Passage through Alaska: a nautical tour of straits and shores

SOME of the most spectacular sights in Alaska - the pine-forested islands along the Inside Passage, the high-walled inlets of the Misty Fiords, the grandeur of Glacier Bay - can be seen only from the water. One of the best ways to experience the scenic wonder of the state's southern panhandle is from the deck of a cruise ship. Typically, cruises leave from Vancouver, British Columbia, or San Francisco and sail north during the summer season through the maze of islands and inlets that make up Alaska's Inside Passage (see map Page B9). Here, in narrow channels flanked by tall pine forests, killer whales swim in the waters of the Johnstone Strait, and Kwakiutl Indian villages can be seen on the shores.

Ketchikan, called ``Alaska's First City,'' is usually the first Alaskan port on a ship's voyage north. The old section was built over a fishing creek, and today the wooden walkways of Creek Street connect craft shops, restaurants, and old homes.

Outside Ketchikan, visitors can take flightseeing trips or day cruises to the Misty Fiords, where gray cliffs plunge to meet a glassy dark sea, and Sitka spruce and western hemlock cling to narrow ledges. Waterfalls of melting snow cascade down the cliffs in thin, delicate wisps, and bald eagles perch in the tops of trees, scanning the waters for fish.

When a ship pulls into Wrangell, the town's ``Shady Ladies'' - welcomers dressed as saloon girls of the 1800s - greet the passengers. Visitors stroll the streets of this logging town or walk to Chief Shake's island to view an Indian long house and a collection of totem poles. Along the beach are ancient petroglyphs. From here, the ships cruise Wrangell Narrows and emerge into Frederic Sound, summer breeding ground of the humpbacked whale.

In the Norwegian-American fishing community of Petersburg, visitors walk from the dirt road of Sing Lee Alley to the newly paved main street, where a sign in the laundromat advertises ``Showers - 15 minutes for $1.50.'' Petersburg's shrimp is famous, and at the Petersburg Fish Company, a tiny dockside restaurant, a great meal can be had for $5 to $10.

The old Russian town of Sitka is known for St. Michael's Cathedral, its Russian Orthodox church, rebuilt in 1966 after the 1840s original. A short walk takes you to Sitka National Historical Park, where tall Sitka spruce shelter a collection of Haida and Tlingit totem poles.

Juneau, Alaska's state capital, is accessible only by water or air. It lies at the foot of Mt. Juneau, which looms above the State Capitol. The Alaska State Museum here houses hand-woven Chilkat blankets, Tlingit ceremonial masks, Tsimshian ``bent-boxes,'' crafted out of one piece of wood molded into shape, and samples of traditional potlatch offerings.

From Juneau, you can take a helicopter or plane ride above the Juneau Ice Field, hike out on the sprawling Mendenhall Glacier, or take a whitewater trip down the Mendenhall River. After the excursions, stop in at the famous Red Dog Saloon, immortalized in Warner Bros.' ``Yosemite Sam'' cartoons, or take a bus to the Thane Oarhouse for fresh grilled Alaska salmon and authentic tribal dances of the Tlingit and Haida Indians.

Haines is an outpost set against majestic mountains at the head of the Lynn Canal. You can explore the grounds of the 1904-era Fort William H. Seward or visit galleries of modern native art. At the Alaska Indian Arts Center, modern-day artisans carve totem poles and spirit masks in traditional ways. Every winter, hundreds of bald eagles gather near here to feed in the warm waters of the Chilkat River.

In the 1890s Gold Rush town of Skagway, visitors walk the board sidewalks once trod by infamous bandit Soapy Smith. From this port, thousands of hopefuls braved the steep Chilkoot Pass in search of gold.

The high point of every cruise to Alaska is Glacier Bay. Early in the morning, the ship enters this deep blue expanse of water fed by 16 moving rivers of ice. At Bartlett Cove, near the entrance to the bay, the ships stop to pick up a National Park Service naturalist who explains to passengers the geological features of the area and identifies wildlife. Everyone goes on the lookout for nesting guillemots, gulls, and puffins. Mountain goats and black bear can be seen along the shores, and harbor seals and their pups lounge on floating blocks of ice.

Margerie Glacier, with bright blue ice castles that tower above the ship, and Grand Pacific Glacier, with a wide expanse of dirt-blackened ice, are part of the spectacle. As the ship moves slowly, ever closer to the glaciers, there's not a sound until, occasionally, a huge chunk breaks off from the wall of ice with the soul-wrenching rumble the Indians called ``white thunder,'' echoing from deep within the ice. Even the large cruise ships move with the swells created by the fall. Then all is silence once more.

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