Natural History
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Natural History

"Diversity" describes Alaska. From amphitheaters of granite spires to old-growth, Sitka spruce forests to sheltered shorelines and jagged fjords to moose wading chest-deep in clear waters, Alaska presents natural history that stirs the imagination. Whether you dream of whales, brown bears, and bald eagles in their natural habitats or long to feel the vastness of untrammeled landscapes, Alaska travel offers you the best nature-based journeys north of Canada's Yukon Territory. Let our experienced naturalists show you this awe-inspiring place on our small-ship cruises.

Summers in southeast Alaska, in the waters near Icy Strait and Frederick Sound, show off pods of humpback whales. Humpbacks slap flippers and flukes and feast through "bubble-net feeding" in which the whales cast a net of bubbles around their prey. Grab your rain gear and watch as these huge whales perform explosive half-breaches, lifting their massive forms high above the surface and then crashing with a thunderous blow. A quick reflex can capture such sights on film from the ship's deck.

The water in southeast Alaska is cerulean blue, cold, and chock-full of porpoises, sea lions, harbor seals, and sea otters. Hundreds of species of birds decorate the coastline throughout the Inside Passage. Nowadays, almost everywhere you look you spot the once-endangered, majestic American bald eagle, national bird of the United States. Pay attention, and you'll see the colorful puffin with its crests or "horns" and its bright orange beak, a favorite among photographers.

From the Inside Passage, head to the rivers and streams to watch black bears and grizzly bears as they fish for salmon. The color of these bears ranges from cinnamon and blond to blue-gray, black, tan, and brown. Watch for the hump on the grizzly's shoulders to identify this larger bear from the smaller black bears.

Whales and bears are only half the story of a trip that immerses travelers in the spectacular geography and natural and human history of the last frontier. Cliff walls tower thousands of feet above rocky beaches; giant trees seem to tickle the glow of the sun. Botanists can find edible plants and wild medicines along the coastal forests and side channels. Moose and other wildlife roam freely. The barrage of images and sensations overwhelms you in the depths of Alaska's wildlands.

For more information on the natural history of Alaska, see book selections below.

An Athapaskan Indian story tells of a warrior who joined forces with a giant to attack a rival in Siberia. In the end, the rival won. The giant collapsed into the ocean, and his body created a bridge to what is now North America. The Athapaskans trekked across this fleshy ridge with herds of caribou in tow. Over time, the giant's body decomposed, but bones from his skeleton remained above the ocean's surface and formed the Aleutian Islands.

Scientists tell a different story. Some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, in the Pleistocene period, low water levels in the Bering Sea revealed a land bridge connecting northeastern Asia to the North American continent. The 50-mile-long, 600-mile-wide spine of earth opened a passage for the nomadic peoples of the north to migrate south. Carbon dating on a caribou bone with a distinctive saw-toothed edge has revealed evidence of this from 27,000 years ago.

"Alaska" means "great land" or "mainland" and originated from the people of the Aleutian Islands. Alaska, the 49th and largest state in the Union (almost one-fifth the size of the lower 48), was granted statehood on January 3, 1959, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But the United States purchased the land from Russia on October 18, 1867, spearheaded by the U.S. Secretary of State, William H. Seward. Almost a century before, in 1784, a Russian fur trader settled the first non-native community in Alaska, Kodiak Island. Few paid attention to "Seward's Icebox," as Americans called it after the 1867 purchase. Then, in 1896, the Gold Rush brought waves of settlers to the frontier land when prospectors discovered gold in the Klondike of the Yukon Territory just over the border from Alaska. Over the next few years, thousands of men clambered on ships to Alaska and then traveled overland to the Klondike.

In 1899, diggers unearthed gold near Nome, followed in 1902 by a mother lode discovery close to Fairbanks. People followed the nuggets, and Alaska's population grew. In the early part of the 20th century, the U.S. military claimed bases at Valdez and Eagle. The U.S. stretched telegraph cables across the interior. Railroads connected many widely separated settlements. Copper deposits attracted miners, and thousands of independent explorers survived on their wits and wildlife. Single-track trails widened into pathways for covered wagons. Mail deliveries came more frequently. Settlers arranged limited self-government; in 1905 the capital switched from Sitka to Juneau.

Alaska's first delegate to Congress reached Washington, D.C., in 1906. Alaska became a U.S. territory in 1912. A year later, the first climbers gazed at Alaska from the top of the south peak of Denali (Mt. McKinley). The U.S. established Denali National Park in 1917.

To this day, Alaska maintains an irresistible, almost spellbinding, allure. Booms in fur, gold, salmon, and oil (1968 marked one of the biggest oil discoveries of all time at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic coastal plain) crest and subside; each brings swells of entrepreneurs, adventurers, and explorers. They still come. Wildlife viewing, mountain climbing, bicycling, kayaking, hiking, fly fishing, camping, and nature-oriented tourism attract visitors year-round from the world over.