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Vast, only barely civilised at its fringes, Alaska is America's final truly untamed wilderness and, as Dan Wildey discovers, every bit as stunning and mesmerising as you'd expect.

After a choppy ride through the fjord our tiny boat pauses at the entrance to a river leading inland. "It's only 6 inches deep in places, so we have to wait to catch a wave" explains Brendan, of Exit Glacier Guides. All at once the engines roar, the boat surges forward and rises out of the water, leaving my neck muscles straining and hands grasping. With a frantic combination of surfing the wave, aquaplaning and drifting around a bend, we come to rest in a place so otherworldly and still that my adrenalin instantly dissipates into something like serenity.

The previous day I saw these fjords from a boat tour, along with dozens of other people fresh off the cruise ships. Stunning though it was - watching killer whales leading their calves, and glaciers calving their icebergs - I was detached and felt incongruous. I wanted to experience this wilderness, not simply observe it from the viewing deck of a sea-going ivory tower.

Now, with my bones still rattling courtesy of Brendan's buoy-racer approach, I'm about to get close enough to hear the ice creak and feel the water resist my progress on a stand up paddle board. This inflatable platform and a drysuit are the only barriers between me and the still, icy water of an immense lagoon at the foot of Bear Glacier. The glacier is 4 miles away but the sound of it calving echoes around like a not-so-distant war between winter and spring and the icebergs it gives birth to float motionless in every direction. Some are tiny enough to bump out of the way, others the size of warehouses. That occasional thundering crash and the gentle patter of the paddle are the only things to disturb the utter stillness.

Since my attention is rapt on my surroundings it's lucky that SUP has a very shallow learning curve. At least it does on a flat lagoon. In all honesty the activity is almost irrelevant - I could simply jettison my paddle, sit on the board and drift with vivid contentment. But it is the perfect vehicle for the location; serene and unintrusive, to the point that our whole group paddles to within a few metres of a bald eagle perched on an iceberg. He is the only indication we are still on Earth; low cloud obscures the familiar sight of mountains, the water is an opaque steely grey, and the ancient floating monoliths appear to have fallen from an Alien film set designed by HR Giger, only without a hint of menace.

If the railings of the viewing deck kept the wilderness at arm's length, the paddle board is exposing me and I am no longer a mere observer.

 

Wild at heart

"Is that eggshell white?" I ask Brendan later, as we exchange business cards. I'm not sure what compels me, in the company of Alaska's bearded wilderness guides, to quote American Psycho - a satirical film about the dehumanising effects of over-civilisation - but the reference is thankfully taken up. "But I have a slightly better haircut" replies Brendan, enjoying the irony from beneath his unkempt locks. Clearly living in the wildest frontier of the world's most civilised country has encouraged an appreciation of the incongruous.

My meagre experience of America has made me dubious about just how wild this state could be; I didn't exactly expect McDonalds on the summit of Denali, but a burger bar at basecamp wouldn't have been a shock.

Despite the stream of cruise ships, the town of Seward in the Kenai Fjords National Park - from where my SUP adventure began - shows little sign of falling to progress. There are only around 4,000 residents and the fishing boats in the harbor still massively outnumber the seafront gift shops. Even 'Seward International Airport' is nothing more than a shack beside a runway. In the 1960's the whole town was destroyed by a tsunami, and perhaps that memory keeps development in check and reverence for the wilderness to the fore. Or perhaps the people just love the outdoors.

Seward offers just about any mountain sport you can imagine and is the home of the Mount Marathon Race - a 921 metre ascent and treacherous descent over a distance of 5 kilometres - which has been contested for 100 years.

I don't want to give the impression I'm a Luddite. I'm not averse to progress, I'm just wary of sanitising and standardising the wild places of the world. That said, a few modern - or old-fashioned - comforts in the wilderness are welcome, and in this the Alaska Railroad delivers. A long journey from Seward back to Anchorage is naturally helped by the non-stop scenery, but the food in the dining car - and an equally superb selection of local ales - makes for a very civilised experience indeed and evokes the pioneering history it represents.

By contrast, my first impression of McCarthy, my next stop, is of a tacky Wild West Disneyland. I expect a choreographed gunfight to break out along the dusty main street and perhaps an assailant to fall from a sugar-glass window in one of the iconic false-facades.

But I'm totally wrong. McCarthy, population 40, is the real deal.

From Anchorage it's a five hour drive and a 30 minute flight - unless you fancy another few hours driving a dirt road - to get to a genuine backwater town. McCarthy is deep in the mountains of the Wrangell-St Elias National Park and sprung up as an adjunct to the nearby town of Kennecott, which itself appeared out of nowhere to house hundreds of copper miners in the early 1900s.

Since the company town of Kennecott did not permit alcohol, or in most cases, the miners' wives, McCarthy grew to fulfil needs that mining couldn't. The current proprietors of our lodging - Ma Johnson's Historic Hotel - remain tight-lipped about whether it was in fact a former bordello. The mystery of its past - one of many mysteries in the town - only adds to the authenticity of McCarthy.

I mistook the Main Street for a hokey reproduction, but the buildings, I discover, are real. There are giveaways, such as abandoned washing machines in the street. Surely no theme park designer would decorate with white goods? The many abandoned cars, maybe, but the reality is there is simply no way to dispose of broken machines out here; it's indicative of the locals' resourcefulness that there isn't a huge landfill site. That everything appears so well maintained is partly down to a very dry climate - which also accounts for the unlikely preservation of the tallest freestanding wooden structure in North America, the Kennecott Mine - and partly down to what Neil Darish calls "arrested decay."

Darish is the protagonist of the latest highly dramatised 'reality' show, Edge of Alaska. 'Antagonist' might be a better description of the role he plays as relentless moderniser and entrepreneur, opposed by the homesteaders of McCarthy. Despite the script, there is a root of truth in this conflict.

Darish treats me to an unexpected Michelin-star-quality tasting menu in his saloon bar, McCarthy Lodge (soon to be known as McCarthy Bistro). He talks at length about his plans to supply electricity to the town for the first time in its off-grid history, and to build a 100 bed hotel to draw the cruise-ship set inland. The Bistro is a part of this new direction.

But in all my probing about his drive and motivation, Darish doesn't once mention the landscape, the mountains, the glaciers or the beauty of this place. It remains to be seen whether Darish can restrict his endeavours to the noble idea of 'arrested decay.'

 

Eternal wilderness?

But the landscape will outlast his developments, as will those arriving to enjoy it. In the summer McCarthy's population of 40 swells with seasonal staff looking to guide climbers, hikers and kayakers. Wrangell-St Elias National Park is the largest in America and is overflowing with 9 of the 16 highest North American mountains and some of the largest non-polar glaciers in the world.

Kennicott Glacier is a minnow at a mere 25 miles long, and 100 years ago it towered above the town of Kennecott (which has always been misspelled due to a clerical error). Today it has sunk lower than the town and points the way to the Chugach range in the south and upstream towards the immense Mount Blackburn. Towards this southern end it is almost completely covered in silt and moraine, churned up over its perpetual journey, giving the outlook across its girth an eerie lifelessness.

Luckily Brian, one of the summer influx at St Elias Alpine Guides, is on hand to show me its icy origins.From the ghost town of Kennecott we begin hiking up the line of the valley, high above the glacier and way below the lines it has scoured into the rock throughout its history. It's incredible how quickly a hike can take you from the fervour of development into places that will never be tamed, and in Alaska that transition is striking.

Despite following a well-trodden hiking path, we are soon passing food stores - which keep campers separated from anything that might attract bears - and an outhouse bearing a warning that "porcupines may actually be in the hole." Signs of human traffic, yes, but signs that aren't in control here.

The thick topping of moraine abruptly ends where the Root Glacier collides with its larger sibling. Root is essentially a tributary of the Kennicott glacier, and from the junction of the two is a clear white ribbon running all the way to the Stairway Icefall which is the source of Root, and a moraine-brown ribbon leading to the still-distant Blackburn.

As we don crampons and take our first steps onto the ice Brian tells me the incredible story of the first ascent of Blackburn. "In 1912 a lady called Dora Keen rocked up in Kennecott and rounded up a group of miners to help her climb the east face." From where we stood the mountain was still over 20 miles away. That's 20 miles of glacier, before the climbing even starts.

Unfortunately a survey in the 1960s revealed the East Peak (to which Keen had climbed) to be lower than the West Peak, so Keen wasn't the first to summit Blackburn, but her East Face route has never been repeated in over 100 years.

This heroic story doesn't diminish our glacier hike; quite the opposite. From the miners to the climbers, I can feel the echoes of history all around the valley, along with the weight of isolation. The enormous silence of wilderness drowns out the scripted arguments of TV writers, and the digging of hotel foundations.

Standing on an immense flowing river of ice at its junction with an even bigger glacier, the constant changing of the environment is impossible to ignore. Above me the remnants of earlier peoples' plundering of the landscape, the entrances to various mines, are falling down before my eyes and are as insignificant relics in a timeless place, and in the distance Dora Keen's footprints are long gone and never repeated.

It pleases me that Alaska resists some of the excesses of civilisation. I hope it's by design, and due to a respect for the environment, but I suspect it is at least partly due to the land being eternally wild.

 

Our trip

Discover the World offers a wide choice of Alaskan adventures, including glacier hiking, flightseeing and Alaska Railroad trips.

For independent travellers, see Exit Glacier Guides in Seward and St Elias Alpine Guides in McCarthy.