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North to Alaska: Call of the Wild Leads Visitors to the Last Frontier


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Barbara Klein.

And I’m Steve Ember. Among the fifty states, California is the largest in population. But which state is the largest in area? Texas? No, another state is even bigger than Texas: Alaska.

Alaska is a state of wild beauty. It calls itself the Last Frontier. Alaska is on the border with northwestern Canada -- so far north, part of it is within the Arctic Circle.

It has a million and a half square kilometers of territory. It has forests to hike, mountains to climb and waters to sail or fish. Alaska is known for its salmon, crab and other seafood.

The travel season in Alaska is between May and September. Some areas, especially in the interior, get surprisingly warm in the summer.

The Alaska Climate Research Center says one rule has been found to work for most travelers in Alaska. Always be prepared for one season colder than the time you are traveling. This is true especially if you visit Alaska early or late in the travel season.

Much of Alaskan life is shaped by ice and snow, especially in the Arctic north. Not surprisingly, then, climate change is an important issue for the state.

September marked the end of what scientists call the melt season for Arctic sea ice. The National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado says the sea ice fell this year to the lowest levels since satellite measurements began. That was in nineteen seventy-nine. If earlier ship and aircraft records are included, Arctic sea ice may have fallen by as much as half from levels in the nineteen fifties.

In September, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin signed an order establishing an advisory group within her cabinet. The Climate Change Sub-Cabinet will prepare a plan for dealing with the expected effects of global warming.

In a statement, the governor said many scientists note that Alaska’s climate is changing. She said Alaskans are already seeing effects like coastal erosion, melting ice and record forest fires.

The cabinet group will also look at ways to develop and expand programs for renewable energy from wind and other sources. In addition, the governor is seeking a natural gas pipeline that she says would help the nation by providing clean energy.

Native groups have lived for thousands of years in Alaska. In the seventeen hundreds, Russia took control of the territory. Alaska is just across the Bering Strait from Siberia. The Russians traded with the local people and brought animal furs back home to Russia to sell.

Later, the Russians decided to sell the territory itself. The United States bought it in eighteen sixty-seven for seven million dollars. Alaska became a territory of the United States. The name came from Alyeska, an Aleut native word for "great land."

Many Americans did not think Alaska was such a great land. They did not think it had valuable resources. In fact, it was one of the best deals the United States ever made.

Today, Alaska's biggest industries are oil production, tourism and fishing. The state also has gold and copper mines and other mineral resources.

Around nineteen hundred, gold was found in the Yukon area. Many people went to Alaska hoping to get rich in the Yukon gold rush. Most of them did not succeed.

Finally, in nineteen fifty-nine, Alaska entered the Union as the forty-ninth state -- the forty-ninth star on the American flag. Later that same year Hawaii became the fiftieth. Alaska and Hawaii are the only states that are not physically connected to the others.

Alaska has fewer people per square kilometer than any other state. But the population has been growing. The most recent estimate from the Census Bureau shows there were six hundred seventy thousand people last year.

Most Alaskans live in central and southern Alaska. The climate is more moderate compared to the north and there is more daylight during winter.

Alaska’s largest city is Anchorage, with about two hundred eighty thousand people. Fairbanks and Juneau, the capital, have about thirty thousand each.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center says Alaska Natives represent about sixteen percent of the state population. The Heritage Center says eleven native Alaskan cultures and twenty languages survive today.

Sled dogs are an important part of the history of Alaska. For many, many winters, sleds pulled by dogs provided the only transportation across the frozen territory.

Dog sled drivers are called mushers. The early ones in some cases even used wolves to pull their sleds.

Mushers and their dogs carried mail, food and other supplies to miners after the rivers were frozen and boat travel was blocked. Sometimes the sleds carried the miners’ gold on the return trip.

In nineteen twenty-five, heavy snows blocked all the roads into the city of Nome. A serious disease, diphtheria, was spreading among children there. The nearest medicine was in Anchorage. Twenty dog sled teams took part in getting the medicine from Anchorage to Nome. They got it there in five and a half days.

Even as airplanes and snowmobiles came to replace dog sleds, that event has never been forgotten.

In March of each year, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is held in Alaska. Organizers wanted to create an event that would preserve the memory of dog sleds. They chose a race over what had been the Iditarod Trail, one of the paths traveled by dog sleds.

The race from Anchorage to Nome, on the Bering Sea coast, is more than one thousand eight hundred fifty kilometers long.  The first one took place in nineteen seventy-three.

The mushers travel from one rest area to another, much the same way mushers did many years ago as they took supplies to the miners. But the modern sleds travel much faster.

Alaska is a popular vacation place. One reason is its eight national parks. The best known is Denali National Park. Denali is home to North America’s highest mountain. Mount McKinley is over six thousand meters high.

Denali National Park also has rivers and large glaciers. Wildlife in the park includes wolves, moose and grizzly bears.

There are hotels in the park, but some visitors like to set up tents and sleep outdoors. Most visitors come in the summer months. During winter, the road into the park is closed except for visitors using skis, snowshoes or dog sleds.

Tourists in Alaska do not have to go camping to see glaciers. Many people go on cruise ships that sail past these slow-moving mountains of ice. Another way to experience Alaska is by train. There are railroad tours that are several days long.

In nineteen seventy-three the United States was facing a Middle East oil crisis. Congress passed legislation that President Richard Nixon signed into law to permit the building of an oil pipeline across Alaska. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is almost one thousand three hundred kilometers long. It extends from the oil fields of Alaska’s North Slope to the port of Valdez.

Oil brings money for Alaska, but also risks. Almost twenty years ago, Alaska experienced an environmental disaster that killed fish, birds, seals and other animals.

In nineteen eighty-nine, the tanker ship Exxon Valdez tore open on underwater rocks and created a huge oil spill along the coast. The clean-up took a long time and led Congress to pass legislation to try to reduce the danger of oil pollution.

Today environmental groups are fighting calls to open protected areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling. Drilling supporters say the oil is needed to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. Opponents say it would defeat the purpose of a wildlife refuge.

One thing cannot be disputed. Alaska's biggest industries -- oil, tourism and fishing -- all depend on its natural resources. That includes the wild and wide-open beauty that every year brings more than one million visitors to the Last Frontier.

Our program was produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Barbara Klein. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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