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Panhandling in Alaska



Our cruise ship, the Coral Princess, sailed eastward from the port of Whittier in Prince William Sound on the south coast of mainland Alaska. Our route followed glacier-draped mountains that back onto Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest park in the U.S. system. The next day we entered Yakutat Bay, with its massive Hubbard Glacier.

Great late-summer weather delivered spectacular views along this rough-hewn Alaskan Panhandle and allowed for shore excursions into sometimes hard-to-access and remote locations. And our little group took full advantage.

The next day we sailed into Glacier Bay National Park - sidling up to the miles-long Margerie and Lamplugh glaciers (sea access to Johns Hopkins Glacier was limited to protect seasonally calving seals). And we were out in the stern-deck Sanctuary area (lemon water, no kids in the pool) with cameras, binoculars, maps and guidebooks.

We watched massive chunks of glacial ice crash into the water and blue-ish icebergs glint in the sun. We learned from a park ranger why glaciers are both retreating and advancing and how the indigenous Tlingit people base themselves in the village of Hoonah on nearby Chichagof Island (shades of 18 th -century Russian exploration) while remaining active participants in this sprawling United Nations biosphere reserve.

From the port of Skagway, I joined a group tour that followed the Klondike gold-seekers over the Chilkoot Pass and into the Yukon. Our driver and guide was Bethany McCurry, a young native of Utah with an informed interest in Klondike history and an affinity for the outdoors. (She and her friends, calling themselves The Klondike Cold-water Club, "jump in every lake and river we can find.")

As her coach climbed the slopes of the "Tormented Valley," McCurry spoke of the 100,000 hopefuls who walked their way from Skagway into the gold fields in 1898, and the "hundreds of pack-horses that fell to their deaths" along these narrow-ledge trails.

Arriving in sub-alpine terrain of deep-blue lakes and stunted Sitka spruce, we watched a bear amble along a low-lying rock face. Then we passed through a Canada Customs post at Fraser, B.C. (where a George-Clooney look-a-like McCurry and her fellow drivers call "the Silver Fox" glanced at our passport photos) and into the Yukon.

While McCurry talked of gold-seekers who carried 2,000 pounds of supplies over the White Pass and Chilkoot trails ("1,500 steps straight up") and then built their own boats to sail down Bennett Lake, then over rapids and rivers to Dawson City, we followed the shore of 36-kilometre Tutshi Lake.

We stopped to take photos of picture-perfect Bove Island (framed with fireweed).

A lunch of northern comfort food - roast chicken, baked potato with coleslaw - at the caravansary-like resort called Caribou Crossing, was followed by a visit to the Tagish First Nation village of Carcross, at the southern tip of Bennett Lake.

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