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Alaska is separated from Siberia only by the narrow Bering Strait. Much of Alaska lies north of the Arctic Circle in the Arctic Ocean; this area is predominantly glacial and mountainous (Mt. McKinley stands at over 20,000 feet, nearly a mile higher than Mont Blanc).

Temperatures in southeastern Alaska are in fact comparatively mild; 23 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 Celsius) is the average January temperature in Juneau, with an average of 56F (13C) in July. Inland, however, winter temperatures of forty degrees below zero are typical. Much of Alaska's northern areas are treeless tundra, although southern Alaska is heavily forested. Alaskan brown bears and polar bears, deer, caribou, and moose are common.

Indigenous civilizations in the area -- by Eskimos, Aleuts, Tlingits, and others -- are ancient. The first Europeans reached Alaska in the early eighteenth century: Vitus Bering, a Danish captain, arrived at St. Lawrence Island in 1728, and returned in 1741. The first permanent European settlement was a Russian colony on Kodiak Island founded by Grigory Shelekhov in 1784. Although explorers from other nations (including Captain Cook) visisted Alaska late in the eighteenth century, Russian dominance was unshaken; Emperor Paul I of Russia granted the Russian-American Company a trading monopoly in 1799. A number of Russian settlements were destroyed in attacks by the indigenous Tlingit Indians, including New Archangel in 1802, but Russia defeated the Tlingits in 1804. Alaska remained under Russian control until 1867, when the territory was sold to the United States.