"Whenever I leave," Betty Barrick said when I asked why she liked living in Alaska, "I know that whatever rI see where I go won't equal what I see when I return."
We were in Juneau, Alaska's capital, where she'd come many years ago, and though her words may be a bit effusive, they're plausible: A glacier near the bench where we sat was as large as a town square and beyond it the peaks of mountains rose far over the clouds. Most Alaskans feel as Betty Barrick does: that they live in a special place, one with a wilderness still pure, a place truly like no other.
A few days earlier, I'd flown to Fairbanks, Alaska's second largest city, settling in a hotel called The Fairbanks Princess, owned by the cruise company of that name. It's beside a river, narrow and meandering, where paddle boats pass.
A decade or so ago, Princess came up with a practical way for travellers like me to see Alaska's heartland close-up. Since it's a state of massive size and daunting terrain, it's too formidable for me to explore on my own. So the Princess trip has two portions, the first by land, the second by sea.
Next morning, I boarded the Alaska Railroad, dating to 1915, which gives more and better views than Alaska's highway and secondary roads. It had five Princess coaches attached, each with windows rising to become a sweeping glass roof. That's why a local travel guide was able to say a bit wryly that the Princess approach is to show visitors Alaska comfortably. That's OK by me.
It's now more than 80 years since a naturalist named Charles Sheldon, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, became so incensed by the rampant slaughter of animal life in central Alaska that he lobbied Washington to prohibit it. He sought a breathtaking policy: making millions of Alaska acres into a national park.
In 1917, Woodrow Wilson signed it into law, creating Denali National Park and Preserve. Now, wildlife flourish. The dominant presence of its wilderness is the highest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley, best seen from the Great Room of Princess's own McKinley Wilderness Inn. It's often shrouded by cloud, but always looms in a silence so deep it almost speaks.
Next afternoon, with four other travellers, I boarded a covered wagon pulled by two draft horses and headed on an excursion into the wilderness. We came away with a sense of the people drawn to Alaska. A teenager, Luke Jordan, was our guide over the bumpy road of the tundra, even taking us to a splendid homemade lunch in a remote cabin. But it was Luke himself, his story and words, that stay with me.
He and his parents came years ago from Illinois. His father is a teacher who gives classes in a school of about 160 students: math, geology, drama and astronomy. His mother is a nurse.
"I like our school," Luke said. "Many students come because school is the warmest place in winter." He's proud of his parents: "I know one thing: They'll never have a better teacher than my dad."
In time, Luke, like many young Alaskans, will leave for university elsewhere and many won't come back, but Luke believes he will. "Alaska can be tough," he said, "but it's so beautiful." As we shook hands, he looked to the mountains and, almost speaking to himself, murmured: "I just love this place."
Anchorage is the most urban of Alaska's cities, with 270,000 people and several office towers, but just outside of it is a tiny port, Whittier, where we boarded the Coral Princess for the cruise portion of our trip. The Coral accommodates 1,970 passengers, but its size and design means you're never crowded. It has several dining rooms, so you have lots of choice, dining on what you want, where you want, even when you want.
That's under the experience and taste of chef Paolo Merio, born and trained in a beautiful part of north Italy, Lake Como. You could, if inclined, never leave the ship once you board, there's so much happening: courses, seminars, wine tastings, AA meetings, lectures and nightly stage shows.
By any measure, the heart of the cruise is the scenery. From decks or balconies the coastline slipped past, each view outdoing the previous one: mountain after mountain, fiord after fiord, glacier after glacier. There was unobtrusive commentary by a park ranger or naturalist, explaining land, sea and wildlife.
As we entered Glacier Bay National Park, Captain Mariano Manfuso invited us to the bridge as he and his officers drew within about 400 metres of a glacier called Marjorie. A park naturalist, Patrick Hair, speaking quietly by microphone to the entire ship, gave its awesome measurements: 250 feet above water and a mile wide at its base.
The towns of Alaska have a distinct personality: the air cleaner, the streets uncrowded, the people casual. Trips ashore drew large numbers and Princess offers many to choose from. When we moored in the old gold-rush town of Skagway, we could have gone on any of more than 40 excursions, from a salmon bake to a rainforest bicycle trip. I chose one that took me back to the Skagway of the 1890s when lust for gold drew thousands of prospectors, and ladies of pleasure who came with their lust for money.
I took the Ghosts and Goodtime Girl's Walking Tour. Two actors used racy humour to portray the era when Skagway had 1,500 prospectors and 300 goodtime girls. (One introduced herself to me as your whore-historian.) Their stroll went through neighbourhoods of long-gone libertine life, ended at the notorious Red Saloon's upstairs bordello. There, when I asked a serious question, our guide gave a serious answer: Yes, venereal disease was common; when men caught it they were sent south for the cure; when women caught it they were banned from bordellos, then branded on the cheek to indicate they were diseased.
Juneau is a city of enormous size and modest population: about 31,000 people, but it occupies more than 8,800 square kilometres -- twice the size of Rhode Island. As Betty Barrick, who came 40 years ago and is now a guide, drove us from downtown's state buildings out through brush country, we had to remind ourselves that we were still in a city. She was taking us to the most memorable of all Alaska's scenes, Mendenhall Glacier.
That morning, a lone kayaker made it look even larger. I walked a distance toward the glacier, stood a while, then came back. And I remembered words given me days before, written long ago by one of Alaska's first park superintendents: "There is much to understand for those who understand the language of the great silent places."
-- Princess Alaska land and sea cruises begin in May. For information on dates and rates, visit princesscruises.com.
-- Canwest News Service