Experiencing the Stunning Scenery and Wildlife of the 49th State

The border guard took a brief glimpse at our passports as all ten of us held them up inside the van; we could have been holding student cards and I don’t think she would have noticed.

“Have a nice day now,” she said as we entered the USA.

This was quite unlike the welcome to the same country I’d received in New York. A stern looking man examined my visa, eyes flicking back and forth between my photo and face; referring to his computer to see if I was wanted for any illegal activity.

But this was Alaska, which might as well have been a different country, and we were supposedly entering the friendliest ghost town in the state: Hyder.

Hyder has a population of fewer than 100, and is just a stone’s throw away from Steward, British Columbia. Its idyllic location, trapped between mountains and water, is a stunning welcome to the awe-inspiring beauty of America’s 49th State.

Getting Hyderised in Hyder

Hyder’s main street contains two bars; both offering the chance to be ‘Hyderised’. It’s one of the few things that can keep you warm during an Alaskan winter (and with a ratio of about three men to every woman, not everyone can be doing the alternative) and it can only be done in this tiny little town. The drink probably has a name; I may have even been told it, but the effects of Hyderising myself, along with my other companions, rendered most brain activity redundant for the rest of the night.

The strong vodka like concoction is poured into a shot glass and downed; the glasses are then passed under a flame and the bar momentarily burns before you. Everyone who is new in town must be Hyderised before they are allowed to enjoy the rest of the evening.

While this Hyderation is a warm up for the Sour Toe in neighbouring Dawson (in which a frost bitten toe is placed into a glass of liquor 'you can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have to touch the toe') there is more to this tiny town than its alcohol. Hyder is Alaska’s southernmost gateway and its surroundings serve as a gentle introduction to the stunning scenery that Alaska is famous for.

Seeing the Alaskan wildlife for the first time

Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site is a long raised walkway above the water of Fish Creek and Marx Creek, just a few miles from Hyder. Early morning is the best time to see the brown and black bears that come here regularly to fish for chum and salmon. A brief leaflet gives visitors details on what to do if you meet a bear, which varies depending on whether it is a grizzly, a brown or a black bear.

I am hoping that should I ever be involved in such an encounter I’ll be able to remember what steps to take with the appropriate bear; do I play dead with a black bear and fight back with a grizzly, or was it the other way round? I’m not much of a fighter though, so I’m sure the bear would win either way.

There are a surprising number of people at the walkway; about 10 in all, but this is Alaska and size is always relative. We sit down by the bridge, looking at the salmon as they race their way upstream; in some parts the salmon are so dense, there are more silver scales than water. Salmon bakes, salmon cookouts, all you can eat salmon, salmon jerky, tinned and smoked salmon; in fact salmon presented in almost any way you can think of can be found almost anywhere in Alaska, and for a bargain price.

It’s difficult to link the masses of fish that are striving to make their way over each water-bound obstacle to the pink delicacy that I love so much and I feel it’s a shame to be thinking of my stomach at such a time. I turn my attention to wondering about this miracle of nature: just why do salmon go to all that effort to go back to their spawning grounds, when all that awaits the males is death?

A few bald eagles sit on trees close to the river and one dives down to the creek, flying away with a salmon clenched between its talons, but these were the only creatures at the creek; the bears didn’t put in an appearance. After an hour we decide to move on, I wasn’t too disappointed; to leave Alaska without having seen a bear would be like leaving Vegas having not seen the neon. I had another month to practice my bear-watching skills and to remember what to do if one finally appeared a little too close for comfort.

Gazing at ginormous glaciers

An hour’s drive up a dirt road was a little much on a Hyder hangover, but as we gradually got higher into the mountains, small patches of snow formed on the ground, and in the distance the white peaks of mountains poked above the trees. The scenery gradually unfolded into a classic Alaskan panorama. We were on our way to see one of Alaska’s greatest glaciers.

Salmon Glacier, the fifth largest in North America, appeared out of nowhere: one moment we were following a small river deep in the valley below, moments later we were given a vista of this vast sheet of ice, stretching into the next valley and creeping up the mountains beside us.

The van we were in gradually leant to the left as everyone craned out of the window, not knowing which particular point to gaze in awe at. Everyone rummaged for their cameras as we pulled over. The air was noticeably cooler at this height; cool enough to preserve the snow that was at our feet – in August!

Still, this was of little wonder when a relic of the last ice age was in front of us. The vast road of ice is not the clean crystal blue I expected, instead black lines snaked their way over its surface; looking like tyre marks on an airport runway.

“That’s murrain,” I’m told by Mike, our tour leader. ”Tonnes of small rocks that have come to the surface as the glacier eats up the valley.”

While the theory behind glaciations is a little debated, they are known to be tens of thousands of years old; the water that is running out of the terminal face hasn’t been in liquid form since before the start of civilisation in the Western world.

“What are the cracks?” someone asked.

“I was hoping someone was going to ask me that,” said Mike, pulling a Mars Bar out of his pocket and pointing at it. “This is a glacier. Ice expands” – he began to bend the Mars Bar back and forth, and chocolate began falling off and sticking to the gooey centre – “and here are the crevices. This crevices are huge; sometimes they’re covered with a light layer of snow and you could easily lose a man in there.”

“The worst thing is global warming.” We all look up and solemnly nod. Mike devours a mouthful of the imaginary glacier. “In a few years” – another mouthful – “et wul awl be gun.”