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The Alaska Grand Tour: How to Sample the State in Two Weeks

May 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 


by Lee Foster

Although Alaska is an immense area of real estate, it is possible to see a fair sample of the state in a two-week period if you plan carefully and use optimum air, sea, and land transportation. Almost all visitors to Alaska come during  the summer months from June through August.

Alaska is unlike other travel destinations where you can casually search for transportation and accommodations. Prudent Alaska travel requires that you have confirmed lodging and transportation before your trip. There just aren’t any extra hotel rooms or seats on the buses for the drop-in visitor during the tourist season. Moreover, there are hundreds of miles of spruce forests between outposts of civilization.

Despite the fact that you can make all the arrangements yourself, traveling independently, the vast spaces and limited accommodations of the state have made it primarily a travel-agent-and-tour-operator-cruise pattern of travel. The cruise industry is a major player with about a dozen lines operating in season. Holland America Line and Princess Cruises’ Alaska Cruisetours are among the more prominent.

To make a grand tour of Alaska in two weeks, consider flying to Anchorage to see this metropolis. Then train north to Denali National Park and Preserve for a day or two of viewing the wildlife from the Park Service guided buses. Following this, you can train or bus north to Fairbanks to see the pipeline, the Alaska Museum, and the salmon camp of Howard Luke. Then jet south to Juneau, the state capital. Take a cruise ship south to Vancouver, with visits to Glacier Bay National Park and Sitka, the original Russian settlement, along the way. The itinerary could also be reversed. Cruises often start in Vancouver or in Seattle, with the cruise portion first, then the land experience.



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Here is each stop in more detail.

Anchorage

Anchorage is the gateway to the main body of Alaska. In Aleut, the word Alaska simply means “the great land.”

About half of the state’s total population lives in Anchorage. As you fly in, you’ll see the city framed by mountains, set on a plain a few feet above the ocean, perilously vulnerable to a tsunami. When you taxi down the runway, purple fireweed is the visually dominant wildflower, especially in late summer, although the forget-me-not is the state flower.



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On your first night in Anchorage, the long summer daylight period will become apparent. At 11 p.m. the twilight continues to persist. The flip side of summer light is winter darkness, which prompts some Alaskans to seek a winter home “outside,” meaning in the Lower 48 states or Hawaii. Short rest-and-recuperation flights south, especially to Hawaii, recharge the inner solar energy of those citizens who can afford to be mobile in winter. Anchorage citizens so appreciate the summer light, as an antidote to seven months of winter and darkness, that they take much pride in their lawns. Hanging-baskets of flowers adorn almost every house. Greenhouses are popular, giving ornamental flowers and vegetables an early start in spring and prolonged growth in autumn. Ironically, the hours of summer light are so long that the total light falling on plants approximates that found in Illinois or other breadbasket states. However, all the growth must occur in a four-month period from June through September.

The city of Anchorage is spread out, 1,955 square miles, so take a city tour to orient yourself. These tours are offered from all the hotels. The Hotel Captain Cook and Anchorage Hilton are among the main downtown lodgings.

At Resolution Park, you’ll find a statue to Captain James Cook, who sailed his ships in 1778 into the inlet near Anchorage that now bears his name. Cook was searching for a northwest passage trade route.

Anchorage originated as a camp and transport site in 1914 for the developing Alaska Railroad, located at the edge of the Cook Inlet.

Within the city you’ll see salmon spawning in streams. Several types of salmon can be found entering Alaska streams for their final and fatal mission to reproduce in the same waters where they were born. The Alaskan salmon species include the king or Chinook, whose red and oily meat is most highly prized by gourmets; the chum or dog salmon, which was the main food for sled dogs; the fall chum; the silver or coho salmon, plus the pink or red salmon.

Earthquake Park commemorates the Good Friday quake of 1964. Outsiders in the Lower 48 states may have forgotten this Alaska earthquake, but Anchorage citizens remember it well. The quake first was measured at 8.6 on the Richter scale and later revised upwards to 9.2, greater than the San Francisco quake of 1906. Moreover, the duration was impressive, with the earth heaving for a full five minutes. Anchorage, at the epicenter, was left in shambles, with 10-foot drops in soil level. One hundred people lost their lives and 4,000 were left homeless. Anchorage’s older citizens divide all events into those before and those after the Quake. Earthquake Park attempts to portray for the visitor the force of the quake. When vegetation covers the ground, however, it is difficult for the layman to appreciate fully the impact. The view of the skyline from the park is well worth the trip out. Anchorage citizens, shaken each summer by a few minor quakes, remain fearful of possible future major quakes.

The main issues that excite Anchorage citizens, besides the natural beauty of the state, are: Is all the money from oil being used wisely? and Who finally owns and will own this state in the future?

For tourism information on Alaska, one good source is the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.alaskatia.org/.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park’s old name was McKinley National Park. Alaskans favored renaming the park after the Athabascan Indian word for the mountain, denali, meaning “the high one.” The park now bears that name. Technically, the peak itself retains the name Mt. McKinley, after the American president, William McKinley.

Only after you leave Anchorage and spend most of a day on a train ride to Denali Park, noting how short the distance looks on the map, does the size of Alaska begin to sink in. Alaska is larger than all of California, Oregon, and Washington combined. Alaskans like to joke, but there is a basis in fact, that if the state of Alaska were cut in two, Texas would be the third largest state. The 49th state added a full fifth of the land size of the first 48. Roads penetrate only a small portion of this vast area.



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The human record in Alaska goes back some 30,000 years to small groups of Athabascan Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos, whose ancestors originally followed their caribou herds across the Bering Sea, when it was frozen, or who crossed from Russia in small boats.

Mt. McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is the tallest mountain in North America. Both the height of the mountain and its northerly position account for a perpetual snow and glacier appearance, which only a third of the summer visitors are fortunate enough to see, due to overcast cloud cover.

However, the mountain is only the second major attraction of the park. The original rationale for creating the park was the preservation of wildlife. Viewing wildlife in a preserved natural environment is the special experience the park offers. A typical visitor who takes the Wildlife Tour, operated in buses by the Park Service, will see the Big Four–grizzly bears, moose, Dall sheep, and caribou. If you are fortunate, you may also see wolves.

Cars can’t be used for exploring within the park. Shuttle buses and Wildlife Tours operated by the Park Service control all transportation. This is exactly the opposite approach from Yellowstone, our other great park for wildlife viewing. Denali will never allow a tradition of garbage-fed bears, such as Yellowstone once encouraged. The emphasis here is on minimum impact.

The Wildlife Tours amount to six hours on a bus with a competent naturalist-driver, who interprets the park and assists in wildlife viewing. When wildlife is sighted, you see it from the bus or, if you will not disturb the wildlife, from near the bus. The tour includes a box lunch. Roads are bumpy, so come prepared for a rigorous trip. Tours leave early in the morning and in midafternoon to catch the best viewing time. For every traveler, this tour is highly recommended.

Free shuttle buses make the same trip in and out of the park, allowing you to get off at designated points for a hike. The shuttle buses move quickly and don’t stop to view the animals or offer naturalist interpretation.

Distances in the park can seem boundless, and there is only one road in and out. It takes four hours to go from the park entrance to the final stop, at Wonder Lake, deep in the park.

One of the special Park Service interpretive efforts is sled dog demonstrations, which take place near the park entrance.

The geological story of Denali is a compelling part of your experience. Glacier-fed rivers pour forth and twist across sediment beds in a braided pattern through the valleys. In summer, the rivers turn gray because of the ground rock, called “rock flour,” crushed by the weight of the creeping glaciers.

Among the few lodgings at Denali, the rustic but comfortable McKinley Chalet Resort or Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge are good choices.

For further information on Denali, see the Park Service website at http://www.nps.gov/dena.

Fairbanks

Fairbanks is in the interior of Alaska, a landscape far more severe than the temperate coastal areas of Anchorage or Juneau-Skagway-Sitka.

At Fairbanks, where winters are cold and dark, temperatures commonly drop to Farenheit 45 below, without considering the wind chill factor. Such conditions can provoke introspective self-knowledge or cabin fever approaching madness, depending on your temperament. A sobering detail at the University of Alaska campus is that all the parking lot spaces have electric sockets where you plug in the heater cables on your engine to keep the motor from freezing up while you attend classes. The electrical cost to keep a car plugged in overnight, producing enough heat to save the engine, is high. In Fairbanks, you need to be tough to survive.


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One consolation in winter is the passionate sport of dog mushing, the official state sport. Dog mushing becomes an international competition in February. Mushers come from across Alaska, Canada, and from the U.S. as well. The popularity of this sport is broad and the practical use of dogs in Alaska is considerable. If you forget to plug in your car or snowmobile during a Fairbanks cold spell, the engine will freeze up and be useless. Dogs don’t exhibit such behavior. Dogs, however, require about a salmon a day or the equivalent in commercial dog food to survive. Fairbanks celebrates the dog cult, which peaks in two grueling winter races, the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest.

Summer in Fairbanks, when most visitors come, offers a more hospitable environment. It is light so long during the day that a famous midnight baseball game played on June 21 requires no electric lights. Parents allow their children to play outside long after the usual bedtime, well aware of the need for humans, as well as plants, to absorb as much sunlight as possible in the luxurious but brief summer sun time.

Fairbanks considers itself the Golden Heart of Alaska because of the substantial gold discoveries here, in the middle of the country, in September 1900. Typically for Alaska, Fairbanks has been a boom and bust town. The booms occurred when gold was discovered, when attention focused on Alaska as a defense post in World War II, and when oil pipeline employees were cashing their $30/hour paychecks during the building of the 800-mile pipe 1973-1977.

Orient yourself by stopping in at the downtown Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. Here you’ll find Antler Arch, which is made up of more than 100 moose and caribou antlers collected from all over Interior Alaska. At Pioneer Park, also downtown, you can see a bronze statue of the early pioneers and markers with the names of the early families. Fairbanks is as far north as most Alaska travelers go, except for those dedicated few who take charter flights beyond the Arctic Circle.

A downtown walk can take you from the Visitor Center to the Cheena River bank. There you’ll see remnants of homes from the era when trader E. T. Barnette, gold discoverer Felix Pedro, and legal arranger Judge James J. Wickersham founded the town. Wickersham asked Barnette to name the town, when the post office was established, after Wickersham’s friend, Senator Charles Fairbanks from Indiana.

Away from downtown, be sure to see the Alaska Museum at the University of Alaska. The museum divides the state into sections, each represented by the genius of its lifestyle or crafts. A huge Kodiak brown bear greets you in the foyer. One of the unusual exhibits is an ox-like animal that was attacked and killed by lions, then frozen in the tundra some 60,000 years ago, preserving its carcass as if in a supermarket freezer. Now the carcass is restored to its moment of death.

Be sure to see the defining symbol of modern life in Alaska, the 800-mile pipeline that brings oil from Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic down to Valdez, the ice-free port east of Anchorage. Seeing the pipeline is a little like seeing grizzly bears or glacial ice up close. These are monumental Alaskan experiences. At one spot on the pipeline tour, you can stick your hand through a hole in the outer pipe, past the fiberglass insulation, to feel the 140 degree warmth of the interior pipe and flowing oil. The oil is kept warm because of the friction created by pumping it at high speed through the pipe. To keep the permafrost from becoming damaged by the warmth, the pipe is elevated wherever permafrost occurs, which is along half of the total distance. The warmth of the oil is crucial for the oil to flow rather than congeal at times of extreme cold. Today the pipeline transmits about 600,000 barrels of oil a day, 365 days a year.

Another interesting experience available in Fairbanks acquaints you with both the Indians and the riverboat world of the Gold Rush traders, a kind of Mark Twain world of the north. The outing takes place on a sternwheeler named Discovery III. The tour is run by the Binkley family, which has been operating riverboats here since 1898. Only in recent decades have these trade and postal boats become tourism boats. The trip takes you down the spring-fed Cheena River and up the glacial Tanana River. Rivers were the roads of commerce during the great gold rushes of Alaska. Near Fairbanks, the Cripple Creek strike was worth $100 million in gold, which would be the equivalent of $1 billion today.

You disembark at a simulated Athabascan Indian village, where you see how king and chum salmon were caught in fish wheels and dried or smoked. The salmon fed not only the Athabascans, but their sled dogs, on which they relied for winter transportation. You see how food was stored in high caches, which stood on poles out of the reach of bears. Several young Athabascan women give talks and demonstrations during the trip. The hard life of the Athabascans becomes apparent as you visit the area. The lushness of summer growth is deceptive because it is so brief. Life was a continual struggle for the Athabascans, who spent almost all of their time searching for food. The moose, especially, was a great prize because it might yield 1,300 pounds of meat.

In the evening in Fairbanks, be sure to enjoy Pioneer Park’s outdoor salmon barbecue. Follow this with the Eskimo-Indian Olympics show, which exhibits feats of skill needed to survive in the wilds of Alaska. Of particular note is the degree of cooperation, rather than competition, needed in the society for well-being. The Palace Theatre and Saloon Show presents a musical revue of Alaskan life from the Russian era to the recent oil-boom,

The Westmark is a dependable lodgings. For a classy restaurant, try the Bear ‘n Seal at the Westmark.

For Fairbanks information, see http://www.explorefairbanks.com.

Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka

Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka are cities in the southeast panhandle of Alaska. They differ sharply from the more northerly areas of the state. Precipitation here is high, comparable to Washington State, so the trees, such as Sitka spruce, grow to great heights and can be harvested for lumber or pulp.



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The area is the most historic in Alaska. Sitka was the major Russian colony during the fur-gathering era. At Juneau, prospectors made major Alaska gold discoveries. From Skagway, some 20,000 hardy miners, plus many women and children, climbed over the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898.

A special Marine Highway ferry system ties the region together, operating between Seattle and Skagway. Waterways, shoreline, and boating become defining aspects of life here. Southeast Alaska has 33,000 miles of coastline, fully 68 percent of the Alaska coast. One out of five people owns a boat. Air and sea transport offer the only access to the region.

The flight to this area from Fairbanks on a clear day is one of the most spectacular views on the planet. As you leave Fairbanks, you see the spine of the Alaska Range of mountains and the vast stretches of uninhabited and rugged land between cities. The snowy peak of Mt. McKinley stands out majestically. And finally, as the flight progresses, you see sweeping aerial views of the glaciers of southeastern Alaska, including Glacier Bay National Park. From the air you get a clear sense of the glaciers as rivers of ice.

Juneau began when Joe Juneau and Richard Harris discovered gold there. It is said that Joe Juneau wept because he had made more money than he could ever spend in a lifetime. There were three major mines and a stamp mill. Juneau was selected as the state capital, historically, though it has been overshadowed by Anchorage as a developed area and a population base. There are about 400,000 Alaskans in metro Anchorage and only about 33,000 in Juneau, out of a total population in the state of only about 742,000. Most of the people in Juneau work for the state or federal government.

Once in Juneau, visit the Mendenhall Glacier, where you can touch and walk on glacial ice. Mendenhall is one of 16 glaciers in the 1,500 square miles of ice fields around Juneau. See also the Alaska State Museum, with its elaborate collection of artifacts. This museum and the museum in Fairbanks at the University are excellent introductions to the state.

Stop for a drink at the lively Red Dog Saloon, walk past the State Capital Building, and visit the historic Westmark Baranof Hotel.

From there, it is only a short walk to the Mount Roberts tram, which can take you to the top of the mountain for a spectacular view of the waterways, city, and other mountains.

Leaving Juneau, a marine ferry can take you up the Lynn Canal to Skagway, a town that boomed when miners seeking passage to the Yukon needed a staging area. Looking at the map, it was determined that traversing the Chilkoot Pass and then taking rivers downstream was the best way. Canadian authorities required that miners assemble a year’s supply of provisions before proceeding.

Skagway’s main attraction is a walk around the historic area, with a stop at the Park Service headquarters for a brochure on the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. There you’ll see photos of canvas fold-up boats that hopeful miners used on the Yukon River to get their supplies southward. The walls of the Park Service headquarters celebrate quotes from Robert Service’s poetry, with a constant theme: human perseverance in the face of crushing adversity. Be sure to see the Skagway presentation of the Soapy Smith Show to get a sense of the Gold Rush of 1898 and this consummate local con man.

Sitka lies south of Juneau and is accessible only by cruise ship, ferry boat, or aircraft.

Sitka was populated by Tlingit Indians for thousands of years. Russia watched the area with interest after Vitus Bering sighted the Alaskan coast in 1741. In 1799, Russian Alexander Baranov began construction of fortifications at Sitka. Baranov intended to colonize Alaska for Russia and to develop the fur trade. The Tlingits resented Russian infringement, burning their fort and killing most of the people in 1802. Baranov returned in 1804 with the warship Neva and 1,000 men. He fought a decisive battle against 700 armed Tlingit, after which the Tlingit retreated and the Russians formally established their colony of New Archangel. Be sure to see St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox cathedral and its historic icons, some from the 14th century. The cathedral was built between 1844 and 1848, burned in 1966, then was reconstructed as an exact replica.

Because of the declining fur supply, the Crimean War, and Russia’s inability to defend Alaska, Russia eventually decided to sell Sitka and all of Alaska to the U.S., in 1867, for $7,200,000, or about 2 cents per acre. The revived interest in the Russian heritage here includes the New Archangel Dancers, who entertain visitors with Russian folk dancing.

A half-mile from St. Michael’s Cathedral is the Sitka National Historical Park, where you can see Tlingit Indians practice woodcarving, sewing, and jewelry making. At the park you can walk along a path to the site where the great battle of 1804 pitted the Russians against the fortified Tlingits, who were eventually overcome because of Russian firepower. Adjacent to the path you’ll see Tlingit and Haida totem poles. Today about a third of Sitka’s 9,000 people are Tlingit. Nearby, visit the Sheldon Jackson Museum, a missionary’s collection of artifacts gathered from the various native groups in Alaska. The museum is on a college campus of the same name, where 200 students attend. You’ll see salmon-skin garments and a host of other artifacts of the Indian culture, including the ceremonial eating bowls of the Tlingit.

Seeing Sitka via a cruise ship port stop is the main mode of access to the area.

For Juneau information, see the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website at http://www.traveljuneau.com.

Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Bay National Park, west of Juneau, is the glacial prima donna among our national parks. Bluish rivers of ice slowly push their way to the water’s edge. As you watch, amidst the silence, massive chunks of ice fall and crash into the water, making a sudden thunderous boom. For these special sights, about 400,000 visitors each year come to Glacier Bay National Park. About 90 percent of these visitors see Glacier Bay from the comforts of a cruise ship.

Within the park you are likely to see eagles and bears along the water’s edge. Humpback whales, orcas or killer whales, minke whales, seals, and dolphins disport themselves in the chilly waters.

The major geological phenomenon of interest here is the rapid retreat of glaciers. Park Service maps record the advance or retreat of specific glaciers. Two hundred years ago the entire region was covered with glaciers. When Captain George Vancouver explored the area in 1794, his log book recorded that his progress was impeded by an impenetrable mass of glaciers covering Glacier Bay. He found the ice mass 4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide, and 100 miles long. By 1879, observer John Muir found that the ice had retreated 48 miles up the bay.

Glacier Bay is a premier example of retreating glaciers, as well as specialized forms of glaciers, including hanging glaciers (glaciers that hang on mountainsides) and tidewater glaciers (glaciers that come to the water’s edge). The area serves as a laboratory for the study of how plants successively colonize land newly opened up by retreating glaciers.

The study of retreating glaciers by modern scientists attempts to define their interaction with and effect upon the weather. The study is important because, around the world, glaciers and polar ice store more fresh water than all our lakes and rivers, groundwater, and the atmosphere combined. Glaciers form when snow fall exceeds snow melt.

Cruise ships or Park Service concession boats take you north along the Johns Hopkins Inlet and the Tarr Inlet to see the glaciers. Onboard Park Rangers present a running commentary on glacial realities.

Reid, a tidewater glacier, is the first major glacier that comes into view. There are 12 tidewater glaciers in the park. They are much rarer than land-bound glaciers. The intense blue of the glacier occurs because water crystals, formed under pressure, align to reflect blue light. As icebergs float away from the glacier after breaking off, they endanger navigation because their underwater size is uncertain. Rock and sediment in the ice may weigh down all but the tip of the iceberg.

Lamplugh Glacier has a massive stream of melting glacial water pouring from its base.

At John Hopkins Glacier the cruise ships pause and drift. You can hear the roaring sound of ice crashing into water as the glacier  slowly breaks apart. Tlingit Indians called this sound “white thunder.” In the John Hopkins area, substantial flows of glacial ice pass the boat. The major phenomenon of retreating glaciers becomes evident at John Hopkins when you look at Park Service maps. The known forward face of the John Hopkins Glacier in 1907 was about 15 miles farther into the sea than its present position.

Moving up the Tarr Inlet, you see retreating Margerie Glacier.

For information on Glacier Bay National Park, see the Park Service website at http://www.nps.gov/glba.

If you make an Alaska Grand Tour, as suggested here, you will sample a satisfying selection of our largest state.

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Alaska: If You Go

For overall tourism information on Alaska, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.alaskatia.org.

Other helpful websites are distributed throughout this article as the subject is discussed.

Sitka

Small Ship Cruising on Alaska’s Wilderness Waterways from Juneau

May 20, 2014 by · 1 Comment 


Alaska Small Ship Cruises from Juneau – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

A week of small-ship cruising from Juneau, Alaska, through the wilderness waterways of the Alaska Southeast can get you close to humpback whales, orcas, glaciers, bears, and hundreds of islands covered with rain forests.

Such a trip may renew a traveler’s sense of the joy of nature and may reduce a certain citified malaise. A traveler may find that the experience of civilization needs to be offset from time to time with antidotes of wilderness.

Small Ship Culture

Small ship may carry less than 100 guests. Cabins are often comfortable and modern, with a picture window for views. The window can also be opened for fresh air. Binoculars sometimes provided in each cabin got plenty of use.

Meals are usually served open seating, and on my trip were ample. The chef on my week continued to deliver magic, with an emphasis on fresh Alaska fish and shellfish, especially salmon, halibut, and crab.

The entire style of the ship is informal. There is no need to dress for dinner. There are no keys for the cabin doors. The clientele is a self-selecting cluster of outdoor enthusiasts. Everyone onboard is here to enjoy nature.

Small durable inflatable boats take you off the ship to touch an iceberg, see the edge of a glacier, view arctic terns or seals up close, or meander and hike on shore.

A skilled naturalist usually guides the adventure, giving preparatory talks each night about what’s coming up next and then a running commentary, when the desired orcas or humpback whales make their unscheduled appearances. The naturalist for my voyage had just completed three years of humpback whale research in Hawaii.

This wilderness parade winds its way past islands whose trees are part of the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rain forest in North America. The captain can change the itinerary at a moment’s notice if wildlife viewing opportunities arise. There are often only a couple of port calls to make, and they were Kake and Sitka on my trip, both intriguing stops. No large cruise ship will ever be allowed to stop at Kake, a small village of 800 Tlingit natives.

A Week of Nature Adventures

Each day in a week of sailing presented a new watery terrain with an unfolding set of adventures.

Day 2: After getting on the ship the previous afternoon.

In the morning we ventured up Endicott Arm to its glacial terminus at Dawes Glacier, where everyone got off in the small inflatable boats to see the icebergs up close and watch seals. On this day, serendipitously, there happened to be massive “calving” off of the glacier. Calving means a large chunk of the glacier has fallen off into the water with a thunderous noise, creating a tidal wave. The Tlingit Indians actually had a word “white thunder” to describe the explosive sound. One ship officer said he had not seen such dramatic calving in the past seven years.

In the afternoon we ventured into Tracy Arms, a narrow 25-miles long glacially carved waterway with steep mountains alongside, much like the fjords of Norway. On the way we paused to watch a pod of orcas, or killer whales. Our naturalist determined that this was a transient pod, rather than a group of locals. At the Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arms there were many icebergs. On these ice floes seals congregated, partly because the ice floes are a safe place to escape their predators, the orcas.

Day 3: The day began with the ship moving carefully through glass-smooth Keku Channel, where more than a dozen humpback whales were spouting. Most were traveling alone, but occasionally there were two or three together, most probably to gather food more efficiently. Humpbacks sometimes entrap small bait fishes with a wall of bubbles and then lunge through the corralled food source.

Humpbacks are a joy to behold, partly because they are an endangered species making progress towards more stable numbers. From an estimated population in the North Pacific area of only about 1,000 in 1966, it is now believed they have climbed to 6,000-8,000 individuals. Humpbacks can grow to 45 feet and weigh a ton per foot. I was mesmerized by their showy behavior as they rolled their huge bodies through the water and then displayed their flukes before diving. One humpback even began slapping his pectoral fins playfully on the surface and then breached clear out of the water several times, using its tail, said to be the most powerful muscle on earth, to thrust the huge tonnage upward. Alaska is the humpbacks’ summer feeding grounds as they eat a ton a day, primarily consuming small shrimp-like creatures called krill. In winter these whales will journey to the warm waters of Hawaii, Mexico, or Japan to give birth and mate.

Another treat that day was a permission to land the small cruise vessel for a visit at the remote Tlingit Indian village of Kake, population 800. The Tlingits here are culturally intact, preserving their way of life. They staged several dances for us and explained their subsistence lifestyle of fishing for salmon, hunting for deer and moose, and doing their crafts, such as carving, in the leisure of winter. Their young people were well-spoken, had modern computers, and one high school graduate was proudly going off to college “down South,” which meant Colorado for that young man. They showed us what is asserted to be the world’s largest totem pole, carved in 1971 from a 132-foot Sitka spruce.

Day 4: This day was devoted to the fine art of “gunkholing,” which means the captain and the cruise director determine where we go and what we do, depending on what nature experience would be best. Only on a small cruise ship is such discretion possible.

We awoke and spent much of the day in the Bay of Pillars. At dawn and in the early morning hours shifting fog drifted about. Then the sky cleared and we offloaded in our durable inflatable boats and went ashore to explore on a rocky beach where an old salmon cannery lay in ruins, the rusting and rotting remnants of another boom and bust dream in Alaska. On the way into shore we observed lionmane jellyfish and stopped to examine huge bullwhip kelp that can grow two feet a day.

Without a skilled naturalist, much of what we saw that morning would have been pleasant, but uninformed. However, with our naturalist, we could turn over a rock and suddenly savor a universe of natural interactions. On the rocky shore at low tide we witnessed a cornucopia of starfish, clams, limpets, chitons, barnacles, mussels, crabs, eels, whelk, and bladder kelp. The interactions between all these creatures was an endless puzzle to decipher. Tiny chitons found their place in the small barnacles welded to defunct clam shells. Behind us rose thick stands of forest, with broadleaf alder at the base and then sharp-needled spruce and drooping hemlock commanding the upper reaches of light. Ripening in the understory sunlight of the forest, the salmonberries were turning gold and red, teasing the area’s bears with their aromatic lusciousness.

Day 5: Sitka, the Russian capital, was the cultural treat of the day. Seeking to expand their profitable fur trade, the Russians firmly captured Sitka in 1804, defeating a formidable native Tlingit native force, which had wiped out an earlier Russian expeditionary settlement two years earlier.

As we stepped off the ship into Sitka, there was a small promontory called Castle Hill that was the Russian residence of choice. Below it sits a Russian cannon today. A quarter of a mile further along the waterfront is Centennial Hall, outside of which is a statue to the main Russian visionary, Alexander Baranov, head of the Russian America Company. Also adjacent to Centennial Hall is a large and ornately decorated Tlingit canoe, a visitor’s first taste of the elaborate arts that the winter leisure cultures of Southeast Alaska nourished.

Within Centennial Hall, we saw the daily performance of a talented woman’s dance group known as the New Archangel Dancers. They recreate a range of Russian dances with much skill. The Centennial Hall also hosts the Sitka Historical Society museum, which shows an intriguing model of what Sitka looked like in 1867, when Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. A natural history display at Centennial Hall offers taxidermy presentations of all the birds and mammals one is likely to see in Southeast Alaska.

Venturing one block inland, we looked at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, St. Michaels, an exact replica of the original 1840s church, which burned tragically in 1966, but was quickly rebuilt.

Walking further along the waterfront, we came to a yellow building, the Russian Bishop’s House, which has rooms filled with period artifacts. The Russians controlled Alaska until both the fur supply and fur market, much of which happened to be in China, deteriorated. The Russian Czar felt it was wiser to sell rather than wait for British/Canadian or American interests to seize the land.

Beyond the Russian Bishop’s House is the premier attraction of Sitka, the Sitka National Historical Park. We stopped first at the interpretive center to see the fine museum of the native people, especially the Tlingits, showing many artifacts, such as an elaborately decorated bear coat and staff to be worn by the most honored elder. Besides the museum, there is a carver, weaver, and silver craftsman at work. The master Tlingit carver present was working on a mask from red cedar or a food bowl from alder.

Then we walked through the forest adjacent to the interpretive center to immerse ourselves in three realities. The forest itself is a lush example of the rainforests of Southeast Alaska, with mature hemlock and Sitka spruce. Scattered throughout the forest are representative totem poles, one of the major art forms of the Alaska natives of the southeast. And, on these grounds, in 1804, a thousand Russian soldiers in the warship Neva, aided by their Aleut Indian allies, narrowly defeated 700 armed Tlingit, who felt it was wiser, after a week of bombardment, to slip back into the forest and relinquish their stronghold.

Day 6: On this day our small cruise ship poked around Icy Strait, the northernmost entrance to Southeast Alaska from the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean. The area was especially rich in wildlife. The ship passed numerous rafts of sea otters, whose thick and rich pelts set in motion the historic development of Alaska. We paused for shore excursions in our inflatable boats along Idaho Inlet.

The captain was always on the lookout for bears. Almost every day we saw bears along the shore, feeding on sedge grasses, salmon, and shellfish. Bears have an uncanny ability to slice open a salmon to eat the fatty brain tissue and the eggs of the females. We saw the larger brown bears, called grizzly bears when found inland, easily identifiable by their size and their humps. Alaska is the last frontier for the brown or grizzly bear, hosting about 31,000 animals, compared to a total of 1,000 in the lower 48 states. Smaller black bears also prowled the shoreline, with its many small salmon streams, tidal shellfish abundance, and opportunities for carrion. There is a saying about bears in Alaska, “When the tide is out, the table is set.”

Bald eagles were another popular quarry in our wildlife spotting. The white heads of mature eagles could be seen easily against the green trees. There are now about 100,000 bald eagles in North America, half of which are in Alaska. Recently, the bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list, so this is one conservation success story to celebrate.

At mid-day we reached Cross Sound near the Inian Islands, a particularly strong upwelling point where the open ocean currents meet the more protected waters of the island channel. In this rich marine environment there was an explosion of life. Here we saw hundreds of huge northern sea lions and countless birds, from Bonaparte gulls to common murres. A birder on board confirmed that she had reach 38 birds in her desired quest for 50 identified birds. Anyone who reaches 50 gets a personally signed Wings Over Alaska certificate from the state’s Governor.

The day ended with the cruise ship drifting at Point Adolphus so we could savor the most elaborate display of humpback whales on our trip. At least a dozen whales cavorted all around us, feeding voraciously on bait fish. Several whales breached repeatedly. Some whales even seemed curious about the ship and ventured to within a few yards, though the captain was judicious and tried to keep out of their way and not approach them.

Day 7: Glacier Bay National Park was a grand finale for the trip, the most protected area in this Southeast Alaska wilderness. Glacier Bay is famous for its receding glaciers and fecund wildlife.

We paused first at South Marble Island to see the abundance of nesting birds and the 2000-pound stellar sea lions. Common murres on the island are known to be able to dive 600 feet in search of prey. Black-legged kittywakes were plentiful. This was our first sighting of tufted puffins.

Further north, at Sandy Cove, we watched a black bear feed on barnacles in the intertidal zone.

More than a third of the park is permanent ice and snow. For about 250 years people have observed the gradual retreat of most of these glaciers. In 1750 the bay was recorded to be a total mass of ice. By 1794 explorer George Vancouver indicated that it had retreated six miles. Today a boat can venture for 65 miles up the waterway. This is the fastest retreat of glaciers ever documented. An anomaly occurs with the Johns Hopkins Glacier, which happens to be advancing.

We floated for an hour in front of the massive mile-wide face of the John’s Hopkins Glacier, a 16-mile long river of ice, which was calving off as it approached the water, moving forward about 3-5 feet per day. It takes about 50 years for snow falling on Mt. Fairweather to make its way down to the ocean through the glacier. Mt. Fairweather happens to be among the snowiest places on earth, receiving about 150 feet per year, partly because of its heavy rain fall and partly because of its height, 15,300 feet, one of the steepest mountains close to the water in a cold environment.

Only two cruise ships and three smaller tour boats are allowed into Glacier Bay National Park each summer day, along with 25 personal craft, so access to the national park is tightly controlled. The park service continues to study the effect of ship wake and ship noise on the wildlife, especially the endangered humpback whales.

Starting from Juneau

The strategy of starting from Juneau has its logic and advantages, both for passengers and the small-cruise provider. Flying in and out of Juneau puts the entire time into the adventure itself, not some of it lost in “days at sea” to get there. Juneau is located in the midst of the Alaska wilderness area of the Southeast. This state capital is unusual in that it is totally inaccessible by road. While large cruise ships can get into Juneau in the main channel, only the small cruise ships can navigate in many of the narrow wilderness waterways near Juneau.

Allowing a night or two in Juneau before embarkation can greatly add to the satisfaction of this trip. Juneau is far more than just a cruise ship terminal. It has many cultural and natural treasures to offer. Local tours or a guide-with-a-vehicle can be engaged. The downtown and the Mount Roberts tram can be done on your own by walking. For other suggestions, you’ll need local transportation. Here are my recommendations for time spent in Juneau:

*View the Mendenhall Glacier, outside of town. This is a massive glacier to which you can drive. In summer the meadows in front of the glacier have brilliant fields of purple fireweed, a showy wildflower. After viewing the glacier from afar, drive close in to the Visitor Center and hike toward the ice mass and the voluminous Nugget Falls pouring out near its side.

The Mendenhall Glacier illustrates the main phenomenon of most modern glaciers in Alaska. They are receding due to global warming. Snow melt now exceeds snow fall at Mendenhall. Mendenhall is retreating roughly 60 feet per year. (Conditions of glaciers are local, however. The Hubbard Glacier in Alaska is advancing.) Mendenhall is a relatively small but highly visible part of the vast 1,500 square miles of glacial activity known as the Juneau Ice Fields.

*Go on a wildlife tour emphasizing humpback whale watching on the Lynn Canal.

Chances are you’ll see a range of wildlife. Foremost are the previously endangered humpbacks, which are feeding furiously during summer on krill, a small shrimp-like food that grows abundantly here in the upwelling, cool, nutrient-rich ocean. The humpbacks put on quite a show, rolling their spiny backs out of the water and then displaying their tails before plunging into deep dives. Some non-breeding males and non-pregnant females remain here all year. The breeders swim out to Hawaii for the winter birthing and mating season.

Besides humpbacks, you are likely to see orcas or killer whales, Dall porpoises, sea lions, eagles, and plenty of waterfowl, such as scooters.

*Walk the historic downtown.

Downtown Juneau is compact but hilly. Good walking maps are free and available locally at your hotel.

Some buildings to see are the Russian Orthodox Church St. Nicholas, the columned Alaska legislature, the Governor’s house, and the original house of Judge Wickersham, a mover and shaker in the early history of Juneau.

There are also two small museums with major resources. The Alaska State Museum features Native People cultures, including many special artifacts that are temporarily given back to tribes for occasional ceremonial use. Displays, especially of the hunting culture, make a traveler aware of the Eskimo, Athabaskan, Aleut, and Tlingit culture. A giant samovar used for tea service is a highlight of the Russian Alaska display. The Juneau-Douglas City Museum emphasizes the gold mining story that began in 1880. Gold discoveries brought Juneau into existence and thrust it into prominence as the logical choice for the state capitol.

In the downtown area along Franklin Street the main shopping occurs.

*Ride the Mount Roberts Tram to the 1800-foot top of the mountain and enjoy views of the Gastineau Channel, the body of water on whose banks Juneau rests.

There are 2.5 miles of hiking trails at the top of the tram, giving you a good sample of the roughly 120 miles of hiking trails in the immediate Juneau area. Juneau residents are proud of their hiking opportunities, emphasizing that the city area has only 45 miles of roads, but far more miles of trails.

At the top of the tram you can savor the view, hike, dine, and shop.

*Visit the Gastineau Fish Hatchery, also called the Macaulay Fish Hatchery. As many as 170 million salmon fry are released from this small hatchery each year. Several years later those that survive, about two percent, return and are harvested for their milt and eggs to replenish the cycle. The hatchery, which exists to enhance the commercial and sport fishing scene around Juneau, began in the 1970s at a time when Alaskan wild salmon were over-fished. Today the wild salmon fishery is flourishing. The site is fascinating to visit, with thousands of salmon “ripening” in concrete pens prior to their harvest for sperm and eggs. A small aquarium shows the range of fish and shellfish flourishing in the local waters.

There are five types of salmon in Alaska waters-the chum or dog, sockeye or red, king or Chinook, silver or coho, and pink or humpy. They run at different times of the summer. The king and sockeye are especially prized for fine dining.

*Enjoy food and drink at the Hangar, a convivial downtown eatery favored by locals. The Hangar gives you a view of the water, glancing at the float planes coming and going, and the cruise ships lingering in the distance.

The Hangar is an historic place. This was the original airport when float planes were the only means of speedy transport. In 1935 the legendary pilot Wiley Post and his financial backer, humorist Will Rogers, stopped here enroute to Fairbanks and Barrow. The two were on a mission to show the practicality of an air mail route. They crashed fatally at Barrow.

At the Hangar you can enjoy the many culinary wonders of Alaska, such as grilled salmon, grilled halibut, king crab, and Dungeness crab. One item never on the menu is “farm raised” salmon, a hot button subject in Alaska, where no farm raising of salmon is allowed.

The beverage of choice would be the locally brewed beer, Alaskan, perhaps starting with their popular Amber and then moving boldly into their award-winning Smoked Porter. The Alaskan Brewing Company’s facility is in Juneau, can be toured, and has its own attractive tasting room.

If you long for a wilderness immersion in wildlife, glaciers, and the vast expansiveness of Alaska, but with the support of a comfortable small cruise ship and the guiding knowledge of a naturalist, you will delight in the opportunities offered out of Juneau.

**

Small Ship Alaska: If You Go

The main suppliers of small-ship Alaska wilderness cruise trips in the Southeast can be found at http://www.alaskacruises.com.

For Juneau information, contact the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau at http://traveljuneau.com.

For tourism information on Alaska, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Associationn at http://www.travelalaska.com.

Sitka

The Southeast Alaska Towns of Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka

May 16, 2014 by · 1 Comment 


by Lee Foster

The southeast panhandle of Alaska differs sharply from the more northerly sections of the state. Precipitation here is high, comparing with Washington State, so the trees, such as Sitka spruce, grow to great heights and can be harvested for lumber or pulp.

The region is the most historic in Alaska. Sitka was the site of the major Russian colony during their fur-gathering era. At Juneau, prospectors made major Alaska gold discoveries. From Skagway, some 20,000 hardy miners, plus many women and children, climbed over the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898.

The region is tied together by a Marine Highway ferry boat system operating between Seattle and Skagway. Waterways, shoreline, and boating are major aspects of life here. Southeast Alaska has 33,000 miles of coastline, fully 68 percent of the Alaska coastline. One out of five people owns a boat. The weather is rainy, but the citizens compensate. If rain appears imminent on the Fourth of July festivities, they reschedule.

Getting to Juneau, Sitka, and Skagway

Air and sea transport are the primary ways to get to this region. There are no roads to the outside world from Juneau and Sitka.

Scheduled air flights from the lower 48, especially from Seattle, or from Anchorage to the north, regularly visit Juneau. The flow of travelers is assured because Juneau is the state capital, where lawmakers from around the state convene.

The flight from Anchorage or Fairbanks to Juneau on a clear day is one of the most spectacular flights on the planet. As you leave Fairbanks, you see the spine of the Alaska Range of mountains, the vast stretches of uninhabited and rugged land between cities. The snowy peak of Mt. McKinley, highest mountain in North America, stands out majestically. And finally, as the flight progresses, you get sweeping aerial views of the glaciers of southeastern Alaska as you approach Juneau. This terrain includes Glacier Bay National Park. From the air you get a clear sense of the glaciers as rivers of ice.

Skagway can be reached by smaller commuter aircraft from Juneau. The state ferry system reaches Skagway, as do many cruise ships.



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Sitka is served by Alaska Airline jets, marine ferry, and cruise ships. The Alaska Marine Highway ferries visit each port as they ply their ways northward and southward.

Cruise ships take many passengers to these towns, including a stop to see the glaciers at Glacier Bay National Park.

History of Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka

Juneau began when Joe Juneau discovered gold there. It is said that Joe Juneau wept because he had made more money than he could ever spend in a lifetime. There were three major mines and a stamp mill. Juneau was selected as the state capital, historically, though it has been overshadowed by Anchorage as a developed area and a population base. There are about 300,000 Alaskans in metro Anchorage and only about 31,0000 in Juneau, out of a total population in the state of only about 718,000. A move to change the capital to the town of Willow, west of Anchorage, was voted down because of the high cost of the move. Most of the people in Juneau work for the state or federal government.

Skagway boomed when miners seeking passage to the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush needed a staging area. Looking at the map, it was determined that traversing the Chilkoot Pass and then taking rivers downstream was the best way. Canadian authorities required that miners possess a year’s supply of provisions before they were allowed to proceed. Skagway booms again, today, in a sense. The community of about a thousand people gets about 300,000 summer visitors a year, over half from cruise ships.

Sitka was populated by Tlingit Indians, possibly for thousands of years. Russia watched the area with interest after Vitus Bering sighted the Alaskan coast in 1741. In 1799 Russian Alexander Baranov began construction of fortifications at Sitka. Baranov intended to colonize Alaska for Russia and develop the fur trade. The Tlingits resented Russian infringement, burning their fort and killing most of the people in 1802. Baranov returned in 1804 with the warship Neva and 1,000 men. He fought a decisive battle against 700 armed Tlingit. The Tlingit retreated and the Russians formally established their colony of New Archangel. Be sure to see St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox cathedral and its historic icons, some from the 14th century. The cathedral was built 1844-1848, burned in 1966, then rebuilt as an exact replica.

Today no white Russians live in the Sitka area, although several Tlingit Indians with Russian names and some Russian blood do reside here. One bright aspect of the revived interest in the Russian heritage is the New Archangel Russian Folk Dancers, a group of talented women who entertain visitors with a repertoire of Russian folk dances. Be sure to catch their daily performance in the Centennial Building, which also houses a small Sitka City Museum. Because of the declining fur supply, the Crimean War, and Russia’s inability to defend Alaska, Russia eventually decided to sell Sitka and all of Alaska to the U.S., in 1867, for $7,200,000, about two cents per acre.

Main Attractions of Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka

Allowing a night or two in Juneau before or after embarkation can greatly add to the satisfaction of a trip. Juneau is far more than just a cruise ship terminal. It has many cultural and natural treasures to offer. Local tours or a guide-with-a-vehicle can be engaged. The downtown and the Mount Roberts tram can be done on your own by walking. For other suggestions, you’ll need local transportation. Here are my recommendations for time spent in Juneau:

*View the Mendenhall Glacier, outside of town. This is a massive glacier that you can drive right up to. In summer the meadows in front of it have brilliant fields of fireweed, a colorful wildflower. After viewing the glacier from afar, drive close in to the Visitor Center and hike toward the ice mass and the voluminous Nugget Falls pouring out near its side.

The Mendenhall Glacier illustrates the main phenomenon of most modern glaciers in Alaska. They are receding due to global warming. Snow melt now exceeds snow fall at Mendenhall. Mendenhall is retreating roughly 60 feet per year. (Conditions of glaciers are local, however. The Hubbard Glacier in Alaska is advancing.) Mendenhall is a relatively small but highly visible part of the vast 1,500 square miles of glacial activity known as the Juneau Ice Fields.

*Go on a wildlife tour emphasizing humpback whale watching on the Lynn Canal.

Chances are you’ll see a range of wildlife. Foremost are the endangered humpbacks, which are feeding furiously during summer on krill, a small shrimp-like food that grows abundantly here in the upwelling, cool, nutrient-rich ocean. The humpbacks put on quite a show, rolling their spiny backs out of the water and then showing their tail before plunging into deep dives. The non-breeding males and non-pregnant females remain here all year. The breeders swim out to Hawaii for the winter birthing and mating season.

Besides humpbacks, you are likely to see orcas or killer whales, Dall porpoises, sea lions, eagles, and plenty of waterfowl, such as scooters.

*Walk the historic downtown, visiting two museums. Downtown Juneau is compact but hilly. Good walking maps are free and available locally at your hotel.

Some buildings to see are the Russian Orthodox Church St. Nicholas, the columned Alaska legislature, the Governor’s house, and the original house of Judge Wickersham, a mover and shaker in the early history of Juneau.

There are also two small museums with major resources. The Alaska State Museum features Native People cultures, including many artifacts that are temporarily given back to tribes for occasional ceremonial use. Displays, especially of the hunting culture, make a traveler aware of the Eskimo, Athabaskan, Aleut, and Tlingit culture. A giant samovar used for tea service is a highlight of the Russian Alaska display. The Juneau-Douglas City Museum emphasizes the gold mining story that began in 1880. Gold discoveries brought Juneau into existence and thrust it into prominence as the logical choice for the state capitol.

In the downtown area along Franklin Street the main shopping occurs.

*Ride the Mount Roberts Tram to the 1800-foot top of the mountain and enjoy views of the Gastineau Channel, the body of water on whose banks Juneau rests.

There are 2.5 miles of hiking trails at the top of the tram, giving you a good sample of the roughly 120 miles of hiking trails in the immediate Juneau area. Juneau residents are proud of their hiking opportunities, emphasizing that the city area has only 45 miles of roads, but far more miles of trails.

At the top of the tram you can savor the view, hike, dine, and shop.

*Visit the Gastineau Fish Hatchery, also called the Macaulay Fish Hatchery. As many as 170 million salmon fry are released from this small hatchery each year. Several years later those that survive, about two percent, return and are harvested for their sperm and eggs to replenish the cycle. The hatchery, which exists to enhance the commercial and sport fishing scene around Juneau, began in the 1970s at a time when Alaskan wild salmon were over-fished. Today the wild salmon fishery is flourishing. The site is fascinating to visit, with thousands of salmon “ripening” in concrete pens prior to their harvest for sperm and eggs. A small aquarium shows the range of fish and shellfish flourishing in the local waters.

There are five types of salmon in Alaska waters-the chum or dog, sockeye or red, king or Chinook, silver or coho, and pink or humpy. They run at different times of the summer. The king and sockeye are especially prized for fine dining.

*Enjoy food and drink at the Hangar, a convivial downtown eatery favored by locals. The Hangar gives you a view of the water, glancing at the float planes coming and going, and the cruise ships lingering in the distance.

The Hangar is an historic place. This was the original airport when float planes were the only means of speedy transport. In 1935 the legendary pilot Wiley Post and his financial backer, humorist Will Rogers, stopped here enroute to Fairbanks and Barrow. The two were on a mission to show the practicality of an air mail route. They crashed fatally at Barrow.

At the Hangar you can enjoy the many culinary wonders of Alaska, such as grilled salmon, grilled halibut, king crab, and Dungeness crab. One item never on the menu is “farm raised” salmon, a hot button subject in Alaska, where no farm raising of salmon is allowed.

The beverage of choice would be the locally brewed beer, Alaskan, perhaps starting with their popular Amber and then moving boldly into their award-winning Smoked Porter. The Alaskan Brewing Company’s facility is in Juneau, can be toured, and has its own attractive tasting room.

Skagway’s main attractions amount to walking around the historic city, with a stop at the park service headquarters for a brochure on the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. There you’ll see photos and displays on this major historic event. Photos, for example, show how miners used fold-up canvas boats on the Yukon River to get their supplies northward. Most of the boats were abandoned when they were found to be too flimsy. The walls of the Park Service headquarters are covered with quotes from Robert Service’s poetry, with a constant theme: human perseverance in the face of crushing adversity.

For a short hike in the area, walk the nature trail near the park headquarters to the caves. More ambitious hikers use Skagway as a base for a hike of 3-5 days over the 33-mile Chilkoot Pass. The jumping off spot for the pass is near Skagway at Dyea, now a ghost town and a nature area noted for birds and wildlife. Each September some 700 runners in relay teams make a Klondike Relay through the pass. The photographic image of long lines of men, all chained together for safety, hiking in the middle of winter up the 45-degree grade of the Chilkoot Pass, is one of the most moving images of the Klondike rush. The weather here can be severe, earning for Skagway the meaning Tlingit Indians had for the word, skagua, home of the north wind.

Be sure to see the Skagway presentation, each afternoon and evening, of the Soapy Smith revue. In the revue you get a sense of the Gold Rush of 1898 and this consummate con man, who knew a thousand ways to separate a sourdough from his gold nuggets. The Red Onion saloon is a favorite bar, often with impromptu jam sessions led by musicians from the cruise ships. The town is compact and pleasant to walk around, examining the shops, such as Tresham Gregg’s gallery of his Tlingit Indian art creations. Gradually, many of the buildings are being restored to their 1898 appearance as the National Park applies its influence and funds. The photo shop Dedman’s, for example, was one of the original photo studios and still has glass plates from the gold era.

The Klondike Highway, finished in 1978, affected the White Pass Railroad, which competed with it for passengers and freight. The main freight items are lead, copper, zinc, and silver ores, mined in the Yukon, and brought to a loading shed in Skagway, where they are taken out weekly by Russian or Japanese freighters.

A short drive out of town on the Klondike Highway takes you up the White Pass, the famous trail and railroad bed, where signs alert you to the struggle to get to the Klondike. White Pass was an alternative to the Chilkoot Pass. The White Pass was longer, but less steep. Horses could be used, but one sign along the highway indicates, at Dead Horse Pass, where 3,000 horses met their deaths on the steep grade, losing their footing or dying of exhaustion.

Sitka is a picturesque town surrounded by islands and backed by Mt. Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano. The main attraction here is a visit to the Russian Orthodox St. Michael’s Cathedral to see the icons, canvas walls, gold-thread vestments, and ornate bibles. Some of the icons date to the 14th Century.

The second major pleasure here, within a half-mile distance, is the National Historic Park, where you can see Tlingit Indians practicing carving, weaving, and jewelry-making. At the historic park, walk the oceanside path to the site where the great battle of 1804 pitted 1,000 Russians against 700 fortified Tlingits, who were eventually overcome because of the Russian firepower. Along the path you’ll see Tlingit and Haida totem poles. Today about a third of Sitka’s 8,200 people are Tlingit. Interpretive displays at the park headquarters describe how the Tlingit and Russians lived.

Then visit the Sheldon Jackson Museum, a missionary’s collection of artifacts gathered from the various native groups in Alaska. There you’ll see salmon-skin garments, masks, and many day-to-day artifacts of the Indian material culture, including the ceremonial eating bowls of the Tlingit.

Stop in at the Russian Bishop’s House, which the Park Service is now restoring. At the house you can buy books on the Russian presence in America. The Russians made Sitka briefly the “Paris of the Pacific.” Ships from 13 nations weighed anchors here. Trade goods ranged from Virginia tobacco to Flemish linens. The settlement included schools, a flour mill, a tannery, and a foundry that cast the bells for some of California’s Spanish missions.

Along the Sitka waterfront, the dominant structure is the Pioneer Home, a special Alaska institution. The Pioneer Homes are state-supported retirement homes, available to all residents who have lived in the state for 15 years. There are five pioneer homes in various areas of the state. The rationale of the Pioneer Home is partly to prevent the exodus of senior citizens by providing them with comfortable retirement accommodations. A landmark in Sitka, the Prospector Statue, stands in front of the Pioneer Home.

Sitka is a compact town, easy to walk around, with a sizable fishing fleet. If you walk beyond St. Michael’s Church, you’ll find Castle Hill, an easily-fortified position that was the Russian stronghold. Beyond that is the Tlingit Village.

Side Trips from Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka

There are few roads in the region so the major side trips involve airplanes or boats.

Helicopter or fixed wing air flights from Juneau and from Skagway can take you over the glaciers, sometimes landing on them. The air flight over these rivers of ice can be turbulent because cold air coming off the glacier tends to suck the air downward and create unsettling air currents.

An interesting air flight from Juneau or Skagway can take you to Haines, where you can raft the Chilkat Eagle Preserve along the Chilkat River near Haines. The eagles are so thick in this area that bush pilots must set down carefully to keep from running into them.

Sitka’s islands can be enjoyed from local excursion boats. All three towns offer charter fishing boats for the traveler wishing to catch salmon and halibut.

**

Southeast Alaska: If You Go

For tourism information on Alaska, see the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.

More details for the towns come from:

Juneau at http://www.traveljuneau.com.

Skagway at http://www.skagway.org.

Sitka at http://www.sitka.org.

Foster Travel Publishing