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THREE IF BY SEA SKAGWAY, JUNEAU, KETCHIKAN BRIM WITH OPPORTUNITY IN SOUTHEAST ALASKA.

Byline: Eric Noland Travel Editor

The main street of Skagway, Alaska. (Photo by Eric Noland--staff) Southeast Alaska is a spectacular land of glaciers, lushly forested islands and coastal mountains that soar steeply to snow-capped peaks. Most visitors peruse this landscape from the deck of a cruise ship, and explore its treasures after streaming onto the wharves at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and other ports of the Inside Passage.

But there is no great shame in this. Traveling by boat is actually the most sensible way to get the most bang for your buck here.

This is the Alaska panhandle, which stretches out along the northwest edge of the continent, hard by British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. It is a vast web of islands and inlets, with few roads (Juneau, in fact, is the only state capital in America that you can't drive to).

Sights from the water might include lighthouses perched on rocky promontories, the mists and waterfalls of narrow Tracy Arm, or the majesty of Hubbard Glacier.

Onshore, meanwhile, the tourism offerings cover a broad spectrum - boomtowns from the Klondike Gold Rush, clusters of totem poles, onion-dome Russian churches, shops that carry superb native arts, helicopter trips, fishing expeditions and wildlife excursions.

A look at Southeast Alaska's three most heavily trafficked cruise ports - only one of which possesses a highway lifeline to the continental interior:

SKAGWAY

Some visitors to panhandle towns express dismay when they see four massive ships stacked up in a harbor and the waterfront aswarm with tourists. But that's nothing compared to what this region experienced in 1897, after gold was discovered along the Yukon River in Canada's forbidding interior.

Ships laden with fortune-seekers steamed into tiny settlements like Skagway, turning them into crowded tent cities overnight. The new arrivals, many of them woefully ill-prepared, streamed into the mountain passes by any means available.

One of those conveyances endures to this day. The White Pass & Yukon Route narrow-gauge railroad was hacked out of precipitous mountain slopes in the late 1890s, and the train today hauls tourists on a 41-mile round trip to White Pass summit, just placing an iron toe across Alaska's border with British Columbia.

The ``Rough Guide to Alaska" listed this excursion No. 1 on its list of "25 Things Not to Miss in Alaska." And it's not difficult to see why. The train climbs 2,865 feet in 20 miles, chugging up 4 percent grades, crossing wooden trestles and plunging into tunnels blasted through solid rock.

The rail company has tapped deeply into the cruise industry's mother lode, running three spur lines right down to the docks. This is a popular shore excursion that should be booked in advance, as we did for our Princess Cruise last fall. It isn't cheap - about $100 for a three-hour undertaking - but it delivers a taste of history, spectacular views ... and some genuine thrills.

Narrow-gauge track was chosen because it meant workers only had to chip out a 10-foot-wide ledge along the mountainside, as opposed to the 15 feet that would have been required for standard gauge. At times it feels as if they created 10 feet and not an inch more.

As the cars rocked back and forth on the rails and passengers perched on narrow wooden benches, some of the acrophobes aboard groaned through each cliff-hanging turn, and many couldn't bring themselves to peer out - and way down - through the windows.

The town of Skagway is fun to explore in its own right, with its boardwalks, brightly painted storefronts, restored Victorian homes on back streets and the famed Arctic Brotherhood Hall, onto which one eccentric soul nailed nearly 9,000 pieces of driftwood during Skagway's heyday.

There are some very good information panels and historic photos in the Mascot, a former saloon at the corner of Third Avenue and Broadway. You'll learn here that "former saloon" doesn't mean much in this town - in 1898, it had 80 of them (and one church). And what a colorful rostrum of characters: Soapy Smith, Ham Grease Jimmy, Popcorn Kate, Big Bo Peep, Gum Boots Kitty and Guzzling Gertie, among many others.

In the interests of historic authenticity, we were tempted to do a little guzzling of our own in the Bonanza Bar & Grill just up the street, but settled for a few sips of microbrews with hearty burgers.

Skagway is one of the rare Southeast Alaska towns that can be reached by motor vehicle. The South Klondike Highway knifes inland, paralleling the rail line, and joins the Alaska Highway at Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

On a Celebrity cruise last spring, a staffer from this company rented a car in Skagway and drove inland to Tutschi Lake, where he and his wife enjoyed quite a payoff: a face-to-face encounter with two black bears.

Juneau

The waters of the Inside Passage are loaded with nutrient-rich krill and small fish in the summer, which is why humpback whales linger here to fatten up before their winter migrations to Hawaii or Mexico.

On a wildlife cruise out of Juneau's Auke Bay, you have a high probability of seeing humpbacks as the boats poke around the islands of Favorite Channel. In fact, the outfitter we went out with, Allen Marine Tours, reports on its Web site that it has delivered whale sightings on every one of its tours for the past six years.

A few minutes into a two-hour, 45-minute excursion ($120 per adult through Princess), we enjoyed quite a bonanza. Five or six humpbacks were lolling in the waters near Eagle Reef, poking their heads out of the water - called a "spy hop" - and lifting their broad flukes out of the water, preparatory for deep dives into the channel. We drifted for many minutes, enjoying this awesome show from a respectful distance.

The trip yielded many other wildlife encounters: two bald eagles perched in trees at the north tip of Shelter Island, and the thrill of one of them taking flight; a dozen Steller's sea lions along a ledge of Benjamin Island, sprawled about like a bunch of sunbathing vacationers; and other assorted sightings of eagles, humpbacks and sea lions.

The tour company is based in Sitka, and also operates wildlife tours around that town's picturesque bay. You'll have an excellent chance of spotting sea otters there, because Sitka has an outlet to the Pacific Ocean.

Helicopter trips to glaciers are another popular outing in Juneau. Mendenhall Glacier, though not as massive as some of the glaciers in this part of Alaska (it's about 18 square miles), lies just a few miles northwest of town.

A little farther on is Herbert Glacier, which was included as a shore trip on the Celebrity cruise. The 1 1/2-hour outing with Coastal Helicopter Tours cost $192 per adult, and afforded guests the thrill of walking around on this river of ice for about 15 minutes.

Juneau is a good town for walking - provided you stray from the tacky tourist shops near the cruise ship docks. We trudged up North Franklin Street - a route so steep that it turns into stairs after six blocks - and ducked down a side street to see the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church.

Alaska was the Russian frontier until as recently as 1867, when the United States acquired it for the bargain price of about 2 cents an acre _ "Seward's Folly" was anything but. The Russian influence is evident to this day, notably in this small, octagonal church with its onion dome, painted bright blue and white. It dates to 1894, and still offers services in the Slavonic tongue.

Ketchikan

Be sure to pack a poncho or umbrella if going ashore in this former salmon-canning center at the southern tip of the panhandle. Its annual average rainfall is 152 inches - that's nearly 13 feet - and if you stroll up Park Avenue as it parallels Ketchikan Creek, you might notice that one of the most popular (and unintended) accents for exterior decor is a soothing shade of green moss.

Peer down into the creek from either of two bridges that cross it and you might see schools of salmon, thick beneath the water's surface, as they rest in the eddies on their way upstream.

The Totem Heritage Center is just a short walk from the town center. It is caretaker of native artworks that were never intended to last the ages. The Tlingit and Haida villagers, who lived nearby, carved totem poles to honor luminaries, detail a family line or mark important events. But they allowed the poles to rot where they were planted (and all that rain can produce a lot of rot).

As a result, no totem poles survive from the 18th century, and the few poles that remain from the mid-1800s are now protected indoors, in dimly lit chambers. Guides point out the distinguishing features of Tlingit and Haida poles - animals and figures of mythology that made up family crests, for example.

More contemporary native art can be found in the shops of Creek Street, Ketchikan's former red-light district, where buildings perch on wooden frameworks above the water. The native carvings are of astonishing quality at Norman G. Jackson's gallery (28 Creek St.) and at Hide-a-Way Gifts (18 Creek St.).

Another comforting place to duck in out of the rain is Parnassus Books (5 Creek St.), an independent shop with many volumes on Southeast Alaska history and culture.

What makes much less sense is shopping for diamonds in the jewelry stores that are within a few steps of the cruise ship docks. There are more than 50 such jewelry stores in Ketchikan, most of which are owned by the cruise lines, which bought out the small liquor stores and dive bars that used to cluster close to the docks. If you're looking for Alaska-theme treasures to bring home, avoid them - the diamonds aren't mined locally.

Ketchikan was a furious canner of salmon in the first half of the 20th century, an industry that gave way to sport fishing when its traps were outlawed. Fishing is now more sporting here, and excursions can be rewarding, but beware of booking one early in the season - you'll want to make sure the salmon have returned. On the Celebrity cruise in May, a salmon-fishing boat embarked from Ketchikan with 64 anglers, and only two caught fish.

Also, participants discovered that they could have saved half the cost of the $225 outing had they booked it independently at home, rather than through the cruise line. That advance strategy also applies to arrangements for shipping the salmon back home - the fishing charters will do it, but at exorbitant prices.

Oakland Tribune staff photographer Nick Lammers contributed to this story.

IF YOU GO

KETCHIKAN: www.visitketchikan.com

JUNEAU: www.traveljuneau.com

SKAGWAY: www.skagway.org; White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad: www.whitepassrailroad.com

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- color) Visitors to Southeast Alaska might be treated to the sight of a bald eagle, above, or a lighthouse perched on a rocky island, right. Another memorable experience can be a walk on a glacier, far right, offered as part of a helicopter tour out of Juneau.

(4 -- 5) Black bears are frequently spotted at Tutschi Lake, outside of Skagway on the South Klondike Highway, which was the biggest construction project of World War II. An orca (killer whale) surfaces, much to the delight of those on board this whale-watching vessel in Juneau, Alaska.

Nick Lammers/Oakland Tribune

(6 -- color) Downtown Skagway presents a mix of frontier storefronts and onion domes, reflecting a marriage of the town's Russian and gold rush heritage.

(7) The White Pass & Yukon Route railway crosses the east fork of the Skagway River on its way into the mountains. The narrow-gauge rail line was built at the end of the 1800s to accommodate miners eager to get to the Klondike strike in the Yukon. It provides a scenic and historic shore excursion for cruise passengers visiting Skagway, Alaska.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor

Box:

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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 19, 2006
Words:1997
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