Recently someone in Anchorage, Alaska, visited this blog as a result of a Google search on “big pike caught near Pilot Station, Alaska.” It just happens that my friend Peter Ashman, the photographer, recently sent a photo of a giant pike caught a few miles above Pilot Station on the Yukon River. He did not take the photo, but thought I would be interested since Pilot Station is “my” village. It got me to thinking about bigness in general, and how it is so much a part of things Alaskan.
To start with, Alaska is big. I mean really, really big. Almost incomprehensibly so. For most Americans, the measure of bigness when it comes to states is how long it takes to drive across it. On that score, Texas just takes the cake. When I was a kid, our family took a driving vacation from the Deep South to California; the main memory I have of the trip out was that it took days and days of driving to get across Texas. I asked my dad repeatedly, “is it STILL Texas?” And he answered patiently, “yes, dear, it is still Texas.” As I was carefully mapping and checking off states visited on this trip, it was making me nuts how long it took to get across Texas. It was just so BIG.
Alaska is more than twice as big as Texas. If you cut Alaska in half, each half would be larger than Texas. Alaska has over 600 thousand square miles; Texas has less than 300 thousand—which is way more than the third largest state, California, with 156 thousand. The problem, in terms of grasping its size, is that you can’t drive across Alaska. It is so big, and so wild, that most of it does not have roads. Flying across it just does not give you the same gut-level grasp of its hugeness.
Neither does looking at maps in an atlas, as Alaska is never shown on the same scale as the rest of the US. This map, which superimposes the state of Alaska on the lower 48, is one I particularly like; it puts Alaska’s size in perspective.
From north to south, Alaska is 1,400 miles long; from east to west, it is 2,700 miles wide. Alaska has over 6,000 miles of coastline—more than the entire continental US. The farthest you can drive in one direction within the state is between Homer and Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, a distance of about 1,200 miles; over half of it is gravel road. Think of driving through Texas twice.
Every school child past third grade knows that Alaska is the largest state in the country; but it is also larger than many countries. Of the hundreds of countries on the face of the earth, only 18 are larger than Alaska.
Many things within this big state are also big. Of the twenty tallest mountains in North America, seventeen are in Alaska. Including the tallest, Mt. McKinley (photo above), which is known to most Alaskans by its Native name, Denali.
Mountain bigness is measured simply by elevation. River bigness is a little more complicated. Rivers are generally sized by three elements: length in miles, drainage area in square miles, and volume of water discharged at the mouth in cubic feet per second. A list from the US Geological Survey of the twenty largest US rivers in each category includes 32 rivers. Alaska’s largest river, the Yukon, is not number one in any of the three categories; it is third in length (after the Mississippi and the Missouri) and fifth in both drainage area and volume. But the rivers that are larger pass through many states; the Yukon is almost wholly contained within Alaska, except for the headwaters and the first few hundred miles, which are in Canada. It’s entire 2,000 mile length is bridged only four times, all in the far upriver area.
What was interesting to me to note was that eight of those 32 biggest rivers are in Alaska, way more than any other state. Our own Kuskokwim River, which is 9th in water discharged at the mouth, 17th in drainage area, and 22nd in length, is the only major river in the US which is not dammed, bridged, or altered in any way for its entire length. It is truly wild and free.
When it comes to growing things like trees, Alaska’s cold climate is an inhibiting factor. The Interior part of the state has plenty of big spruce and fir trees, but we can’t hold a candle to California’s giant redwoods. When it comes to seasonal growth of things like vegetables, however, Alaska’s 20+ hours of sunlight each day has a phenomenal effect. Vegetables grow to huge sizes during our brief growing season. Alaskans hold world records for many of the largest vegetables ever recorded: carrot, 19 pounds; rutabaga 76 pounds; cabbage 106 pounds; turnip 39 pounds; celery 63 pounds; cantaloupe 65 pounds. The Alaska State Fair, held each August in Palmer, is an eye-popping experience for those who love gardening.
Animals get fairly large here, too. Alaska is the only state which is a natural home (not counting captivity) to the two largest members of the bear family, the Kodiak and the polar bear. Both are among the largest land-based carnivores in the world. A male polar bear weighs up to 1,200 pounds. A male Kodiak can weigh over 1,500 pounds.
Moose, the largest member of the deer family, also grow bigger in Alaska than in the lower 48. The largest moose on record was an Alaskan weighing 1,815 pounds; he stood 7.7 feet tall at the shoulder and had an antler spread of 79”.
Of course there is the great Alaskan mosquito, which has brought us fame for both its large size and huge numbers. They can be at least as big as a thumbnail, and when they boil up out of the long grasses near the rivers, you have to be careful not to breathe them in.
And then there are the fish, which brings me back to my starting point. Both the largest king salmon (126 pounds) and the largest halibut (459 pounds) on record came from Alaskan waters. And that pike caught near Pilot Station on the Yukon River? Here’s the photo. I don’t know how much it weighed, but for comparison, here is also the photo of the pike I caught on the Kuskokwim River, which was considered reasonably good sized by my Yupik teachers. In the ages-old rivalry between Yukon River people and Kuskokwim River people, the Yukoners love to taunt, “we have bigger fish and faster dogs!” The Kuskokwimers reply with a smile, “yeah, but we have prettier women!” The Yukoners shake their heads, but don’t argue. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Bigness is a relative concept. To truly grasp how big Alaska is, you must come here to visit—and stay awhile. It is not only big, it is a truly friendly place and well deserving of its nickname: The Great Land.
Photographers unknown except final photo by The Tundra PA.
Labels: Tundra Life