Alaska: Land and People

Land and People

Nearly one fifth the size of the rest of the United States, Alaska is, at the tip of the Seward Peninsula in the northwest, only a few miles from the Russian Far East; the two are separated by the narrow Bering Strait. The Seward Peninsula, chiefly tundra covered, is sparsely inhabited. The Bering Strait widens in the north to the Chukchi Sea, which slices into Alaska with Kotzebue Sound; in the south the strait widens to the Bering Sea, which cuts into Alaska with Norton Sound and Bristol Bay.

Toward the south the state again extends toward Russia in the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands, reaching a total of 1,200 mi (1,931 km) toward the Komandorski Islands; together they divide the Bering Sea from the Pacific. The Aleutian Range, which is the spine of the Alaska Peninsula, is continued in the grass-covered, treeless Aleutian Islands; the climate there is unremittingly harsh—foggy, damp, and cold in the winter and subject to violent winds (williwaws). Once traversed by Russian fur traders hunting sea otters, the Aleutians are now chiefly of strategic importance. They contain several active volcanoes. The subduction of the Pacific plate under the North American plate gives rise to these and other volcanoes in S Alaska, and makes the Aleutians and the southern coast the most seismically active parts of the state, which is subject to earthquakes in many of its regions.

The southern coast of Alaska is deeply indented by two inlets of the wide Gulf of Alaska, Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound; the Kenai Peninsula between them extends southwest toward Kodiak Island. The narrow Panhandle dips southeast along the coast from the Gulf of Alaska, cutting into British Columbia. It consists of the offshore islands of the Alexander Archipelago and the narrow coast, which rises steeply to the peaks of the Coast Range and the Saint Elias Mts. Winters in the Panhandle are relatively mild, with heavy rainfall and, except on the upper slopes of the mountains, comparatively little snow.

The interior of Alaska, on the other hand, has very cold winters and short, hot summers. In Arctic Alaska, north of the Brooks Range, the temperature in winter reaches −10℉ to −40℉ (−23.3℃ to −40℃). The land there is mostly barren, cut by many short rivers and one long one, the Colville. Alaska's major river is the Yukon, which crosses the state from east to west for 1,200 mi (1,931 km), from the Canadian border to the Bering Sea. The northernmost reach of Alaska is Point Barrow.

Alaska's climate and terrain (rough coast and high mountain ranges) divide it into relatively isolated regions, and transportation relies heavily on costly airlines. The Panhandle is the most populous region; Juneau, the state's capital and third largest city, is there. The Panhandle's connection with Seattle is by ships, which ply the Inside Passage between the coast and the offshore islands. In S central Alaska, Anchorage, the state's largest city, is the center for the Alaskan RR and for airways; it is also connected with the Alaska Highway. On the Seward Peninsula and Norton Sound, Nome, founded when gold was discovered (1898) in the sands of local beaches, is now a small, isolated settlement. Southern ports including Seward, Anchorage, and Valdez are linked by highway with Fairbanks, the state's second largest (and largest interior) city. Cordova and Kodiak depend upon the ocean lanes. On the North Slope, the entire Arctic coast is icebound most of the year, and the ground remains permanently frozen.

The state abounds in natural wonders. In the Panhandle, the scenic beauty of the mountains and the rugged fjord-indented coast are augmented by such attractions as the Malaspina glacier and the acres of blue ice in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. In the Alaska Range of S central Alaska stands the highest point in North America, Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Denali National Park and Preserve. The Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands have numerous volcanoes; Katmai National Park and Preserve contains the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, scene of a volcanic eruption in 1912.

In the mid-1990s slightly over three quarters of the state's population was white and some 15% was Native American (largely Eskimo and Aleut), and the state has 20 recognized indigenous languages.

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