The border guard takes a brief glimpse at our passports as all ten of us hold them up inside the van; we could have been holding student cards and I don’t think she would have noticed. "Have a nice day now," she says as we enter the U.S.A.
This was quite unlike the welcome I received in New York. A stern looking man examined my visa, eyes flicking back and fore between my photo and face, referring to his computer to see if I was wanted for any illegal activity. He then waved me into the U.S. by the mere action of my passport being stamped and returned to me without even a welcoming grunt. This is Alaska, after all, and we are supposedly entering the friendliest ghost town in the state – Hyder.
Hyder has a population of fewer than 100, depending on the season. It is just a stone's throw from Stewart, British Columbia. Its idyllic location, trapped between mountains and water, is a stunning welcome to the awe-inspiring beauty of America’s 49th state.
Hyder’s main street contains a small store, a few houses and two bars; both offering the chance to be Hyderised. Being Hyderised is one of the few things that can keep you warm during an Alaskan winter (and with a ratio of about three men to every woman, not everyone can be doing the alternative).
Being Hyderized involves downing a shot of liquor. The strong vodka like concoction is poured into a shot glass and downed. The glasses are then passed under a flame and the bar and shot glasses momentarily burns before you. The drink probably has a name (I assume it’s not call Hyder). I may have even been told it, but the effects of Hydeising rendered my brain activity redundant for the rest of the night.
This is the original and authentic place in which to be Hyderized. Everyone who is new in town must be Hyderised before they are allowed to enjoy the rest of the evening (or is that because?).
There is more to Hyder than creating hangovers. This is Alaska’s southernmost gateway and its surroundings serve as a gentle introduction to the states jaw-dropping scenery.
Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site is a long rising walkway above the water of Fish Creek and Marx Creek, a few miles from Hyder. Both brown and black bears come here to feed on chum and salmon. Mornings are the best time to see the beasts before, as the ranger jokes, she "locks them away again for the rest of the day".
A brief leaflet at the entrance gives visitors details on what to do if you meet a bear away from the safety of the walkway (given Alaska’s huge wilderness areas and large bear populations are distinct possibilities). There are different ways to act depending on which species of bear you have inadvertently disturbed. I am hoping that should I ever be involved in such an encounter, I’ll be able to remember what steps to take with the appropriate bear: I play dead with a black bear; fight back with a grizzly! Or is it the other way round? I’m not much of a fighter so I’m sure the bear would win either way.
I arrive at Fish Creek at about 8:00 a.m. There are a number of people at the walkway, about ten. (This is ghost town Alaska. Size is relative). I sit down by the small stone bridge, looking at the salmon as they race their way upstream. In some places, they are so dense there are more silver scales than water. Even in the deepest parts, the mass of bodies creates ripples on the water.
The salmon migration is one of nature’s great achievement. The fish I am watching have been swimming against the current for weeks, jumping waterfalls and taking every correct turn in the maze of Alaskan rivers to find their spawning grounds. Bears are one of the biggest threats to salmon because they make their way upstream. Everyone at the creek is hoping they’ll see why.
I wait patiently for an hour or so, a gentleman stands next to me with a huge zoom lens pointed at the river, others chat amongst themselves or ask the ranger "when do you think…"
A few bald eagles sit on trees close to the river's edge. Suddenly one dives down. Its talons plunge into the water for a second – quickly withdraws as if it is too hot – a plump salmon comes with the talons. The bird beats its wings. It appears as if the weight is too much, but it then climbs rapidly, flying over the surrounding trees to land at an unseen place where it will feed.
This is the only predator I see at the river that day. The bears never put in an appearance. "I’ll have to go out and find them again," I hear the ranger joke as I leave. Coming to Alaska and not seeing a bear is like going to Vegas and not seeing a casino. I'll have another chance, probably best as I still have to figure out what to do if one comes too close for comfort.
One of Hyder’s great sights has eluded me, but I am keen to see another, which is guaranteed. With several members of the group opting out of bear spotting because of Hyder hangovers, we meet up again with our guide to head out of town.
After an hour's drive, as we gradually get higher into the mountains, small patches of snow begin to appear. In the distance white peaks poke above the trees, the scenery gradually unfolds into a classic Alaskan panorama. Hidden among the forest is one of Alaska’s greatest glaciers.
Salmon Glacier, the fifth largest in North America, appears out of nowhere. One moment we are following a small river deep in the valley below, moments later we are given a vista of this vast sheet of ice, stretching into the next valley, creeping up the mountains beside us. Ice forks between a mountain peak before it drops into the valley below us. Everyone rummages for their cameras as we pull over for a stunning panorama.
The air is noticeably cooler at this height; cool enough to preserve the snow that is at our feet – in August! Still, this is of little wonder when a relic of the last ice age is in front of us. The vast road of ice is not clean crystal blue, instead black lines snake their way over its surface like the tyre marks on an airport runway. "That’s murrain," Mike, our tour leader, says, "tonnes of small rocks that have come to the surface as the glacier eats up the valley".
While the theory behind glaciating is debated, glaciers are known to be thousands, even tens of thousands of years old. The water that runs out of the terminal face hasn’t been in liquid form since before the start of civilisation in the Western world.
"What are the cracks?" someone asks.
"I was hoping someone was going to ask me that," answers Mike, pulling a Mar Bar out of his pocket.
"This is a glacier." He holds up the Mars Bar and points to it (you have to imagine this even though it is quite hard).
"Ice expands." He bends the bar, chocolate breaks off, but stays stuck to the gooey centre. "Here are the crevices." He indicates the gaps in the chocolate leading to the caramel below. "This goes on all day, every day. As the glacier warms up, the bar cools down." He bends the bar back and fore, side to side. The chocolate bar is now a spider’s web of caramel fissures.
"Those crevices are huge," Mike says as he looks over to Salmon Glacier. "You can easily lose a man in there, sometimes they’re covered in snow and you can fall right through."
He drops a tiny bit of sunflower seed into one of the cracks in the bar. "When the ice contracts again," he demonstrates by pushing the bars together into a more or less solid chocolate form. The imaginary person in entombed by a wall of chocolate and caramel. A few people wince. We’re supposed to be glacier walking in a few days time.
"The worse thing is global warming." As we look at the glacier and solemnly nod, Mike devours a mouthful of the imaginary glacier. "In a few years another mouthful, et wul awl be gun."
He brings out a few more chocolate bars and we partake in the exercise before moving on. We get a last glimpse of Salmon Glacier as we head away from Hyder into the true wilderness of northern Alaska and the Yukon – while it is still there.