontier: An Alaska Alphabet - Carol Crane
(978-1585360208) , Non-fiction
Interest level: 0-2, ESL level: 1 - 2
This book features all the things that are special about the state of Alaska.

Right Behind You - Gail Giles
(978-0316166379) , Fiction
Interest level: 7-12, Lexile: 590, ESL level: 4
Kipe gets a chance at a new start in a new school in Indiana where he goes to live with his father and new stepmother, but his past still haunts him.

Water Sky - Jean Craighead George
(978-0064402026) , Fiction
Interest level: 5-12, Lexile: 730, ESL level: 3 - 4
A young boy learns about the Inupiat culture and its reliance on the whaling industry while he visits Alaska.

Wild Man Island - Will Hobbs
(978-0380733101) , Fiction
Interest level: 4-10, Lexile: 690, ESL level: 3 - 4
Andy is stranded on a wilderness island in Alaska; his survival attempts yield views of surprise animals, strange humans, and even remains of ancient humans.

The Year of Miss Agnes - Kirkpatrick Hill
(978-0689851247) , Fiction
Interest level: 2-6, Lexile: 790, ESL level: 3
When Miss Agnes arrives in a small Alaskan town to teach young Athapascans, the children find the experience interesting and beneficial.

Famous Citizens:

Benny Benson
As a 13 year old in 1926, Benny designed the territorial flag for Alaska. Benny was born in Chignik, Alaska and grew up in Unalaska, Alaska. He won the flag contest for students in grades 7 through 12 from across the territory. The legislature later voted that Benny's flag was to be retained after Alaska achieved statehood in 1959. His own description of the elements he included in the flag read: "The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower. The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly in the union. The Dipper is for the Great Bear--symbolizing strength."

Vitus Bering
Though not an Alaskan by birth, Danish explorer Vitus Bering had a great impact on the future of Alaska as Europeans learned about it. Bering acted as an explorer for Russia in the early 1700's, sailing the ocean east of Siberia, looking for passage from Russia to North America. He discovered that the Kamchatka Peninsula and North America were not connected by land. He eventually landed in Alaska in 1741, claiming it for Russia. Traveling with him was naturalist George Stellar who documented many of the animal species of Alaska's waterways and skies. The Bering Sea and Strait are named for the explorer who perished on an island between Alaska and Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula not long after he finally landed in Alaska. His grave was discovered there in 1991.

Ernest Gruening
Ernest Gruening, a graduate of both Harvard and Harvard Medical School, was Alaska's territorial governor (1935-1953) and a territorial senator (1956-58) of Alaska before it reached statehood; he became U.S. senator from Alaska from 1958-68. He lobbied strongly in Washington for the Alaska territory to become a state, not a colony. As territorial governor during World War II, he organized Alaskan natives into a territorial guard to watch for Japanese invasion along the Bering Sea. Alaska is actually quite close to Japan. During the 1960s, as U.S. senator, Gruening was vocal in his anti-Vietnam War beliefs.

Elizabeth Peratrovich
Elizabeth Peratrovich was a Tlingit native leader who fought for equal rights for natives in Alaska. She spoke to the territorial legislature in 1945 in favor of the bill that outlawed discrimination against natives, beginning a new era in race relations in Alaska. This Anti-Discrimination Act was the first of its kind in the United States, and was passed 20 years before the US Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Joe Reddington
Joe Reddington was the Father of "The Last Great Race on Earth", the Iditarod, run by dog sleds and mushers across Alaska every March since 1973. The race was started to commemorate the Serum Run of 1925 when diphtheria serum was rushed by dog sled over the 1000-mile Iditarod trail from Anchorage to Nome to save lives from the disease.

Reddington was a talented musher and race promoter, convincing people to sponsor the event and contribute prize money. He and his wife Vi offered a piece of their own land as a prize in one of the early races.

Today people travel from around the world to serve as check-point help, veterinarians, and trail volunteers for the race Joe Reddington started. It is a community event for all of Alaska. Alaskan children may be more likely to know Iditarod statistics and mushers than NBA or NFL players. Everyone knows or follows a favorite musher. If you live in Alaska, you understand the conditions the dogs and mushers survive to complete the race. That same determination is part of Alaska's culture.

Jefferson R. "Soapy" Smith
Famous (or infamous) outlaw and con-man who left Colorado on unfriendly terms with the law and showed up in Skagway, Alaska at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. He was quick to organize his own gang of brutes to fleece the miners for as much as he could in this lawless gold-rush town. Along with many other money-making schemes, "Soapy" convinced the adventurous miners that he was telegraphing their messages to families back home in California or Seattle from his Dominion Telegraph Service. He then shared "replies" from home requesting money. The money he promised to wire home went straight into his own pocket, as no one realized that the "wires" for his telegraph went a few feet out into the water and stopped. On July 8, 1898, a group of 101 angry men finally came after Soapy, furious that his gang had taken over $2000 from one miner. The town surveyor, Frank Reid, faced a drunken Soapy in a gun-duel at the docks, and Soapy was killed instantly. Reid died a few days later. No one celebrates Reid much anymore, but there is an annual remembrance of Soapy every year on July 8 in Skagway. To many he is as famous as Butch Cassidy or Billy the Kid.

Molly Hootch and Anna Tibeluk
These young women were groundbreakers in changing educational opportunities for Alaska Natives who were unable to go to high school without leaving home for nine months of the year prior to 1976. Until that time, none of the villages had school beyond eighth grade. Anna Tibeluk and Molly Hootch were students named as plaintiffs in an Alaska Supreme Court case that resulted in the establishment of 126 high schools in native villages across Alaska. Once Alaska Natives could complete high school while living at home, the drop-out rate has decreased from over 65% to around 30%.

Capital: Juneau
Entered Union: January 3, 1959
Population: 736,732
Area 663,267
Bird Willow Ptarmigan
Flower Forget Me Not
Nickname: The Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun
Governor Bill Walker

Places to Visit in Alaska: (Click the links to learn more.)

Alaska Native Heritage Center - Anchorange
This center acquaints visitors with the different cultures of the native nations of Alaska, from Aleut to Yup'ik. Many of the native people who make up 16% of Alaska's population still live in over 200 rural villages throughout Alaska, preserving their native customs and ways of life. This center shares customs, arts, and practices from the eleven different cultures, providing a common meeting place for the natives and encouraging understanding and conversation with all who wish to visit. You can walk through "homes," watch performances, learn about hunting and fishing done using traditional native methods, and much more, all in a beautiful indoor/outdoor setting.

Anchorage Museum of History and Art - Anchorage
Here you can see artifacts from Alaska's history and artwork from ancient to modern. See native masks and modern ones made from junkyard finds! Explore childrens' exhibits that aren't just for little kids. See how the Klondike gold rush pioneers lived and the effects of the devastating 1964 "Good Friday" earthquake. Special exhibits feature works by Alaskan artists and workshops (arranged in advance) for participants. The museum gift shop is a treasury of information and objects from Alaska for all ages, not just the usual souvenir "stuff."

Iditarod - Wasilla (Headquarters for the race)
Learn about the Last Great Race on Earth, the dog sled race that captures Alaska's survivalist spirit and sense of community. If you happen to be in Alaska on the first Saturday in March, watch the ceremonial start of the race in downtown Anchorage or the restart of the actual race in Wasilla a day later. If you are a true adventurer, arrange to visit Nome about a week later as the finishers come in, cheered on by townspeople as the siren announces their arrival. But be aware that you may have to wait quite a while between mushers and get up in the middle of the night.

Alaska SeaLife Center - Seward
One of the benefits of the financial settlements from the catastrophic Exxon-Valdez oil spill was the construction of this center for sealife research, marine biology education, and animal rehabilitation. Seward is on the shore of Resurrection Bay, an area rich with many species of fish, birds, and sea mammals. The SeaLife Center has hands-on exhibits and opportunities to learn about the marine ecosystems of Alaska. You can touch a sea urchin and be touched by the story of an orphaned sea otter. The facilities are state-of-the art and the personnel quite knowledgeable. Students from all over Alaska travel to the Center for extended "field trips."

Denali National Park -
Denali, The Great One, is the native name for Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America. On a clear day the mountain is visible from downtown Anchorage. It is one of several very high peaks in this range. Enjoy the chance to see many species of wildlife: moose, bear, and more, and to hike amid the Alaska Range, learn about Alaskan culture and participate in many activities offered at the park. You can even visit a sled dog kennel.