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49th state escape
Discover Alaska’s golden sights by sea, land

Published: Jan/Feb 2001


Panning for pieces of gold brings back the glory days of Klondike miners at Gold Dredge No. 8 in Fairbanks../ Janice Denham photo;
Discovering Alaska is like panning for gold. It takes patience and persistence. The payload comes not only in shiny, little flakes at the bottom of water, but in a multi-faceted terrain, home to bears and salmon, the highest mountain on the continent and summer days so happy to be alive that they forego turning into night.

The Alaskan gem is gigantic, able to hold Texas twice, plus California, in its bounds.

Cruising is a delightful way to embark on an Alaskan adventure. Combining it with a land tour doubles the reward. The serene ship atmosphere of waters bordered by Sitka pine trees and distant snow-topped peaks forms a canopy for one memory of Alaska, while the interior’s vast wilderness highlights the rugged individuality gold miners of the 1890s developed.

Starting in Vancouver allows a traveler, who is rushing from the Lower 48 by plane to cab to ship, to become oriented to the 49th state. The first day is on water, so there is time to watch for the flip of whales and dolphins, hear an on-board naturalist tell about the Inside Passage and keep an eye on the birds and landscape of British Columbia to the east or Vancouver Island to the west. Then the ship casts its spell with a multi-course dinner and entertainment.

Even during summer, when sunlight provides more time to watch for wildlife from the deck, light and warm clothes should be packed. Because Alaska’s coast is a temperate rainforest, weather can change quickly.

Landlubber’s delight

Alaskan ports offer enticing land and water trips. Many sites are within walking distance of the ship. A Holland America cruise-tour itinerary (Alaska and Klondike Explorer) stops in Juneau and Skagway along the Inside Passage before heading inland to follow the path of the Gold Rush of 1898.

Juneau, the capital of Alaska, is accessible only by air or water. Bald eagles, with wing spans of seven feet, hover nearby. Historic buildings and shopping areas are easy to find while walking the area. A tramway to Mount Roberts reaches 2,000 feet above the harbor. Nearby, Mendenhall Glacier has retreated 25 to 30 feet each year since 1750.

The Alaska State Museum is four blocks from the ship’s dock. A multi-level Eagle Tree rises to give a bird’s-eye view of a nest with seven eagles from egg to adult. The collection shows the rich heritage of native groups. Exhibits include houseposts, totem polls and other items Gov. John Brady sent to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

In a sweeping view of Skagway from Broadway, the main street, snow-capped peaks stand majestically behind a cruise ship, while the White Pass and Yukon Railway arrives in the station to board passengers for the Gold Rush adventure of ’98.

Boardwalks edge buildings, while vintage cars and horse-drawn buggies offer tours. Running through the center of town is a narrow stream where salmon, omnipresent mascot of the land, swim with a plan. To reproduce, they must return to the stream where they were spawned. Skagway’s summer fun includes a storytelling festival in June, rodeo in July and bathtub race in August.

Follow the miners

The narrow-gauge train runs from Skagway, the northern end of the Inside Passage, to Fraser in the Yukon Territory. Thousands of stampeders tried to cross White Pass to reach the Yukon River en route to the gold strike in Dawson 600 miles away. Riding in parlor cars along the rugged route, travelers see breathtaking gorges, a waterfall and Tunnel Mountain while following the route miners took to find their dream.

To increase their chance of survival in the harsh environment, the Canadian government required each miner to enter Yukon Territory with a ton of supplies. A cheechako (would-be miner) carried gear in 60-pound loads. Probably only 30 percent of the novices who attempted the climb spent winter in the dark, rugged Yukon territory.

Continue the next phase of the trip via motorcoach along the Klondike Highway through Whitehorse on to Dawson City. There always is a chance to see wildlife.

Dawson City, population 1,953, and situated on the Yukon River, was a thriving boomtown of 30,000 in 1898. Boardwalks and dirt streets, reminders of a glittering past, lead visitors through the historic town that inspired writers Jack London and Robert Service. Gold and other minerals still are mined today. Visitors can pan for their own gold souvenirs, too.

Although the vast terrain is rugged, a Holland America tour wants travelers to enjoy it comfortably. Motorcoaches are modern, luggage is delivered and picked up outside the room of a Westmark Hotel or Inn on an overnight stay, plentiful meals are available and the dress code on the land tour is very informal. When the aurora borealis is visible, inns along the way often share the news with those who ask to be wakened.

Vast splendor of Alaska

The traveler doesn’t say goodbye to the Yukon River until journeying down it on the mv Yukon Queen II to Eagle, Alaska, the only planned town of the Gold Rush. With fewer than 200 people, it upholds its historical connection with Fort Egbert, established as a telegraph terminus by the Army in 1899.

Past Fairbanks, the McKinley Explorer runs with domed cars, symbols of gracious rail travel in another era. Large windows and a dining room in each car afford relaxing views of natural splendor. A major stop is Denali National Park before heading to Anchorage, the end of most tours. Seward completes the line.

Denali’s impact is unspoiled magnificence. The 6-million-acre park holds the grandeur of Mount McKinley’s rise to 20,320 feet. The mountain often is timid to show its face, but bush planes can take visitors past adjacent glaciers. Buses shuttle visitors through the park.

Anchorage invites

Anchorage plants an exclamation point on the trip to North America’s last frontier.

In the middle of hotels downtown is the Alaska Museum of History and Art. A short walk to Resolution Park finds a life-size statue of Capt. James Cook overlooking Cook Inlet, where he anchored in 1778.

Northbound is Eagle River Nature Center along the Iditarod Trail in Chugach State Park. A short hike can discover a 3-foot-long salmon or a close encounter with a moose. Along the Glenn Highway is the Alaska Native Heritage Center, with early housing, crafts, storytelling and dancing that represent the five native areas of the state.

Traveling the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet south, beluga whales may swim nearby. Holland America’s mv Ptarmigan brings visitors close enough to Portage Glacier to hear it calve and feel waves as ice crashing into the lake becomes an iceberg.

Tour participants fly home from Anchorage, taking with them memories to last a lifetime.

Janice Denham is a new contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

May/June 2014 Issue

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