North to Alaska

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From the Publisher

Arnold G. York

It was our first trip to Alaska and I was a little uncertain about what to expect. I had a mental picture of my father-in-law standing by his airplane, in this very rough terrain, somewhere in Alaska during World War II. I suspected it had since been gentrified, like everything else in life, so our first stop in Ketchikan was a surprise. It really felt like the frontier.

It’s big, or what passes for a big Southeastern Alaskan inland passage city of 14,000, about the size of Malibu, with, of course, the ubiquitous tour ships. But it also has scores of small fishing boats, a real working fishing fleet and float planes landing in the harbor the way they used to in the old Clark Gable / Spencer Tracy movies where all the guys were named Hank and the only shirt anyone wore was a Pendleton. The waterfront was dotted with these bars where no self-respecting guy would ever order a glass of Chardonnay. I felt at home. This was it, the real Alaska, not some citified, sissified Alaska invented by Disney.

Now, to be honest, it’s not that we were going out on some dog sled. True, we weren’t on one of those big 12-deck tourist Leviathans, we were just roughing it on a cozy little four-deck, luxurious cruise ship called Spirit of Endeavor, with 65 passengers and a head chef from New Orleans (N’orlins as he said it). But this was a wilderness trip, so you have to make some allowances.

Still, sailing out, one realizes that Alaska is big, twice the size of Texas with less than a million people. Everywhere you look there is space-and trees and water, and very few people. Almost the way you visualize America a couple of hundred years ago.

The story of Alaska is the story of the native tribes and clans that lived there forever and the white men who came for fish, furs and, most of all, gold. One place we visited is Sitka, a city on the ocean, settled largely by the Russians, who traded for the otter pelts and other furs, which they took to China where they traded for tea, which then went back to Russia. At one time, Sitka was one of the busiest ports on the West Coast and would probably be Russian to this day if one of the czars hadn’t run low on cash to finance some war or other effort, and offered to sell Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. That, of course, was considered outrageously over-priced in a deal that became known as Seward’s Folly, after the secretary of state who negotiated the deal in 1867, shortly after our Civil War.

We finished our trip in Juneau, the capitol of Alaska, a jewel of a city set in a mountain range, beautifully preserved and protected, with air so fresh and crisp it feels strange. One hundred-plus years ago, it wasn’t quite that way, because in the 1890s gold was struck and all the streams were panned and, later, gigantic mining operations took $82 million in gold (at a time when $82 million could buy more than a beachfront home in Malibu) out of the mountains, which are honey-combed with mine shafts.

But the story of Alaska is not the cities or the struggles of man to capture its resources. The story of Alaska is the overwhelming beauty, the grandeur of nature on an enormous scale. It’s Glacier Bay where you literally sail right up to the Ice Age. The bay is a valley filled with ice, 10-stories high and a mile across at its mouth. Alaska is a set of Orca whales that suddenly appear swimming along our boat with their telltale markings, looking like enormous porpoises, staying with us through one of the passages with a few stops for some fishing and then just peeling off for another location. It is an enormous humpbacked whale that put on a show for us one afternoon. We stopped and for 30 minutes the whale splashed the surface with a fluke and then dove for 30 seconds or so and suddenly came back breaking the surface, rising up into the air and going back down, repeating the cycle, while we all tried desperately to get our cameras focused.

Well, we’re back, rested, a bit awed, tired and trying to lose the five pounds we gained on the trip, but it was worth every moment we need to spend at the gym.

Publishers note: If you’re tempted, the ship was the Spirit of Endeavor, Cruise West, reachable though Linda Androlia at Sunstone Tours, sunstonetours@aol.com