I just got back from a vacation in Alaska, which I must recommend to everyone. I spent most of my time exploring the wilderness and looking for bears (three different sightings), but between nature hikes and wildlife cruises I collected some Alaska trivia. Since it's the largest state (by a large margin, as you'll soon learn), it contains a lot of trivia, so keep your eyes peeled for more posts this week.

McKinley or Denali?

Everyone knows Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America. Unless you ask an Alaskan, who'll tell you the tallest peak is Mt. Denali. They're talking about the same thing, though. Natives originally called the mountain Denali, which translates to "The Great One," but American visitors changed the name to McKinley to honor the president. In 1980, when the Denali National Park and Preserve was established, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names officially changed the name of the mountain back to Mt. Denali. However, the federal board elected to keep the name as McKinley. Although there is support for a nationwide name change, Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula has been proposing legislation to keep the name as McKinley since 1975, blocking any movement on the issue.

The Invisible Giant

Even though Mt. Denali (or McKinley) is massive, clocking in at more than 20,000 feet tall, most people don't get a chance to see it. It's so tall that clouds are constantly obscuring the peak and even on a sunny day, evaporating snow creates enough cloud cover to block it from being seen from the ground. It is estimated that the peak is only visible 20-30 percent of the time in the summer (I wasn't lucky enough to see more than the base of the mountain).

Frederick Cook and his Fake Peak

frederick cook.jpgCount Frederick Cook as one of those many who never saw the peak of Denali. Cook claimed to have reached the summit of the mountain in 1906 and even published photographs of himself planting a flag at the peak. One problem: he hadn't actually made it. Belmore Brown, a junior climber on Cook's expedition who had remained on the ground to collect plant samples, was suspicious that Cook had made it up and down The Great One in less than a month. He set out to prove that Cook was lying and found a point 19 miles southeast of Denali's summit that matched the photographs Cook had published. After much debate and analysis (and several more expeditions to the same point), it has been established that Cook did falsify his ascent, landing at the spot now known as Fake Peak, which is almost 15,000 feet lower than the peak of Denali.

The Really Great State

In terms of total area, Alaska, with 663,267 square miles, isn't just the largest state- it's larger than the combined areas of the next three largest states: Texas (286,581 square miles), California (163,696 square miles) and Montana (147,042 square miles).

First in Flight

bush plane.jpgThanks to the popularity of bush planes, Alaska has more planes and pilots per capita than any other state. Alaska also technically has the longest runway in the world, since the Richardson Highway, which runs 368 miles from Valdez to Fairbanks, can be designated an emergency landing strip.

The Mountain Marathon (on Mt. Marathon)

MtMarathon.jpgA popular tradition in Alaska is the Seward Mt. Marathon Race, a footrace up and down a 3-mile climb and descent of a Mt. Marathon. According to folklore, the race started when a miner asserted that he could make it up and down the mountain (just over 3,000 feet tall) in less than an hour. Another charged that it was impossible, so the two settled it, naturally, with a race on July 4th. It took the winner 62 minutes to finish, but the idea of the race stuck and, in 1915, it became an official race. It's said to be the second-oldest organized race in America (after the Boston Marathon), but other races have also made this claim. The speeds have improved greatly since the original race- the record is now 43 minutes and 23 seconds.