THINKING of exploring one of America's last frontiers -- its 49th state? There's no better way than from a cruise ship. Cruising is a comfortable way to observe the natural wonders and to experience Alaska's outdoor adventures. Ships cruise into Glacier Bay, almost nudging the mountains of ice. They creep inside the inlet, allowing passengers to listen and watch as masses of blue, glacial ice break from the mountain and fall into the bay. Sea lions float by on chunks they've claimed as their private playgrounds.
Glacier Bay has been designated as a national park and preserve. Park rangers guard the area and offer expertise to visiting cruise ships. Two women rangers came aboard Sitmar's Fairsky, on which I was a passenger, and had a captive audience as they explained about the creation of the glacier, calving (when masses of ice break away from the glacier), and wildlife. Whales return to these rich feeding grounds in Alaska every summer. The gentle humpback is a common sight.
To truly appreciate Alaska, I suggest taking advantage of as many excursions, side trips, and tours as possible during time in port. I opted for two ``flightseeing'' trips and a rafting expedition, and allotted time to go to an authentic salmon bake and to learn of the rich Indian heritage and Gold Rush lore. Most shore excursions cost about $20 for the tours and about $100 for the more adventurous activities.
Yet, the way to see Alaska best is to do as the bald eagles do -- take to the air in one of many flightseeing adventures. In Ketchikan, I boarded a nine-passenger amphibious plane for a 45-mile flight to the Misty Fjords, America's newest national monument. Sheer granite monoliths rise over 4,000 feet and drop to inlets and lakes formed by ancient glaciers.
The flight is enhanced by landing in the middle of a still lake hidden among the mountains. Any of us who dared were allowed to crawl, quietly and carefully, onto the roof of the plane to experience a stillness disturbed only by the cry of an eagle or a jumping trout. Ketchikan
Worth a visit in Ketchikan is the Totem Heritage Center, which preserves and exhibits a unique collection of totem poles retrieved from the deserted Tlingit (TLIN-et) and Haida (HY-dah) Indians villages not far away. These settlements were abandoned around the turn of the century, and the poles have served their intended purpose: to honor the dead, to record history and oral tradition, and to document social events. The Tlingit is the largest tribe in Alaska today, and its artists fashion an assortment of crafts that are available for sale. Juneau
In 1880, Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, led by Indian guides, discovered gold. The word went out that the nuggets were ``as large as beans,'' and soon ``Juneau'' was booming. When it became the state capital, the business of mining was replaced by the business of government.
But there's still gold in ``them thar hills'' -- adventures that make golden memories -- such as a raft trip down the Mendenhall River. Ten of us in a gray, rubber raft floated by the Mendenhall Glacier, bobbed over class-three rapids, and picnicked on smoked salmon and reindeer sausage. Our rower skillfully pulled us upriver and guided us down through the rapids. She was eager to tell us about the area and its diverse wildlife.
Another way to experience the grandeur of Alaska is a flightseeing tour over the ice cap of the Mendenhall. In a four-passenger plane, we soared over immense ice falls, hanging glaciers, and rock faces scarred by centuries of glacial action. The Juneau Ice Field, of which the Mendenhall is a part, covers 1,500 square miles and includes over a dozen different glaciers.
As we soared and dipped over the ice fields, we were amazed by the natural phenomenon known as ``blue ice.'' Glacial ice, extremely dense and formed under pressure, is prismatic and refracts only the blue of the light spectrum. The blue shines more vividly on overcast days.
Another recommended adventure is an old-fashioned salmon bake. The one we experienced was at a Juneau lodge, where the salmon and halibut were barbecued over an alderwood fire. The owner added to the flavor of the evening by showing a 40-pound salmon he caught that morning. Sitka
Sitka is another settlement associated with Alaskan history. Here the Tlingit Indians made their strongest stand against the encroaching Russians in the early 1800s. For many years, however, Sitka was the European cultural center of the Pacific and, though America bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867, colorful remnants of their culture remain.
St. Michael's Cathedral, the Russian Orthodox church in the center of town, holds some of the most treasured Russian icons to be found anywhere. Nearby, the New Archangel Russian Dancers impress visitors daily with their swirling and swooping steps.
For wildlife-watchers, there is a covered yacht excursion to scenic Silver Bay. Eagles are everywhere in trees and flying overhead. Below in the bay, the humpbacks glide and breach, while porpoises and sea lions endlessly play. Cruise offerings to Alaska in '86
Once associated with the retired set, Alaska cruises are now attracting increased numbers of adventure lovers of all ages. Most cruise companies combine the popular Canadian ports of Vancouver and Victoria in their itineraries. This season, an added feature will be Expo '86. Cruise ships will dock so close to the fair that it will be difficult not being drawn to the gates by the excitement. Cost of a one-day Expo '86 ticket is $20.
With a recent reinterpretation of an 1886 law, more United States ports will be open to foreign cruise lines than before. Sitmar Cruises, which helped pioneer cruising to Alaska 15 years ago, was the first cruise company to take advantage of this new leniency, changing the Fairsky's 12-day, seven-port itinerary to include four Alaskan ports plus Glacier Bay. Sitmar will have a second ship in Canadian and Alaskan waters this summer. The refurbished Fairsea will make 10-day, five-port cruises plus one 11-day cruise round-trip from Seattle.
Princess Cruises will deploy three of its four ships in Alaska. The Royal Princess will sail from San Francisco on 10-day itineraries, the Sun Princess and Island Princess from Vancouver on seven-day trips.
From mid-May through Sept., 11 other ships will sail Alaskan waters. They include Costa Line's Daphne (making week-long cruises from Vancover), Cunard's Sagafjord (sailing from Vancouver on 10- and 11-day trips), and the Cunard Princess (from Vancouver on seven-day cruises).
Holland America Westours' Rotterdam, Noordam, and Nieuw Amsterdam will make seven-day cruises from Vancouver. Pacquet French Cruises' Rhapsody departs from Vancouver on 7- and 14-day itineraries.
Regency Cruises' Regent Sea will make seven-day cruises alternating from Vancouver and Anchorage. Royal Viking Line's Royal Viking Star will offer 11-day trips alternating between San Francisco and Vancouver.
Sundance Cruises' Stardancer leaves Vancouver on seven-day trips. World Explorer Cruises' Universe will sail from Vancouver on 14-day cruises.
Epirotiki Lines will begin its first cruises in Alaska on the M.T.S. Pegasus on May 23 with 11-day cruises alternating from Vancouver and Anchorage.