Historians tell us that two drunken gold seekers in 1880 staked their claim in what was considered a vast and worthless frozen wasteland known as Alaska. While the first travelers to Alaska came for gold, today they come to see the awesome beauty and experience its history.
Russia had sold Alaska to the United States earlier in 1867 because it was too much of a burden to protect even though abundant amounts of gold were to be found in its river beds. The Russians feared a gold rush by foreign prospectors on soil they could barely hold claim to. At that time neither country knew that Alaska would become known not for its gold, but for its beauty, which is uniquely different from any other land mass.
Visitors also go to Alaska for a different kind of vacation – not for a home away from home. Alaska is so close to Hawaii, and I wondered whether this was a land with the type of beauty and uniqueness I have missed in my other world travels. I had to see for myself.
» GETTING THERE: A round-trip fare from Honolulu to Seattle on Hawaiian Airlines starts around $375 plus tax and fees. Check for specials, up-to-date fares and schedules during Alaska cruising season. Visit www.hawaiianair
» CRUISING: Celebrity Infinity carries 2,046 guests for the seven-night Alaska Tracy Arm Fjord cruise, which sails round-trip out of Seattle, cruising through the Tracy Arm Fjord and Alaska Inside Passage. Ports of call include Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, British Columbia. The rate per person starts from $816 for an inside cabin (based on double occupancy). Check for specials, Alaska cruising season and excursions offered. Visit www.celebrity.com.
DID YOU KNOW?
» Alaska is considered the second most desired vacation destination just behind the Caribbean and ahead of Hawaii, which ranks fifth.
» Alaska’s first humans trace back to 16,000 B.C. when Paleolithic groups of families crossed the Bering Land Bridge from what is now Russia to form settlements to become the first American Indians.
» Alaska was purchased from Russia for $7.2 million – less than 2 cents per acre. The U.S. flag flew in Alaska for the first time on Oct. 18, 1867.
» Alaska at one point is 55 miles from Russia.
» The Celebrity Infinity has about 120 chefs working each cruise.
I flew an easy flight to Seattle from Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines to catch the Celebrity Infinity on one of its last "Inside Passage" voyages of the summer. The ship sails along the southern Alaska "panhandle." This is the coastal region next to Western Canada among a thousand islands.
The area is abundant with high coastal mountains, forests and islands all formed following the retreat of the glaciers of the last Ice Age. The glaciers gave Alaska the Tongass National Forest, which is the largest coastal temperate rain forest in the world. Glacier Bay National Park contains 16 active glaciers. (Please see sidebar "Did You Know" for more interesting facts.)
After a crab lunch at the famous Elliott Bay Pikes Place Market in Seattle, I boarded the ship just a few blocks away. There was an instant feeling of being a "pampered passenger" for which Celebrity is famous. This is how the trip began and ended. The splendor and living history of Alaska filled in everything else.
Ketchikan is Alaska’s first official port of entry after a day of VIP cruising. Things haven’t changed much in Ketchikan from the early days of salmon fishing along with gold prospecting, of course. Tongass Packing Co. followed what natives knew: This place is excellent for salmon fishing. Incorporated in 1900, Ketchikan is still a small town of about 15,000 and a producer of a whopping 2 million salmon each year. Miners tapped out nearby gold veins by 1917.
What I found interesting in Ketchikan, as well as in other small port cities in Alaska, are the historic old structures that have been preserved like yesteryear during the gold rushes. Ketchikan even has a wooden waterfront sidewalk built over the water on pilings. And, of course, there is Dolly’s House, the old brothel which is now a museum.
A float-plane ride over waterfalls and misty cliffs, followed by an all-you-can-eat crab lunch, is a lasting visual and gourmet treat. There is also up-close bear and whale watching. So much to do!
TRACY ARM FJORD
Tracy Arm Fjord was an unusual experience not only because of the beauty this time, but because of how I saw it. I was invited to the bridge and talked with Capt. Anastassios Lekkas as he maneuvered a ship three football fields in length to front-row seats of the Tracy Arm glacier show. The show really began earlier as the ship glided carefully into the Tracy and Endicott Arms Fjords at sunrise. The ship passed ice chunks the size of small buildings, but most floating ice was small. If you watch closely you will see an otter hitching a ride here and there. As the Celebrity Infinity gingerly maneuvered its narrow, tedious way to the glacier, I stood awestruck by cliffs looming 15 or so feet away as the early sun shimmered on rocky shorelines, waterfalls and forests.
The glacier itself is at the end of Tracy Arm. We were treated to a spectacular sight as the captain pulled up as close as he could without danger from "calving" or occasional breakdown of blue ice into the fjord itself. The captain passed a few of these building-size ice chunks as we approached the glacier. These could cause a good dent (auwe) if he weren’t extremely cautious.
Juneau, with about 30,000 people, is the capital of Alaska and is accessible only by air or sea. It was founded during one of the Alaska gold rushes in 1880. It still looks like a 19th-century miner town. I stopped by the old honky-tonk "Red Dog Saloon" before I boarded a helicopter to take me for a walk on a glacier and do a little "mountaineering." Mendenhall Glacier is magnificent. To shuffle with complimentary boots on blue ice, catch a mouthful of glacier water from a trickling stream and stand where
glaciers had inched along the terrain for thousands of years was another incomparable experience I was looking for. To stand on such magnificence and witness Mother Nature like this is incredible.
Skagway is where the gold rush really started in earnest. Skagway is the best-preserved gold rush town in Alaska and maybe elsewhere. Historians say it was from here that word spread that gold in the Canadian Yukon had been discovered. More than 100,000 "Klondikers" or "stampeders" passed through Skagway through White Pass to the Klondike fields of Canada to seek their fortune by horse and foot over the "trail of ’98." Only 30,000 made the 600-mile trek on packhorse with a year’s supply of provisions as required by the Canadian government. Open to all who ventured the risk, the few who made it became very rich over a four-year period as $50 million in gold was extracted, mostly from river beds. Historians call it one of the largest voluntary mass movements of people in history.
Skagway is the only stop where visitors can travel inland and experience the rugged coastal mountains. What is called the "most fantastic" train in the world now traces one of the two routes and is called the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. The rail cars are authentic 1900 parlor cars. The slow 40-mile journey up the mountain gives one a feeling of what the gold prospectors endured. After all, it covers part of the same, often precarious trail that hugs mountain cliffs and
extends 110 miles between Skagway and Bennett Station in Canada. The entire route to the Yukon was never finished. Travel dropped off after the gold rush ended, but it picked up again carrying supplies for the Alaska/Canadian highway construction during World War II and, once again, when cruise ships came to Skagway in 1988.
I was not surprised to learn that as an engineering marvel, this railway rivals the building of the Panama Canal and the Eiffel Tower.
Everything in Skagway, like Juneau and Ketchikan, is gold rush oriented. The small town looks the same today as it did in those gold-driven days during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Even the old brothel retained its name as the Red Onion Brothel and Saloon. Meet the "ladies of the night" who will serve you a beer and lunch while
costumed appropriately. Walk up and down the six blocks of Skagway and feel the "Old West" atmosphere.
My trip to Alaska gave me a better feeling of the hardships people experienced as they traveled to claim their gold and of the great risks they took in a subzero climate a Hawaii boy can’t even imagine. At the same time Alaska was more beautiful than I had ever imagined. Everywhere I went punctuated these unforgettable experiences.
Bill Haig, a semi-retired businessman, is a longtime resident of Hawaii who enjoys visiting new places and writing about them.
CORRECTION: Photos of the Red Onion Saloon; downtown Ketchikan, Alaska; and Mendenhall Glacier on Pages H1-3 in an earlier Travel section were incorrectly credited to Bill Haig. They were taken by Al Neely.