Stories from Alaska

An insider's journey through Alaska's best kept secrets

Where IS Alaska??

Alaska is well-known and well-traveled, and part of that popularity lies in the mystique of its locale in the Far North. But does everyone exactly WHERE Alaska thrives in the northern hemisphere?

While some have a decent idea of Alaska’s location (northwest of Canada, east of Russia, somewhere near the Arctic Circle), that description might make a journey to Alaska seem like a complicated and exhausting multiday trek. But savvy travelers know that Alaska is actually easy to get to – Anchorage, for example, is just a three-hour flight from Seattle, a little over five hours from Los Angeles, and just over six hours from Chicago. And it’s also a short, scenic and serene two-day cruise from Vancouver to Ketchikan and a two-three day by cruise from Seattle to Juneau.

But while Alaska is more accessible than some might think, there’s plenty of mystery, romance and tall tales surrounding the question “Where IS Alaska??”.

But Maps Don’t Lie – or Do They?

When it comes to clarity of latitudes and longitudes, you might think that the maps “have it”, but in the case of Alaska, many maps of the United States place Alaska in an inset box at the bottom left of the Lower 48 states, seemingly floating in the Pacific Ocean somewhere closer to California and Hawaii.

And there’s even more mapping misdirection… The Mercator projection is the foundation of most modern maps, including many popular online maps and map apps. Yet this calculation tends to distort the size and shape of areas nearer to the poles. So, in the case of Alaska, that distortion becomes dramatic and therefore, on many maps, the state seems even more massive and far away than its already grand size. Now while the Gall-Peters projection is much more realistic in its mapping proportions, it’s not as esthetically attractive from an Alaskan viewpoint. Alaska appears both scrunched and stretched at the top of these maps. Not Alaska’s most attractive side, by any means!

Without the proper perspective, Alaska by map might sometimes seem set so far atop the world that it appears to be located almost at the North Pole. In fact, however, Alaska’s northernmost point, Point Barrow, is more than 1,000 frigid miles away from the Earth’s geographic North Pole. Adding to this circumpolar confusion (and injecting some comedy into things) is the naming of one Alaskan town just a few miles from Fairbanks “North Pole”. This charming town is actually all about Santa Claus and the Christmas spirit and has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual “north pole”.

Can You Really See Russia from Alaska?

Then there’s an infamous statement from an infamous Alaskan about the proximity of Russia and Alaska. This viral quote was subsequently turned into an even more infamous line by an actress on Saturday Night Live, forever skewing public perceptions of the actual distance between Alaska and Russia. So, to set the story straight, no, Russia is not visible from Wasilla, Anchorage, Fairbanks or Juneau, or most mainland Alaska for that matter.

It is true that two tiny Diomede Islands in the Bering Strait have the honor of being the shortest points between Alaska and Russia. And Little Diomede is part of Alaska while, 2.5 miles to its west is Big Diomede, the property of Russia. And on a clear day from the shoreline of Little Diomede, you can indeed see Big Diomede, and even some Siberian mountains peaks. Russia is also rarely but technically visible from far-off Alaska locations such as Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost point of mainland America situated on the tip of the Seward Peninsula, and St. Lawrence Island located in the southern Bering Strait.

In winter, the already dangerous waters of the Bering Strait freeze in many places, making it possible (but dangerous) to walk from Alaska to Russia.  Only two groups are known to have made this mission successfully in modern times. Little Diomede to Big Diomede is the shortest jaunt and Cape of Prince Wales to the easternmost part of remote Siberia is the longer route at 55 miles. And if you survive this walk (and probably a swim or float), just note that you’ll likely be welcomed to Russia with handcuffs instead of with open arms!

A Thriving “Los Anchorage”

So now that we’ve set the story straight about “where Alaska IS”, we’ll share one last insider joke. Anchorage, being the state’s largest city and its travel, commerce and cultural hub, is also the starting point for many amazing Alaska adventures in the Chugach Mountains and beyond. But to the locals, due to its large population, traffic and urban sprawl, especially to some Alaskans who are proudly “non-Anchorage” residents, it is known as “Los Anchorage”. And they are quick to point out, it’s only 15 minutes from Los Anchorage to Alaska!

City lights reflecting on Cook Inlet on a late winter evening in Anchorage, Alaska