Read an Excerpt
Mountains, Glaciers, and Innumerable Rivers
Rivers, creeks, and streams almost without number course through the extent of Alaska, but it is the mountain ranges that most define its landscape. Jutting southward from the main landmass, the Aleutian Range is the backbone of the narrow Alaska Peninsula. To the north, the Alaska Range sprawls more than 500 miles across the heart of the state, rising to 20,320 feet atop the icy crown of North America. The Chugach and Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains shadow the Alaska Range to the south and wrap around southcentral Alaska's turbulent rim of fire and ice. Southeast of the St. Elias Range, the Coast Mountains march down the southeast panhandle above the emerald waters of the Inside Passage. West of the Alaska Range, the Kuskokwim Mountains are mere foothills by comparison, but this range rises above the entangled streams and wetlands of the Yukon and Kuskokwim river systems. The Kuskokwim Mountains point north toward the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountain chain in the United States and the roof above Alaska's North Slope.
Aleutian Range, Alaska Range, Chugach Mountains, Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains, Coast Mountains, Kuskokwim Mountains, and Brooks Range; these are the seven great mountain systems that define Alaska.
The Aleutian Range dominates the sweeping arc of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands as they slice between the waters of the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. This wild, 1,600-mile tail of Alaska is a grand necklace of rugged peaks, lowland plains, and rocky beaches cast upon a restless and frequently rambunctious sea. The highpoint of therange, 11,413-foot Mount Torbert, lies near its tangled juncture with the Alaska Range. Chakachamna Lake and the Chakachatna River slice through the range just south of Mount Torbert and Mount Spurr (11,070 feet) and tempt some to lump these peaks with the Alaska Range rather than the Aleutians. South of here, however, beyond Lake Clark Pass, there can be no doubt. The active volcanoes of Redoubt (10,197 feet) and Iliamna (10,016 feet) rise above the waters of Cook Inlet to the east and sparkling Lake Clark to the west.
The Aleutian Range fades briefly near Iliamna Lake before regaining height in the peaks north and south of Mount Katmai. Had it not been for the 1912 eruption of nearby Novarupta that collapsed Katmai's summit cone, the mountain would be some 7,500 feet high. As it is, 6,715-foot Mount Katmai is one of eleven 6,000-foot-plus mountains in Katmai National Park and Preserve and one of fifteen active volcanoes lining Shelikof Strait between the peninsula and Kodiak Island.
Southwest of Katmai, Aniakchak caldera also bears stark witness to Alaska's rim of fire and ice. About 3,500 years ago, a cataclysmic eruption blew the top off Aniakchak Mountain. This caused its summit slopes to collapse, leaving a 2,000-foot-deep, six-mile-wide caldera. The Aniakchak River rises in Surprise Lake within the caldera and then cuts through its rim at the Gates, embarking on a rollicking thirty-two-mile journey to the sea.
Southwest of Aniakchak, the Alaska Peninsula ends opposite Unimak Island. This narrow waterway was called False Pass because passage on its northern end appeared blocked at low tide. Mount Shishaldin (9,372 feet) on Unimak Island towers above the strait and is one of those volcanoes with an almost perfect symmetry to its cone. Here, the terrain sweeps upward from sea level to above 9,000 feet in less than ten miles. Beyond watery Unimak Pass, the Aleutian Islands trail off across the North Pacific toward Asia's Kamchatka Peninsula. The islands get smaller as the chain bends westward, but mountains -- many more than 4,000 feet tall -- continue to dominate the landscape.
In the other direction from Lake Clark Pass, the rocky backbone of the Alaska Range curves northeastward for some 500 miles across the heart of Alaska, dividing the southcentral coast from the interior. No roads cross its crest in the western half, and it is a barrier even to the moisture-laden clouds that drop most of their load south of the range.
The U.S. Board of Geographic Names insists that the tallest mountain in the range -- and the highpoint of North America -- is called Mount McKinley. Athabascan Natives of the interior long called the mountain Denali, meaning "the high one." Charles Sheldon, who was instrumental in the creation of Mount McKinley National Park, also always referred to the mountain as Denali. Sheldon first arrived near the mountain from the north in 1906 and wrote: "Soon after starting again we caught glimpses of snowy peaks toward the south, and when we reached the top, Denali and the Alaska Range suddenly burst into view ahead, apparently very near. I can never forget my sensations at the sight. No description could convey any suggestion of it." Sheldon was not the first -- nor would he be the last -- to be fooled by this country's scale. Denali was still a good thirty miles away, but Sheldon was certainly right about the mountain's name.
The highest summits of the Alaska Range cluster about Denali: Mounts Crosson (12,800 feet), Foraker (17,400 feet), Russell (11,670 feet), and Dall (8,756 feet) curving to the southwest; Hunter (14,573 feet) and Huntington (12,240 feet) forming a barrrier to the south; and Silverthrone (13,220 feet), Deception (11,826 feet), and Mather (12,123 feet) running eastward along the crest of the range. Today, all of these summits are within Denali National Park and Preserve.
The lowest crossing of the main Alaska Range is 2,300-foot Broad Pass, the route of both the Alaska Railroad and the George Parks Highway. Broad Pass is just that -- almost flat and very broad -- sending waters either north to the Nenana-Yukon drainage or south to the Susitna River. Both the railroad and the highway ease through the remainder of the range by following the canyon of the Nenana River.Alaska. Copyright © by Walter Borneman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.