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Hardly anywhere in the world conjures up sharper images than Alaska; the name itself � a derivation of Alayeska, an Athapascan word meaning "great land of the west" � fires the imagination of many a traveler. Few who see this land of gargantuan icefields, sweeping tundra, glacially excavated valleys, lush rainforests, deep fjords and active volcanoes leave disappointed. Wildlife may be under threat in places elsewhere, but here it is abundant, with Kodiak bears reaching heights of eleven feet, moose stopping traffic in downtown Anchorage, wolves howling throughout the night, bald eagles soaring above the trees and rivers solid with fifty-plus-pound salmon. Alaska�s sheer size alone is hard to comprehend � its vast expanse covers an area more than double that of Texas (or six times the size of Britain), and its coastline is longer than the rest of the US combined. All but three of the nation�s twenty highest peaks are found within its boundaries, along with the two largest National Parks, the two most extensive National Forests, and more active glaciers than in the rest of the inhabited world put together. Not all the terrain is hospitable, though; a mere 620,000 people live in this huge state, of which forty percent live in Anchorage. Altogether, only a twentieth of one percent of the land area is developed, the rest remaining almost entirely untouched. In many ways it mirrors the American West of the nineteenth century, not surprising for a place often referred to as the "Last Frontier": an endless space in which to stake a claim and set up anew without interference. Or at least that's how many Alaskans would like it to be. Throughout the twentieth century tens of thousands were lured by the promise of wealth, first by gold and then by fishing, logging, and, most recently, oil.
Alaska is the kind of place folks become obsessive about, and these obsessions fall into two camps. The majority love it, but treat it as a boundless treasure trove that is so far from Washington DC anything is fair play. This state of grace has largely gone, but the myth persists and many Alaskans believe in their right to do whatever they want, and bitterly resent anyone who suggests they do otherwise. A minority came to Alaska for its pristine qualities and want to keep it that way. With growing pressure from these green-minded activists and the federal government, environmental issues have increasingly made front-page news. Current controversies include the practice of clear-cutting in the national forests, the prospect of oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, over-fishing, and wolf culling which, according to animal-rights groups, is primarily to ensure that there are more caribou for hunters. Most famously, there's been the unholy mess created by the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in 1989, though there is now little visible evidence.
Largely marginalized from mainstream society are Alaska's Native people, who number around 86,000. Most choose to live in remote communities � known as "Native villages" � where services are often limited and earning a living can be entirely dependent on the number of salmon running that year. Very few live in the larger towns, and those that do often live in conditions that are harsh at best. Natives have largely been left behind by the state's periodic boom times, though a large land settlement in the 1970s paved the way for relatively wealthy Native corporations to provide much-needed income for their people.
Also deserving of some redress is the famed gender imbalance, though in truth the imbalance isn't all that pronounced. Forty-eight percent of Alaskans are women (the lowest percentage in any US state), and it is only in small pockets such as oil communities and small fishing towns, that the excesses of male-dominated environments are apparent. One thing that is no myth here is Alaska's deserved reputation for high prices; still, experiencing Alaska on a low budget is possible with a bit of planning. Traveling outside the peak summer season (see opposite) will save you money on accommodation, which can be quite expensive. The exceptions are camping, which can be very cheap or free, and the thirty or so hostels, mostly in the major towns, but sprinkled elsewhere throughout the state. Thanks to the long distances and high-priced rental cars, transport is far from cheap; and eating and drinking are, at best, about twenty percent more expensive than in the Lower 48.