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TAKING THE HIGH (WATER) ROAD : ALASKA'S MARINE HIGHWAY OFFERS GLIMPSES OF STATE'S GLORIES.

Byline: Robert Cross Chicago Tribune

Approximately 35 miles northeast of Whittier, Alaska, a young black bear floundered in the icy seas of Prince William Sound on a vague heading toward distant Storey Island. He appeared hopelessly lost and greatly fatigued.

Passengers on this Valdez-to-Whittier ferry gathered along the rails, taking pictures, squinting through binoculars, shouting encouragement: ``Go, baby! You can do it!''

Capt. Walter Jackinsky slowed the ship and circled the bear, so everyone could get a better look.

``I think the captain forgot how easy it is to confuse a wild animal,'' a man on the aft deck remarked, ``but, then again, I'm not drivin'.''

The Bartlett is one of eight ships serving three regions of Alaska on routes that visit 32 ports - from Bellingham in the state of Washington out to the far western reaches of the Aleutian Islands.

A state government operation, the system known as the Alaska Marine Highway is a network of liquid thoroughfares taking people and their vehicles into isolated settlements where roads can't go - meanwhile passing some of the most terrific scenery in the U.S.

Plenty of wildlife, too. As the Bartlett resumed its course toward Whittier, the voice of Charlu Choate sounded a sort of bear-farewell note over the ship's public address system. ``We do see bears along here, but to see one swimming - and so far from shore - is highly unusual,'' she said.

Choate, a U.S. Forest Service ranger attached to the Chugach National Forest who serves as a nature interpreter along the Marine Highway, frequently pointed out unusual things during the seven-hour, 95-mile trip from Valdez.

Spellbinding scenery

The Chugach Mountains and their dark-green nap of forest cuddle Prince William Sound with a generous, snow-capped, piney hug. Ancient glaciers - souvenirs from the last Ice Age - coat mountain passes like marshmallow topping. Some of the glaciers descend to the water, breaking off chunks that clutter the fiords, exposing walls of ice more vividly blue than the sky itself.

Choate called out the name of every geological feature, bird, fish, mammal and plant that passengers might see.

I recalled a cruise I had taken on Alaska's Inside Passage a few years ago. There was no play-by-play announcer then - just a sporadic, desultory message from the bridge (``whale on the port bow,'' ``dolphins at starboard'').

The ``Blue Canoes'' of the Marine Highway aren't there to entertain, of course. They function primarily as transportation, offering rudimentary comforts.

Thousands of Alaskans use the ships to commute between towns otherwise imprisoned by mountains and sea. So to many on board the Bartlett, this could have been just another routine voyage. But when the ship encountered a bald eagle standing sentinel on the top branch of a Sitka spruce, or wove among icebergs populated by harbor seals, or chugged near the 300-foot face of mighty Columbia Glacier, or slowed down at that improbable bear-crossing, there wasn't a jaded eye on deck.

One grizzled Alaskan, a Highway regular, muttered grudging approval. ``I'm impressed,'' he said. ``I usually run into storms and rough seas out here. A sunny day like this is new for me - and it's gorgeous.''

Low-key ambience

There are grudging concessions to cruise ship ambience on Marine Highway vessels. In the dining room, waiters in white smocks serve satisfying but unremarkable seafood and meat entrees for moderate prices. My vegetable soup and turkey-sandwich lunch special cost $6.25. Period. No sales tax in Alaska - and no tipping allowed.

The 193-foot Bartlett, smallest in the fleet, is one of three Marine Highway ships with no staterooms. The other five offer from 26 to 91 units each. On the showcase Inside Passage voyage from Bellingham, Wash., to Sitka and Skagway, passengers might well consider reserving a cabin with bath. The trip takes 82 hours. Yet many hardy voyagers pitch their tents on the solarium deck, sleeping under the stars and the space heaters, cleaning up in communal showers.

Fare structures are complicated, since variables must be factored in: length of voyage, cabin or no cabin, location of stateroom, size of vehicle (if any), time of year.

For example, a summertime Bellingham to Skagway trip for two, via Sitka - with an outside cabin and a vehicle under 21 feet long - would last three days, cover 1,116 miles and cost $1,648, not including meals.

That voyage is considered super-deluxe, top-of-the line on the Alaska Marine Highway. Most trips are far cheaper. Someone walking on and pitching a tent on the solarium deck would pay only $246 for the same 82-hour cruise. Not many long-distance travelers go all that way at once. Ideally, one breaks the longest stretches into segments, getting off and exploring a port, then catching another ship later on.

The walk-on way

I made reservations for a Whittier-Valdez-Whittier round-trip, $116 for a walk-on like me. My travel began in downtown Anchorage, and from there I drove the Seward Highway (Alaska Highway 1) 40 miles south to Portage (technically within the sprawling Anchorage city limits).

Portage, devastated by the 1964 earthquake and never rebuilt, consists of one small railroad depot and little else. I left my car in the parking lot and bought a $26 round-trip ticket on the Alaska Railroad for the half-hour trip to Whittier and the Bartlett dock. No roads connect the towns, so motorists load their vehicles onto a string of flatcars and then ride the rails to Whittier before they can drive or float to points beyond.

Depending on size (motorcycle to motor home), one-way train fares for vehicles range from $25 to $75, including one driver. Other vehicle passengers or pedestrians pay $13 each way (although babies ride the train free and children ages 2 through 11 are nicked a mere $6).

Once in Whittier, we walk-ons were allowed to board before the motorists did, and that gave me a chance to explore. I rushed to the solarium deck, expecting a tidal wave of backpackers to be racing in the same direction. They disappointed me. No one raised a tent, and there were plenty of deck chairs to go around. Everyone shunned the open-air portion of the deck because of dark clouds and chill winds. We huddled under the half-roof and its heat lamps.

Onto Valdez

Promptly at 2:45 p.m., the Bartlett backed out of its berth and began the voyage to Valdez.

Valdez, Alaska's northernmost ice-free port, serves as the terminus for the TransAlaska Pipeline. Tank farms line the shore, and ships fill up with thousands of barrels of North Slope crude. Not a pretty sight even on the best of days.

We were pulling out of Valdez Arm and into the broad expanse of Prince William Sound when Choate pointed out a bobbing light atop a small green buoy on our port side. It is the only sign of the March 1989 disaster when the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on underwater rock pinnacles at the edge of the reef, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the Sound and spreading ecological disaster as far south as Kodiak Island and the shores of the Alaska Peninsula.

We turned our attention to the glories of Alaska. The state teems with wildlife and brims over with natural beauty. Passengers stretched out on deck chairs under the sun or wandered around, amplifying the sights with cameras and binoculars.

Purser Nancy Woolford told me the Alaska Marine Highway passenger profile has changed radically since she started working there 13 years ago.

``Travelers today want more specialized trips, more adventure, more of a wilderness type of thing,'' she noted. ``They're not really wined and dined and waited on here, but they don't care. A lot of them are camping. We're seeing a lot more of the independent travel companies using 15-passenger vans instead of the big motor coaches.

``We're getting younger people - younger and middle aged.''

Back up on the solarium deck, I chatted with Anchorage resident Don Nanney as we neared Whittier. He was taking his daughter and a friend home after a road trip around the Chugach range. Rather than double back on the road from Valdez, they boarded the Bartlett with their car.

``For my daughter, her friend and myself, this cost a shade over $300,'' Nanney said. ``And that takes care of the three of us for the ferry tickets, the railroad tickets and transporting the car one-way from Valdez.'' He smiled like someone who had gotten his money's worth. ``This,'' he said, ``is a fun way to see the state - a poor man's luxury cruise!''

On Location

Most cabins on the Alaska Marine Highway ferries have private baths; however, maid and room service are not available. Trash is collected daily and fresh linens are available upon request.

Those without cabins will find lounges with recliner chairs, deck space for sleeping bags and - with the exception of the M/V Bartlett - public showers. Meals and snacks are available on all vessels.

Wheelchair-accessible staterooms are offered on the M/Vs Columbia, Malaspina, Matanuska, Taku and Tustumena. All ships in the fleet have elevators, except the Bartlett, which is equipped with a stair-climber lift.

Reservations are suggested, particularly for those who desire a cabin or want to travel with a vehicle.

Information: Alaska Marine Highway, P.O. Box 25535, Juneau, Alaska 99802-5535; (800) 642-0066.

CAPTION(S):

5 Photos, Box

Photo: (1-2--Color) At left, the awesome scenery of Prince William Sound dwarfs pleasure boats and other vessels that cruise the waters. Below, passengers take in the view from the solarium deck of the M/V Bartlett as it sails along the Alaska Marine Highway.

Alaska Marine Highway System

(3-4--Color) Above, the pristine beauty of Chugach State Park near Anchorage is one of the beauties along the Alaska Marine Highway system. At right, pleasure boats fill the harbor at Valdez.

Susanne Hopkins/Daily News

Alaska Division of Tourism

(5) As the Alaska Highway ferries are unloaded, tourists have a chance to do a bit of sightseeing in towns such as Whittier.

Box: On Location (See text)
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:TRAVEL
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 9, 1997
Words:1666
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