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ALASKA ON YOUR OWN: GETTING AROUND AND ABOUT ISN’T ALL THAT HARD

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The Alaskan frontier, where civilization has only begun to nibble at a beautiful yet sometimes harsh wilderness, is strange and unknown country to most first-time visitors. The state overwhelms, just because it is so huge and so out-of-the-way. Daunted, you may think an escorted tour is the best way to go.

Not necessarily. The state has a somewhat limited but nevertheless quite sophisticated transportation network - highways, ferries, trains, buses and planes - that can take independent travelers almost anywhere they want to go. Escorted tours and luxury cruises appeal to many, but if you are an adventurer at heart, you probably will want to see Alaska on your own.The adventure can begin almost as soon as you leave home. The quickest way to Alaska is by commercial airline, but that certainly is not the most interesting or scenic way.

In the summer, you have several options. You can:

- Drive to Alaska via the Alaska Highway through Canada's Yukon Territory.

- Board a regularly scheduled bus covering the same route to Anchorage or Fairbanks.

- Sail the spectacular Inside Passage on one of the Alaska state ferries.

To see it all, the traveler with plenty of time might consider driving or riding the bus north to Alaska and returning by ferry. (The ferries carry private vehicles.)

Once in Alaska, you can get to most popular destinations in southeastern and south central Alaska - such as Denali National Park and Kodiak Island - by bus, train or ferry. Of course, your options increase if you rent a car or recreational vehicle or bring one along.

The main intercity highways in the south are paved, although the long-distance roads north from Fairbanks into Arctic tundra country are gravel and some remote spots can be reached only by plane. Once you've decided to see Alaska on your own, the next step is planning:

- When to go. Remember that while most Alaskan public-transportation systems operate year-round, departures are most frequent during the summer months because of the influx of tourists. Schedules are cut back substantially or may even be eliminated from fall into spring.

- What to take. If you plan to stick to public transportation, consider carrying a backpack, which is easier to tote than a suitcase if you have to walk from a bus or train station to your hotel. A lightweight tent and sleeping bag also may come in handy if lodgings are booked, since you usually can find a convenient campsite.

- Getting there. Getting to Alaska can be almost rewarding as actually touring the state. Among the overland or sea options:

By highway:

Surprisingly, the approximately 2,300-mile highway route to Alaska from the U.S.-Canada border is open year-round. Most travelers who decide to drive, however, make the trip in the summer when snow is not a threat, and most go by recreational vehicle or van and camp along the way.

By most accounts, the trip should take at least a week. The roads north through Canada to Dawson Creek, the beginning of the Alaska Highway, are excellent. But the Alaska Highway itself can be slow going.

Small stretches of it remain gravel, although most of the way is paved. On gravel sections, you must keep your distance behind vehicles ahead because the dust they kick up can be blinding. On paved areas, you must always be on the alert for potholes.

A brochure called "Driving the Alaska Highway" published by Public Works Canada cautions that travelers "should remember that they are in a wilderness area and that service stations aren't found at every turn in the road."

It also warns travelers not to let the gas gauge drop below half full and points out that some stations close early in the evening.

Motels, campgrounds and restaurants are dotted the length of the highway at intervals of 20 to 50 miles, but drivers are advised to make sure their vehicles are in good working condition and to carry a spare tire and fanbelt. In summers, the road is heavily traveled during normal daylight hours so assistance generally is readily available.

Despite the warnings, travelers should not be dissuaded from making the trip. Thousands of tourists make the drive annually, says the Alaska Division of Tourism, "in campers, RVs, cars and even on motorcycles and bicycles."

Travelers can also reach Anchorage and Fairbanks by scheduled bus service. To do so, catch a Greyhound Lines of Canada bus to Dawson Creek and then continue onward over the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. This service is offered daily Monday through Saturday. In Whitehorse, board a connecting Alaskon Express bus to Anchorage or Fairbanks; this service is available only in the summer, with departures Tuesday and Friday. The one-way bus fare from Vancouver to Fairbanks is about $257.

By ferry:

The communities on Alaska's southeastern panhandle - Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan - are served only by airlines and the Alaska State Ferry System. No roads reach them from Canada, the rest of Alaska or the lower 48 states.

The ferry fleet sails the Inside Passage frequently each month from Bellingham, Wash. (85 miles north of Seattle) or Prince Rupert in British Columbia to Haines and Skagway in Alaska. You continue by bus or auto to Anchorage (750 miles) and Fairbanks (650 miles) or other destinations in Alaska.

The trip from Bellingham to Skagway takes four days, although you may want to stop for a day or two at communities along the way. The tourist fare from Bellingham to Skagway is $218 per person one way.

An outside cabin for two is about $200, although you can take passage without a cabin and sleep in the lounge or on deck. Meals are additional.

Vehicle rates depend on the size of the vehicle. The bus fare onward to Anchorage or Fairbanks is about $175. The bus trip adds two days to the schedule, and overnight lodging en route is additional.

Reservations for the ferries are advisable, and the earlier the better for summer departures.

- For information: Alaska Marine Highway, P.O. Box R, Juneau, Alaska 99811-2505, 1-800-642-0066 and (907) 465-3941.