With a song in her heart, Leonie Coombes ven­tures north to Alaska

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MOST of the pas­sen­gers board­ing Sun Princess in Seat­tle must have the 1960 Johnny Hor­ton song North to Alaska run­ning through their heads. That’s be­cause most of th­ese Alaska-bound trav­ellers were the bop­pers of that era and what else would they be hum­ming?

There is a scarcity of hot hits writ­ten about the frigid 49th state, so we have to thank Hor­ton for pro­vid­ing us with one. Be­sides, as an an­them for our Alaskan cruise, it is not en­tirely off the mark.

Big Sam, the song’s hero, left Seat­tle in the year of 1892, headed for the Yukon, and soon af­ter found gold. We cruis­ers are not ac­tively seek­ing gold, nor is it nec­es­sary to do so. In our Alaskan ports of call it will find us.

Our jour­ney starts with 36 glo­ri­ous hours at sea trac­ing a route through a maze of is­lands called the Inside Pas­sage, off the west­ern Cana­dian and Alaskan coasts. The sun is shin­ing, orca whales are sighted and checked rugs cover pas­sen­gers snoozing in deckchairs. Chil­dren thrash about in the pool, de­fy­ing the chill in the air.

Sun Princess is a float­ing re­sort cater­ing to all tastes. How­ever, the cap­tain’s cock­tail party is a ship­board in­sti­tu­tion and al­most ev­ery­body seizes the op­por­tu­nity to so­cialise with the chap who com­mands the ship. Putting on for­mal at­tire in broad day­light feels in­con­gru­ous, but that is what hap­pens in the land of the mid­night sun.

Af­ter a wel­com­ing ad­dress our Bri­tish cap­tain, Nick Carl­ton, in­forms us the weather is not look­ing so promis­ing for the next day. Sure enough, we find the port of Ketchikan is driz­zly; its brightly painted build­ings sit squat at the base of misty, snow-capped hills that soar above damp forests. Rain is the norm here in sum­mer.

But weather never stopped a keen fish­er­man. A hand­ful of us board Watchagot, a 10m cabin cruiser owned by re­tired coast guard of­fi­cer Ken Wright. His part­ner, Patti Bishop, the daugh­ter of an Alaskan fish­er­man, is at the wheel. They keep us en­ter­tained with lo­cal knowl­edge and wry quips when rain forces pe­ri­odic re­treats into the boat’s cabin. Noth­ing is bit­ing but the cold; May is a bit early in the sea­son for good fish­ing, but bald ea­gles swoop by with aero­nau­ti­cal pre­ci­sion when Ken throws lumps of her­ring.

Then we get a strike and it is on my rod. I haul in a king salmon that would feed four peo­ple, but Ken is dis­dain­ful. ‘‘ Just a shaker,’’ he de­clares. In Alaska-speak this means it’s un­der­sized, so shake it off. My salmon swims away, joy­fully re­jected like an ex­tra in a John West ad­ver­tise­ment.

Back in town, touristy Creek Street draws crowds. This el­e­vated board­walk sus­pended be­side a rush­ing stream fronts a row of gen­tri­fied tim­ber sou­venir stores that were bars

and broth­els a cen­tury ago. Big Sam would be dis­ap­pointed by the changes. Dolly’s House, ‘‘ where both the men and the salmon came up­stream to spawn’’, is a de­mure mu­seum. Ketchikan could just as well be called Kitschikan but tourism is this town’s lifeblood since the de­cline of the fish­ing and tim­ber in­dus­tries.

At 6am the next day we en­ter Tracy Arm, one of the world’s most breath­tak­ing fjords and a trip high­light. I wake and step on to my freez­ing bal­cony, but the im­pact of this vista binds me to the spot. The ship is glid­ing slowly on mir­ror-flat wa­ter in a deep, nar­row gorge strewn with ice­bergs that have snapped off glaciers and be­come drift­ing sculp­tures. All around us are the seven mil­lion hectares of Ton­gass Na­tional For­est. Spruce, hem­lock, elderberry and cedar stand shoul­der to shoul­der on snow-capped gran­ite peaks slashed by wa­ter­falls.

Spec­tac­u­lar is too mod­est a de­scrip­tion for all this. Hor­ton’s hit song just doesn’t fit here. So rhap­sodic is this sight, we need a sym­phony orches­tra on the deck play­ing Rach­mani­noff. And, speak­ing of Rus­sians, what were they think­ing in 1867 when they sold Alaska to the US for $US7 mil­lion? It is now the largest state in the union, and gold was soon fol­lowed by oil and gas dis­cov­er­ies.

Back in Tracy Arm, the Sun Princess’s sis­ter ship Golden Princess passes and for a mo­ment it is a royal pro­ces­sion of lin­ers in this ma­jes­tic set­ting. Keen pho­tog­ra­phers on both ves­sels fill me­mory cards.

Later we dock at Juneau, the state cap­i­tal. A cable-car ride from the city cen­tre gives a stun­ning view of the Sun Princess docked in the Gastineau Chan­nel. Ten-storey-high build­ings are also re­vealed, quite a con­trast to the other low-slung Alaskan fron­tier towns. Yet no roads run into this pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion. The lo­cals have a say­ing (and it is such a hoot that we hear it of­ten) that the only way into Juneau is by plane, boat or birth canal.

He­li­copter and dog sled are other op­tions. A shore tour to a husky camp looks in­ter­est­ing, es­pe­cially since dog mush­ing is Alaska’s state sport. But the thrill of a chop­per ride to the dra­matic Men­den­hall Glacier proves more invit­ing. Af­ter be­ing kit­ted out in wa­ter­proof cloth­ing, boots and hel­mets, we hover above a frozen ex­panse be­jew­elled with sap­phire pools: a trick of re­frac­tion. Though re­treat­ing, it will be cen­turies be­fore this mas­sive 19km-long for­ma­tion is an ice cube.

We land where a guide, Jared Carl­son, waits to take us on a short but stren­u­ous trek. Next year he will fea­ture as a solo cel­list with the Juneau Sym­phony Orches­tra and I won­der if he prac­tises on the glacier, a con­cert hall avail­able to few.

The next day in Sk­ag­way, Hor­ton is back, si­lenc­ing sen­si­tive mu­sic. Big Sam would have known this place well be­cause Sk­ag­way was founded in 1887 at the time of the stam­pede to the Klondike. It be­came the pro­vi­sion­ing point where min­ers bought the one ton of sup­plies with­out which the Cana­dian Moun­ties would not let them cross the border.

Sk­ag­way is a bit like Ketchikan, re­tain­ing its his­toric flavour but kept alive by the tsunami of tourists who pour off cruise ships each day. Wait­ing just me­tres from the ship is the town’s main at­trac­tion, the White Pass and Yukon Route, a nar­row-gauge train ride that fol­lows the gold rush trail.

This is a three-hour wild west ad­ven­ture on one of the most chal­leng­ing rail­ways built. Our rat­tling as­cent to in­creas­ingly snowy heights is un­der­taken in old-fash­ioned par­lour cars heated by oil stoves. Cam­eras are busy as we wind over high passes and through tun­nels to des­o­late places such as Dead Horse Gulch, where thou­sands of men once camped in sub-zero tem­per­a­tures.

At White Pass on the Cana­dian border, 887m above Sk­ag­way, we turn around. A brown bear is stand­ing on a rock re­gard­ing our de­scent.

Gold is still here but now you only have to walk through Sk­ag­way to find it. As in Ketchikan there are a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of jew­ellery stores lin­ing the streets and I re­sist their glit­ter­ing cab­i­nets, but un­easily. Maybe this bling thing is cul­tur­ally embed­ded and I have failed to see into the heart of Alaska.

I ponder this no­tion on the way to the Sun Princess, weighed down by a sweater with rein­deers on it and a large sup­ply of choco­late nuts called Moose Poo.

How ef­fort­lessly does cruis­ing carry one from wild back to mild. Just 48 hours out of Sk­ag­way and the fron­tier is be­com­ing a me­mory as we cruise down the coast of Van­cou­ver Is­land to Vic­to­ria, the dig­ni­fied cap­i­tal city of Bri­tish Columbia.

Deco­rum and gen­til­ity abound at the Em­press Ho­tel. This vast, stately chateau fac­ing Vic­to­ria’s har­bour was con­structed en­tirely from tim­ber in 1908, and just shy of 100 years later, its creaky Ed­war­dian for­mal­ity is in no way di­min­ished. Still the haunt of roy­als, we soak up some of its el­e­gant mid­c­ity style on the wide veranda and drink a toast to cruis­ing.

At 7am the fol­low­ing morn­ing, the Sun Princess ar­rives back in Seat­tle. This pros­per­ous food and wine-lov­ing city is so invit­ing with its colour­ful pro­duce mar­kets, wa­tery set­ting and nearby ski fields that I se­ri­ously won­der how Big Sam dragged him­self away in 1892.

Th­ese days, with Boe­ing here and Mi­crosoft too, he would prob­a­bly land a job and in­vest some ven­ture cap­i­tal in gold min­ing. Us­ing the prof­its, he could then travel to Alaska in style on a Princess cruise. Leonie Coombes was a guest of Princess Cruises.


Eight Princess ships cover the Alaskan route dur­ing the north­ern sum­mer. More: 132 488; www.princess.com.au.

Pic­ture: Leonie Coombes

Freeze frame: Pas­sen­gers gaze in awe as Sun Princess glides among float­ing ice sculp­tures in Tracy Arm fjord, one of the high­lights of the cruise ship’s pas­sage along the west­ern coast of Canada and up to Alaska

Pic­ture: Leonie Coombes

Wild west: Sun Princess ex­plores Alaska’s rugged coast­line

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