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Going Where Few Roads Go : Ships Explore Corners of the 49thState That Can't Be Reached by Car

February 06, 1994|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH

If you spread out a map of Alaska and study the veined lines that denote highways, you'll see how little of that vast state can be reached by road.

But traveling by sea opens up much more of the state. Over the years, we've stepped off cruise ships and into the hearts of communities from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians to Barrow, far above the Arctic Circle, and from the Inside Passage's southeasternmost port of Ketchikan to Little Diomede Island in the middle of the Bering Strait.

Two midsummer cruises aboard Clipper Adventure Cruises' 140-passenger World Discoverer (July 8 and Aug. 9) will take you to the wind-swept cliffs of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, where cartoon-faced horned and tufted puffins stare comically down from their ledge perches and thousands of fur seals tumble in the icy water among the rocks and kelp. There are Arctic foxes, not white in summer but coal black, looking like small furry dogs, and bald eagles soaring lazily above the sea.

The ship also visits Katmai National Park, where Katmai brown bear can be glimpsed fishing for spawning salmon, and Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island in the Aleutians, nearer Japan and Russia than Washington and Oregon.

Almost everyone in Dutch Harbor works for one of the Japanese-owned fish-packing plants and lives in community housing. Each employee shares a 12-by-12-foot room and bath with one roommate and is fed in a central dining hall at 6 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and midnight, since work goes on around the clock during the short but busy season.

The 188-passenger Hanseatic, a recently built state-of-the-art expedition vessel marketed in the United States by Seven Seas Cruises, will set out Aug. 18 from Greenland for an east-to-west transit of the rarely visited Northwest Passage. Should the transit be successful in getting through the ice, it will visit Barrow, Pt. Hope, Little Diomede, Nome, Dutch Harbor and Homer before arriving in Anchorage Sept. 14. If not, it will turn around and visit other ports of call.

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One of the last great seagoing adventures, the Northwest Passage transit by passenger ship has been successful only six times prior to this attempt, the first in 1984 from east to west.

In 1985, on the first west-to-east transit, we sailed aboard the World Discoverer through a world of fire and ice in the Beaufort Sea, surrounded by a surrealist fantasy of towering frozen cliffs on one side and the glittering sand-colored skyscrapers of an Arctic Manhattan, twinkling with lights and belching flames, on the other. A mirage effect called "looming" made the frozen cliffs reflect against themselves in the sunlight, and the "city" of the oil platforms and administration buildings at Prudhoe Bay reflect upside-down and right-side-up in several layers as if suspended in gray aspic between sea and sky.

Along the way, we visited sparsely settled villages in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, and went ashore at Beechey Island to see graves from the tragic 19th-Century Franklin Expedition. Zodiac landing craft took us close to icebergs off Greenland and unexplored inlets along Baffin Bay.

But while a few of Alaska's seagoing visitors this summer will be aboard expedition ships and more casual vessels that offer alternative shipboard lifestyles and explore off-the-beaten-track areas, most will opt for classic, mainstream cruise ships with professional entertainment, dress-up evenings and spa and exercise programs.

With 32 vessels cruising Alaska this summer, offering some 25% more beds than last summer, the range of choices is wider than ever for passengers considering a first, or even second or third, Alaska cruise. Better still, early bookings earn discounts or special bonuses.

Alaska-bound vacationers can select theme cruises that range ofrom country-Western and square dance sailings to photography workshops and big-band sounds, or opt for a luxury rail trip in a dome car through pristine Alaskan wilderness.

They can go in search of moose and musk ox in Denali National Park, traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks by train, or climb aboard the historic narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Railway in Skagway for a trip up to Dead Horse Pass and the 1898 gold-rush trail to the Klondike.

They can hoot and holler in a turn-of-the-century saloon with sawdust on the floor and dancing girls by the piano, cheer for the hero and boo the villain in a melodrama, or recite "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" with a Robert Service look-alike.

They can book a combination cruise/RV overland vacation, or stay before or after the cruise in a private fishing lodge in a national park.

They can cruise fiords and glaciers by day and sleep overnight in a shore-side hotel, or take an inflatable Zodiac landing craft into remote waters to watch Alaska brown bears fishing for salmon.

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