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Warming up to Alaska.


Alaska is always more than expected, especially considering its people. It is mountains and a million miles of ice in white, black, gray, and blue. It is the Matanuska Valley, home of fastgrowing giant vegetables. It is pygmy forests and stunted spruce, giant herds of caribou, domesticated reindeer, pluss moose, Dall sheep, wolf, Arctic fox, bear, and ptarmigan. It is a land of few exits, with only three highways crossing the state line to Canada and the Lower 48. And contrary to myth, Alaska has four seasons--June, July, August, and winter.

Perhaps because it is so empty, perhaps because strength and power are needed for survival here, Alaska may be America's most beautiful destination. Native Alaskans understand the realities of the North. They exude stamina and strength; in earlier days male infants were dipped in icy water to introduce them to their tough environment. The native people--including Yupik, Inupiat, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Athabascan--still practice subsistence hunting and fishing. They share with each other, knowing they need their neighbors. They play together, understanding the need for acceptance. They work together, realizing independence could mean a quick way to die.

Travelers moving north from Juneau to Fairbanks after sundown on a long summer evening witness the light getting brighter and the sun beginning to un-set. In Fairbanks on June 21, baseball games start at midnight. The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics have been known to run until three in the morning. In the north around Barrow there is ice and no trees. "This is natural refrigeration," quips a walrushunting native with a smile. "We call it permafrost,"

Several hundred miles south, in Glacier Bay, well below the Arctic Circle, Dall sheep stand on seemingly perpendicular walls. An eagle's nest about seven feet wide perches on a cliff. Puffins bob on the water; cormorants, gulls, and sea lions laze in the fleeting sun on rocky islands. An occasional harbor seal stares wide-eyed at boats. A sea otter shows its belly and then dives deep into the icy water. And once in a while someone sights a porpoise or a killer whale.

The Bay's edges are also home to black bear and wolf. Clouds hang close to the water as they drift down the ancient ice fields that split sometimes violently. Rumbles, then sounds like gunshots, signal the fact that a glacier is calving. A thousand pounds of ice fall into the water, and the fresh new cliff at the glacier's edge is a vivid turquoise.

Some claim that the best way to see interior Alaska is by air--bush plane, floatplane, or helicopter. Flying is also a good way to get to wilderness camps, to start float trips down the rivers, to fly-fish the uninhabited lakes and streams of in-terior Alaska. It is a great way to see Denali National Park and 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, plus the Aleutian Islands. Chugach National Forest, and the world's greatest glaciers. It is the only way to get to Barrow, Point Hope, Nome Bethel, Kotzebue, Gambell, Kodiak, and the remote hunting and fishing camps in the Alaskan bush.

But to really see Alaska, you must visit at least three times: once by plane, once on land, and at least once by water. The muddy Yukon, nearly 2,000 miles long, is the state's great inland waterway, and by small boat, adventurers often pass more salmon fish wheels than villages. Natives have used kayaks for thousands of year to travel interior Alaska, including the Yukon and the more than 3 million other rivers, lakes, and streams. Now visitors are following their lead. The other major water choice is cruising in luxury along Alaska's coast or through the state's inland passages.

Any way you travel, Alaska has many surprises in store. However, it was aboard a plush luxury liner that I experienced an unexpected encounter with my past.

I emigrated from England in 1958 on the British steamship Carinthia. In 1990, I sailed the inland waters of southwest Alaska aboard the Liberian-registered vessel Fair Princess, which had an Italian and Portuguese crew. There was no similarity, except for the 25,000-ton size of the ship.

When I left the docks in England in October 1958, Liverpool was gray, drizzling rain, as the CArinthia headed across the Irish Sea toward the Atlantic. She was taking a large group of emigrants, most of whom were gratefully traveling steerage, toward the promised land. A Force 10 gale hit the ship as it reached the open water, and all portholes and decks were closed to passengers. Ropes were put along the corridors to help travelers pull themselves toward their destinations. As the Atlantic heaved, we tied ourselves to our bunks in tiny cabins and suffered the violence of nature.

The trip was memorable, perhaps because it was painful. I remember that the bathrooms were communal, a long way down the hall from our hole of a cabin. I remember the movie theater being small, with few people hovering around the six exit doors. I remember the simple food, when I tried to eat the cob of the corn because I'd never seen it before.

The ship seemed old, even though she was barely two, creaking and groaning much like her passengers. Some of the ship's crew were too ill to serve. But it mattered not, because very few emigrants were dining. We heard that she was to be scuttled and shipped to Hongkong to use for scrap metal. We thought that was right. We also believed that once we got on shore, we would never go to sea again.

That trip was a long time ago, and even though I have never liked the water, I took another ship las summer. It was a perfect white cruiser called the Fair Princess, sailing from Whittier, Alaska, To Vancouver, British Columbia. The trip was seven days on the inland waters, sailing past Columbia Glacier and College Fjord and around Glacier Bay, and spending several hours at the towns of Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan.

For a week the water was calm. For a week the weather was perfect, overcast at times, drizzling occasionally, but easy to take. For seven days a crew half as large as the passenger count pampered and served. For an ideal week my spacious and carpeted cabin, featuring bathroom and porthole with a view, had no resemblance to my trip of yesteryear. For seven days, the food kept coming, from kippers at breakfast, to lunch on the deck, white-gloved waiters serving afternoon tea at four, dinner at eight, pizza anytime, and midnight feasts. An exquisite selection, a perfect Italian captain and crew, on a boat small enough to be friendly, large enough to be interesting.

Each day the crew entertained or educated, with games of Pictionary, bingo, trapshooting, Ping-Pong, shuffleboard, scarf tying, napkin folding, or cha-cha and other exotic dance lessons. Each night there was a different fast-paced show, plus old-style dancing, disco, or gambling in the ship's casino. Through Glacier Bay, a ranger explained its attributes. In town, there were multiple options for tours. Passengers learned about the Russian's time in Alaska, about Seward purchasing the territory for the U.S. government in 1867, about the subsistence lifestyle, arts, crafts, and sport of the natives, and about the obviously rich natural resources.

The surprising thing about those two voyages--as startingly different as they were--wast that the ship was the same. The aching steamship Carinthia had not been scuttled in Asia. She had been restored and refitted in Italy in 1972, later bought by Princess Cruise Lines. She began flying the Liberian flag to pamper guests cruising exotic waterways.

When we disembarked in Canada, one woman said, "That cruise is fantastic. It spoils you for life, doesn't it?" She was right. But in spite of y bonus encounter with my past, I realized that my first visit to Alaska was incomplete. I had witnessed the dramatic landscape only as a spectator aboard a vintage ship knifing its way through icy waters. It would take at least two or more visits. one by land and another by air, just to seee the tip of this awesome iceberg.

Central Alaska

Fairbanks is dark and cold in winter, light and warm in summer, and, perhaps because of this, always friendly. During the summer solstice, you can play golf at three in the morning.

Tip: Float or take a paddle wheeler down the Chena or Nenana rivers. At historic Alaskaland enjoy the salmon bake, the show at the Palace Saloon, and performances of events by champions from the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. Take home some native crafts. Stay at a bed-and-breakfast on the river's edge, and have lunch with the locals, some of whom are quite eccentric.

Denali National Park

Visit the park information center to learn about a park that's 6 million acres, bigger than the state of Massachusetts. Take a flightseeing trip around Mt. McKinley, which the Athabascan natives call "Denali," meaning "The High One."

Denali is home to caribou, moose, ptarmigan, Dall sheep, wolf, and grizzly. Its landscape is enormous, its rivers are young, and many of its plants are miniature because of their struggle for survival. Go on a nature walk. Take a tundra tour--and take plenty of film and a long lens for the wildlife and wilderness. Raft the whitewater of the Nenana. Relax on the deck of a parkside lodge. Then take a train to Anchorage through some of the most fabulous scenery in the world. Partake of the sumptuous meals prepared on board. Be spoiled for seven hours.

Anchorage, Cook Inlet,

Kenai, and More

Take advantage of Alaska's biggest city. Then take a bus along Cook Inlet, named by Captain James Cook in 1778. Go to Turnagain Arm and exquisite Portage Glacier. Watch for the small white Beluga whales, and fishermen netting hooligans at the inlet's edge. Check out the bald eagles sitting in treetops or fishing the bay. Go bird-watching at Potter Marsh.

Drive down the Kenai Peninsula, where the world's record 97-1/4-pound salmon was caught Hunt for halibut, which can weigh even more. Take a flightseeing trip over the fabuluous Chugach National Forest, nearly six million acres, one-third covered with ice. Be dropped off at a secluded cabin, or guest lodge, with hip boots, license, and fishing gear.


Don't miss the Mendenhall Glacier, a 12-mile-long ice field hundreds of feet thick and moving forward two feet per day. For a jaw-slackening thrill, take a helicopter that will land on the glacier's face, and walk the turquoise of this prehistoric ice. Visit the Alaska State Museum or the fish hatchery. Count the many bald eagles fishing in the Gastineau Channel. Don't miss the Red Dog Saloon and the fabulous tourist shops downtown.

Glacier Bay

Stay at Gustavus, at the Gustavus Inn or at a small B&B near the park. The Inn is country comfort, grass all around, and flowers on the porch.

Spend a night or two at the Glacier Bay National Park headquarters, and walk the trails of the Barlett Cove rain forest with or without a ranger. (In northern Alaska, rainfall averages 4 inches a year. In southern Alaska, almost 200.) Bird-watch. Take a boat into Glacier Bay and see a waterway teaming with killer whales, harbor seals, Steller sea lions, puffins, gulls, dolphins, sea otters, and porpoise.


Enjoy yesterday in a revitalized Skagway, where much of the town is part of a national historic park. Imagine the gold rush of 1898 when 20,000 prospectors passed through town to trek 600 miles to the finds on the Klondike in Canada's Yukon Territory. Take the scenic White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad past Bridal Veil Falls and Dead Horse Gulch, following the footsteps of the stampeders over the Trail of '98. Take a horse-driven buggy around town.

Further Outback

If you have the time and the money, hire a pilot with a small bush plane and visit the tundra of northern Alaska. Take a bus to the Noth Slope out of Fairbanks, and visit Pruhoe Bay. Fly in to Barrow, Point Hope, Nome, Kotzebue, Bethel, Kodiak, or Gambell (the American town closest to the U.S.S.R.). Try eating muktuk, an Ekimo favorite, whale blubber. Learn about the walrus hunt. Look for polar bear. Camp on ther Yukon River, fish ahd Aleutian Islands, or take the ultimate vacation, an Alaskan cruise.
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:travel
Author:Hadley, C.J.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1990
Previous Article:Eat what you can and can what you can't.
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