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Alaska is a place of extremes and grandiosity, where dreams have room to grow big. To fathom Alaska's scale, try to imagine a place with one square mile for every resident. The state claims 17 out of the nation's 20 largest peaks, 6,640 miles of coastline, more than 3,000 rivers, and three million lakes. Its seesaw weather spans record temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 80 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. In the far north, summer is a three-month day and winter a two-month night.
Dreamers, trailblazers, and gamblers have shaped Alaska's offbeat history. The first Alaskans migrated from Asia some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. They arrived during an ice age that lowered sea level, revealing a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Today's Native Alaskans can be traced to those first settlers of the harsh wilderness.
The 1700s brought Alaska's first fur boom. Russians dominated the trade, though Spain, France, and England also had a hand in the business and a foot in the state's southern panhandle. But by the 1860s, Russia was unable to manage its territories and was ready to sell Alaska to the U.S. The American public was outraged by Secretary of State William Seward's $7.2 million purchase of the land. But thirty years later, the Klondike Gold Rush was on, and prospectors were running to "Seward's Ice Box" after the promise of quick riches.
In the 20th century, oil has been the Alaskan boon. Petroleum engineers long knew about the oil on Alaska's north slope, but transportation costs were prohibitively high. Then, on July 28, 1977, the first barrel of crude oil came down the trans-Alaska pipeline at Valdez. Salaries and prices in the state shot up overnight.
Alaskans rode out their good fortune until the 1980s, when world oil prices dropped and the biggest oil spill in U.S. history occurred. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, contaminating 1,567 miles of shoreline and killing between 300,000 and 650,000 birds.
Today, Alaskans still have the nation's highest per-capita income, though it is tempered by the high cost of living. Most current residents are actually transplants. Roughly only 30 percent of the population are native-born, and 25 percent have moved there in the last five years. Most of these new residents, often mobile youths from America's West Coast, came to Alaska to work and enjoy the best of outdoor living.
The state is roughly divided into Southeast, Southcentral, Interior, and Bush regions. Most visitors concentrate on Alaska's southern coast, which is the most convenient and offers some of the best scenery. Snow-capped mountains rise dramatically from the water to form fjords; the ocean echoes with the sound of massive icebergs breaking off blue glaciers. The coastal waters also teem with marine life, from colorfully beaked puffin birds to huge runs of hot pink salmon.
The Interior is at the origin of the great Alaskan myths, immortalized by poets and pioneers. The great Alaska and Brooks ranges form its natural borders; inside, the Yukon, Koyukuk, and other lifeblood rivers crisscross a vast plateau. Tourists' main pull to the Interior is "The Great One," the 20,320-foot Mount Denali, originally named by the Athabascans.
The rugged Bush covers the majority of the state, particularly the frigid North, yet few visitors glimpse its pristine villages, fiery volcanoes, and treeless terrain. It is frankly rough, costly traveling.