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ALASKA’S INSIDE PASSAGE

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Alaska's southeast shore towns string themselves along narrow bits of beach, backed by towering velvet green mountains that seem to make a petulant concession to this intrusion into pure Nature.

Small as they are, the towns epitomize the history of Alaska, embodying vestiges of the waves of activity that lured hardy adventurers from Russia, the United States and other points of the globe over a period of several hundred years.They were pioneers who braved the rigors of an inhospitable climate and rugged terrain to reap Alaska's bounteous resources. They generated, in succession, a thriving fur trade, the gold frenzy, a fishing bonanza and - in more modern times - a petroleum boom.

Some of the names (Ketchikan springs to mind) engender visions of even earlier times, when native Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and Athapascan tribes lived a more fundamental lifestyle, sans the profit motive.

The characteristic art, rich in wildlife themes, that they developed as part of their religious and cultural heritage has become intrinsic to today's tourist traffic. The totems that chronicled their stories are replicated, often in more stylized, less authentic form, and rear their multiple heads everywhere.

Tourists traveling up the Inside Passage via the state's ferry system or in the hotel-like luxury of cruise ships are in a historic wandering waterway that has served humankind since the days of kayaks and umiaks.

The very names of the ports of call are an invitation to something out of the ordinary. Among them:

Ketchikan: Self-proclaimed "gateway" to the communities of the island-laced passage, the town is itself situated on an island with the unlikely name of Revillagigedo, honoring a Spanish viceroy during the days of exploration. Deer Mountain towers over the town and puts natural limits on the population, although some of the more adventurous residents build on its slopes, assuring themselves a breath-sapping climb up or down a wooden stairway each time they leave home.

The compactness is an invitation to walk, and virtually all the local sites of interest can easily be reached on foot. Exceptions are Totem Bight State Park, 10 miles north of town, and Saxman Indian Village, three miles south, both repositories of Indian culture.

A foot tour naturally begins along the banks of Ketchikan Creek, where hopeful gold-seekers set up their quarters. Historic Creek Street, a meandering string of wooden buildings on stilts, has become a tourist mecca, lined with shops and restaurants. But the ancient wood structures still shadow a day when Dolly Arthur operated a house of ill repute to entice locals to part with their gold. Her house, a bright yellow and blue cottage, has been restored as a museum and her personal belongings remain intact as tangibles from another era.

The Totem Heritage Center, also near the center of the town, exhibits original, unrestored totems and carved house posts that are mute storytellers of a time that has passed into history. Carved from huge trees, the totems are a more perishable art form than those left by ancients of other cultures whose medium was stone or metal. Preserving the vintage totems is part of the challenge of modern conservators.

Ketchikan boasts an extremely pleasant city park and hatchery adjacent to the heritage center. Exhibits outline the life cycles of the various salmon species, and tanks of live specimens are reminders of an era when salmon processing plants sprang up along the Alaskan coasts. The hatchery is a reminder of the near-tragedy of over-harvesting and evidence of a new dedication to more scientific management of this resource. From a vantage point on a bridge over Ketchikan Creek, visitors also can see salmon (in season) in their native element (along with their own human reflections in the clear stream).

Many shops and eating spots cater to the tourists who pour off cruise ships in rivers, doubling or trebling Ketchikan's population on most days, spring through early autumn.

Rain is virtually a constant. Two dripless days call for a sign on a local eatery: "Two days without rain. It's a drought!"

Juneau: Joe Juneau took out gold nuggets "as large as beans" and left behind his name for the town that became Alaska's capital. Today, Juneau wages a continual battle against those who advocate moving the government center to the more populated northern cities.

If and until that happens, the press of government business makes Juneau the third-largest city in Alaska. A fairly nondescript Capitol building, embellished - apparently after the fact - with four official-looking pillars, is the main government center, flanked by a nearby more modern state office building.

As with all of the Alaskan cities and towns, the easiest route from here to there is via air. Juneau's narrow harbor bustles with aircraft fitted with pontoons for water landings. And the airports on land cater to "flight-seers" as well as residents accustomed to air hops to conduct business.

Heliports send out and welcome back copters in a steady stream. Buzzing like huge mosquitoes, they ferry tourists across the mountains to nearby glaciers, locked in magnificent frozen splendor. Landing on top of the fissured ice, the choppers allow visitors a close-up-and-personal view of one of the least accessible natural phenomena in the world. Rivulets of melting ice trickle down the sides of crevasses that lose themselves from view. Moraines of debris mark the irrepressible march of the ice and paint a vivid contrast on a monochromatic terrain.

Compressed to a blue hue by time and weight, the ice rivers labor their way to the valleys, where they "calve" off huge chunks of milky gray ice to complete their life cycle.

For adventure of a different sort, take a bus up the winding mountain road that follows Gold Creek (one of Alaska's many Gold Creeks) to an old mine site, where honey-basted fresh salmon steaks are the grub of choice. The proprietors will even lend you a gold pan to do a bit of placer mining of your own on the creek.

Skagway: Or Skaguay, as the natives named this spot. A confused postal official is credited with changing the spelling and eliminating one of the syllables.

In the late 1800s, when gold fever sent thousands of hopeful would-be miners clambering over the formidable coastal mountains into the Yukon interior, Skagway became one of several staging sites.

Launching point for White Pass, the town boomed as it attracted tens of thousands of gold-hungry sourdoughs. They faced no easy task. The Canadian Mounties (you cross into Canada at the top of the pass) demanded that gold-seekers have a year's supply before venturing into Yukon Territory. Burdensome essentials made the onerous trek up White Pass on horseback and human back, often in bone-wrenching relays. Such names as Dead Horse Trail are a colorful remnant of an era that saw many more disappointments than gold-lined pockets.

The journey got easier when a narrow-gauge railroad began operating in 1898. Today's visitors can enjoy a scenic ride up the pass with a view of glacier-dotted mountains that drizzle hundreds of feet of waterfalls down dozens of clefts in a continuous melting process that culminates in the rushing Skagway River. The vintage railroad is maintained primarily as a tourist attraction and carries passengers in cars named for Alaskan and Canadian lakes.

Trains depart from the dock area, where the marriage between land and sea is heralded in hundreds of ship logos painted on the seaside cliffs.

Skagway retains much of its frontier ambience, if only as a concession to tourists. The riotous living of the gold rush remains embodied on Broadway Street, where saloons alternate with souvenir shops. The quarters of the Arctic Brotherhood, mentioned in at least one Robert Service ballad, is a quaint structure with a veneer of sticks and antlers.

A pleasant one-mile walk north and east of town brings you to Gold Rush Cemetery, where gravestones are a clue to the rigors of 19th-century life. Some died anonymously. Most died young. Some died violently. Local lore recalls the shooting of Soapy Smith, a thief and con man who got his comeuppance when he ran afoul of Frank Reid, the local surveyor-turned-hero. Reid, alas, also died several days after the confrontation of the wounds he suffered at Soapy's hand. Reid is honored with a large stone memorial (and gave his name to a magnificent waterfall a short walk from the cemetery), while the remains of Smith remain outside the cemetery's confines.

Sitka: In his epic "Alaska," James A. Michener included the story of Praskovia Kostilevskaya, a young Russian woman of gentle birth in the mid-1800s. From Sitka she wrote home to her family: "I have now been on this rain-soaked island for 19 days and have seen nothing but mist, fog, low clouds and the most gloomy aspect of nature a human being has ever witnessed. Everyone here assures me that when the sun reappears I shall be seeing a glorious congregation of mountains encircling us, with a beautiful volcano off to the West."

Those who follow in Praskovia's footsteps still gamble that sunshine will lighten at least part of their day. If not, they can revel in the beauty of clouds hung low on plush mountains and a shifting gray-on-gray montage of water in the bay. The volcano, Mount Edgecumb, may or may not peek from behind its misty curtain 10 miles west of the city.

Sitka is the most Russian of the Inside Passage cities, and the characteristic architecture of St. Michael's Church dominates the downtown area.

There is a nice museum with miniature replicas of Sitka as it existed in 1867 - the year the United States acquired Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million. The official exchange occurred in Sitka.

A National Historic Park, where modern totem-carvers ply their trade, preserves the Indian culture and is in easy walking distance of the harbor.

Another bit of history is preserved in the Sheldon Jackson College complex. Jackson was a bantam rooster of a character, an indomitable missionary and educator who relentlessly tried to convince American officials of the value of the land they had acquired. James Michener spent two years on the college campus researching his book "Alaska."

The fjords: Apart from the settled parts of the passage, no trip along its length is complete without a journey into one of the fjords. These inlets are characteristically bounded by forested mountains, iced, in turn, with glaciers that create an otherworldly landscape of singular beauty.

The fjords, the mountains, lakes and glaciers of Alaska are all available from the Inside Passage communities, which specialize in catering to tourists. The problem is never in finding something to do, but cramming into a limited time enough of the essence of this intriguing land to last.