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The magnificent Inside Passage: cruise ship passengers flock to the beautiful and unique communities that make up Southeast Alaska.

When Alaska became part of the United States, it outranked Texas in size and captured a claim to fame for unique mystiques and spectacular scenery. Majestic mountains, wondrous wildlife, uncommon waters and forests, natural wonders and ancient cultures struggling to adapt to a modern world make the state a standout.

Worldwide travelers come here to view remarkable sights, to hike rainforests and snowcapped peaks, view salmon runs and sled dog races, and watch glistening glaciers send calves into frigid waters with a thunderous clap. Photographers capture nature in the wild as well as seasonal flower gardens blooming from every nook and cranny. Visitors want to see a real Gold Rush town, come face to face with a Native Alaskan, watch a Tlingit use a primitive art form to create a totem pole, and study centuries of culture preserved in marvelous museums. Winter visitors also hope to experience the amazing aurora borealis.

Every year thousands take to the nautical waterway called The Inside Passage for their own Alaska pilgrimage. Marine highway ferries transport passengers and freight along the passage year-round. Cruise ships navigate the beautiful passage during summer months, stopping at several of a dozen sites to give passengers a taste of Alaska. Many of them will return, some as many as a dozen times.

Compared to the ice- and snow-covered Interior, the Inside Passage climate is mild. Four to 25 feet of rainfall per year creates several diverse ecosystems, including several rainforests.

KETCHIKAN

The first stop along the passage is Ketchikan, the Passage's fourth largest city. One to five summer cruise ships dock daily right at the heart of the city. "More than 700,000 visitors came to Ketchikan last year," said Sandra Meske, of the Ketchikan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They come by boat, cruise ship, marine ferries and by plane." Marine ferries dock there throughout the year.

Summer weather is cool and rainy; winter temperatures can dip into the 20s and 30s, but won't stay there more than a few days, according to Meske. Up to 165 inches of rain falls annually, perfect conditions for the rain forest areas in and around the community.

Pitched inside Tongass National Forest, Native culture comes alive in Ketchikan. At Totem Bight, amazing totem poles and a clan house stand amid lush vegetation. Totem pole artists allow visitors to watch as they practice their traditional art at Totem Heritage Center. Tongass Historic Society Museum houses more than 1,000 artifacts of the Tlingit, Tsamishian and Haida Indian cultures. Southeast Alaska Discovery Center backs up cultural displays and exhibits with Native voices.

Creek Street displays Ketchikan's beginnings. Once a famous "red-light district," the old houses now contain unique shops, galleries and restaurants.

Sports fishing also is big business in this world-class fishing community. Canneries and numerous fishing boats attest to the importance this industry has contributed to local economy, culture and folklore.

WRANGELL

Wrangell, still in the rainforest area, made history under three flags: Russia, Britain and the U.S. The old town hasn't quite shed its frontier image. Tour guides take visitors to a local sawmill for a glimpse of the area's timber industry, and The Tribal House on Chief Shakes Island recognizes the Tlingit influence.

Travelers drive or walk to Petroglyph Beach where ancients left carvings on rocks, probably 8,000 years ago. Some visitors take rubbings from the petroglyphs. Bears sometimes come to town, perhaps from the Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory. Tour guides take visitors to the Stikine River for spectacular views. Many shops appeal to visitors' interests, from fabric to fine jewelry and other Alaskan-made crafts.

"Visitors come to Wrangell for a taste of the real Alaska, off the beaten path, we yet have the same recreational/fishing/scenic opportunities as large or more so than larger towns," said Carol Rushmore, economic development director for the city of Wrangell.

SKAGWAY

Most people come to Skagway because of its history. It's a gateway to the old Dawson gold fields just north of town. Population has shrunk from 15,000 during the 1897-98 Gold Rush Days to 862 year-round today, but on a good tour day 6,000 to 7,000 people pass through this old town. They're not looking for gold; they're passing it around (in the form of plastic and cash) to local businesses. Skagway shopkeepers and restaurant owners like that, since these spenders provide 93 percent of cash revenue, their only true economy.

"We had approximately 605,000 cruise line visitors plus more than 140,000 independent travelers (arriving by automobile, motor coach, marine highway, small boat and airplane) in 2002," says Buckwheat Donahue, executive director, Skagway Office of Tourism.

"Our commercial docks owner has expanded in order to handle two mega-liners (ships with 2,400 plus capacity) and the city plans to create a beautiful waterfront seawalk park from dock to downtown. So, in 2003, we can handle the world's largest passenger vessels and we'll have one of the most scenic approaches to Alaska."

What do visitors enjoy most? Spectacular scenery on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad and Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, operated by the U.S. National Park Service. They also choose the National Park Service Museum and walking tours.

HAINES

A bit off the beaten path, Haines serves as an exit/entrance point to/from Interior Alaska and the Yukon. "We are blessed with a beautiful highway (state scenic byway) and summertime daily marine highway service (also a national scenic byway)," said Haines CVB Director Michelle Glass.

"I think a significant number of people come to Haines because they have heard of the incredible scenic beauty and peacefulness of our town, that it is not commercialized Alaska. We are unhurried and unspoiled-the real thing."

The Eagle Preserve, Chilkoot Lake and Chilkoot River provide rafting, boating, fishing, bear viewing, hiking and glacier viewing. "We have two unusual museums-the Tsirku Canning Co. and the Hammer Museum--that are relatively unknown. Once (visitors) see them, they come back to say thanks," Glass continued. "Great Land Winery and Haines Brewing Co. are popular tours. The smell of freshly carved cedar totem poles at Alaska Indian Arts (surrounded by Fort Seward's turn-of-century buildings) are worth that visit as well."

SITKA

Sitka, one of Alaska's most beautiful seaside towns, has one of the prettiest harbors around. Situated on Baranof Island, it's one of the few cities that can boast 4,000 square miles of land. As in most passage towns, many visitors come for the world-class halibut and salmon fishing. Other visitors enjoy tours into the straits and narrows to view and photograph sea otters and other wildlife.

Sea otters also fascinated the Russian fur hunters, who hunted them almost to extinction when they made Sitka their Russian Fur Capital City. Onion domes and spires of Michael's, America's first Russian Orthodox cathedral, retain that Russian influence. A Russian import store and restaurant and a troupe of New Archangel Dancers remind visitors of the Russian era.

The influence of Tlingits, who lived there before the Russians came, remains an important part of Sitka.

JUNEAU

When cruise passengers leave the ship at Juneau, they face a life-size mural that traces the history of Alaska's Capital City. Exciting attractions await passengers in this beautiful city: flight-seeing tours of Juneau ice fields, float trips to Mendenhall Glacier, a salmon bake at Taku Lodge, whale watching boat tours, even a walk through a rain forest or tram ride to Mount Roberts.

Some of Alaska's best artifacts are found in two historical museums. According to a desk clerk at Juneau's Prospector Hotel, where "seafood specialties include Alaska king crab and wild Alaska salmon," winter in Juneau is "a little slower than summer, but only a few places close down." Even though cruise ships don't ply Passage waters during winter, people still come there by boat and plane.

Juneau climbs the foothills of the Coastal Range, providing scenic views from the Gastineau Channel as well as from the mountain. Landlocked, the only entry to Juneau is via plane or boat The traveler has his best bet for purchasing gifts, jewelry and collectibles at along row of shops just beyond the cruise dock. Items purchased there, or in other Alaska shops, will prolong the rich experience for many visitors.

The traveler who chooses Alaska's Inside Passage will also take away unforgettable memories, but the best experience for the locals has to be the tourist's boon to their economy.
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Author:Watkins, Gerry
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:1402
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