Alaska by ferry is an inexpensive, close-up way to see the wildlife

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I opened my window to the perfume of the sea and drew the covers to my chin, snug for a night's reading in my private cabin as the ferry, Taku, slid away from a Juneau dock, heading south for Wrangell.

In the morning I discovered the windowsill was just the right width for a cup of coffee. I sipped it slowly, watching the layered mists and seascape of Alaska's Inside Passage unspool past my cabin window.

Traveling southeast Alaska by ferry is one of the great secrets of Northwest travel. It's the poor man's cruise, a naturalist's delight, a perfect solace for an overburdened soul.

I'm amazed that something so clever, so pleasant, so affordable and so easy to do has survived the misery of modern economy travel.

A message under the clock on every ferry reads "Alaska time is ship's time."

It's true in several ways: The ferries feel like a safety zone from the modern world, a place to stroll, talk, read, picnic, lounge and dream while watching twining mists, the endless play of light on water and snowfields glimmer on the mountains.

Beginning in Bellingham, the system's southernmost port, the Alaska Marine Highway goes anywhere in Southeast Alaska that the luxury cruise ships do, and to many remote, unspoiled places they don't. And the ferries run year-round.

I used the boats last summer to check out the tourist scene and totem poles in Ketchikan; see the Mendenhall Glacier and spawning sockeye in Juneau; explore ancient petroglyphs in Wrangell and watch bears feasting on salmon at Anan Creek, on Alaska's Cleveland Peninsula near Wrangell.

I also got to know a number of fellow ferry travelers, a group as diverse as their destinations.

We all had one thing in common: the desire to travel independently, without the rigid schedule or higher cost of cruise-ship travel.

Most of us combined float time with time in port, using buses, cabs and taxis to get around.

Beauty minutes away

I flew to Juneau from Seattle to begin my float trip, with an itinerary that would take me south first to Wrangell, then Ketchikan.

My first day in Juneau surprised me.

I didn't realize Juneau offered so many easily accessible outdoor opportunities in addition to the amenities of a city.

Five minutes by bus or taxi from the airport is the Mendenhall Glacier, the most visited in the world, and for very good reason.

At the U.S. Forest Service visitor center I watched chunks of calved glacier the blue of a Husky's eyes bobbing in a cold sea dimpled with rain. The glacier, a river of ice, poured in frozen white ripples through the mountains to meet the water.

A visitor center at the glacier is big enough to handle the heavy traffic of tour buses from the cruise ships. I found solitude on a trail that wound down to the water's edge, with a clear view of the glacier.

A live fish-cam trained on the spawning salmon in Steep Creek inspired me to take a trail to a viewing platform directly over the creek. Within minutes I found myself alone in a forest, seeing the first spawning salmon of my life.

The bright red heads of the spawning sockeye glowed in the green water, and their tails slapped furiously in the current.

I was amazed at the sight and sound of these fish, a five-minute bus ride from the nearest MacDonald's.

This moment crystallized the beauty of ferry hopping in Southeast to me: The ferries and the tiniest bit of initiative reward the independent traveler with a richness of scenery, wildlife and companionship, on the boats and off.

I was able to see the glacier and spawning salmon without paying for a cruise-ship ride or a helicopter flight seeing tour.

After a succulent halibut dinner I headed to the ferry terminal to board the lovely Taku for a dreamy night sailing to Wrangell.

Whale of a wake-up

People sleep everywhere on the ferries: in private cabins; in armchairs with footrests in the TV lounge and the observation deck; stretched out on the carpeted floor; in the padded children's play area; in deckchairs in the solarium and in tents they pitch in the bow, secured to the deck with duct tape.

I had to wait until morning to meet some of my fellow travellers. Some were holed up in the writing lounge, gazing out the picture windows and writing in journals. Others strutted the deck or snoozed in deck chairs.

Gordon and Sophie Jensen of Humboldt, S.D., told me that they were traveling through Alaska for seven weeks using the ferries for part of their journey.

For two land-locked folks who run a farm-fertilizer company, the sight of humpback whales breaching off the ferry's bow was a thrill.

Sophie, 66, woke up most of the sleeping passengers in the observation deck with her yells of excitement when the whales shot out of the water just after daybreak. Gordon, 70, captured the whales on videotape.

Herb Hasselbee, 67, a Maryland computer programmer, took the ferries to sightsee and whale watch. He deliberately chose ferries over a tour by cruise ship.

"I don't like organized things, I like to do it myself. It's the poor man's cruise."

My sentiments exactly.

A walking pleasure

The Taku glided into Wrangell, a town of about 2,800 on an island 85 miles north of Ketchikan.

There is no public transportation in Wrangell, but taxis and rental cars are available. Hotels are right by the dock, as is the town's main street, with several restaurants.

Wilderness outfitters and tour guides also have set up shop at the dock, making it easy to book a car-free ferry adventure.

Just walking through town is a pleasure. People wave from their pick-ups; take time to show you their favorite views. Evenings, kids tool around the streets on bicycles and scooters.

Wrangell resident Sylvia Ettefagh likes to say her town is so small no one needs to use turn signals. "Everyone already knows where you are going."

As the daylight lengthened I headed to Petroglyph Beach, a mile round-trip from the ferry dock. The late-afternoon light was perfect for viewing petroglyphs carved in black and grey rocks, scattered on the beach.

The carvings are believed to date at least 1,000 years.

The meaning of the more than 40 shapes of spirals, faces, whales, and fish is unknown. Are they territorial markers? Do they mark a birth or death or tell a story? Welcome returning salmon?

The beach is delightfully without hype. There's a collection of interpretative panels and a short flight of stairs to the beach, and then you are on your own.

The petroglyphs are not arranged, labeled, cataloged or sign-posted. I found them myself, amid the barnacles, blue and lavender mussel shells and seaweed.

The beach was deserted, the sun low and warm. The tide quietly sorted beach stones salted with barnacles.

Guide with guns

On my second day in Wrangell I chartered a trip to the Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory on a boat operated by Alaska Vista Tours.

The first hint this trip would not be dull was our guide, Wrangell resident Terry Buness , who greeted us at the dock in the morning at the charterboat Kraken, packing a .44 magnum and a shotgun.

Buness piloted us through glittering blue saltwater bound for Anan Creek, southeast of Wrangell on mainland Alaska's Cleveland Peninsula, threading our way through the channels and islands of the emerald green Tongass National forest. At $75 for the day, including the boat trip, it was a bargain.

We hiked an easy, less-than-one-mile trail to the US Forest Service bear observatory over the lower Anan Creek Falls. Eagles called overhead and ravens carried on an intricate conversation of squawks and gurgling sounds.

Salmon berries glowed red and yellow in the shafts of sun piercing the tree canopy, and shoulder-high devil's club bristled with spines.

Frisbee-sized pawprints, shredded skunk cabbage and piles of bear scat by the trail let us know we had big company. And it was easy to see why: Anan Creek's abundant run of salmon, 213,000 strong last year and the third largest run of pinks in Southeast Alaska, thrashed up the rapids.

Buness walked with his shotgun at the ready and magnum on his hip; we followed. The sweet smell of cedar and fir gave way to the stink of rotting salmon as we reached the banks of the creek, with an open-air observatory and camo-draped photo blind on one side.

On the other side were the bears.

They shambled down the wooded hillside opposite the creek, then settled in at the creek's edge, close enough for us to see their individual teeth and the ripple of their muscles.

One bear slotted its rump into a creek-side cave and lay there, its powerful jaws and paws poised over the creek to snag passing salmon without even having to get up.

The bear plunged its snout into the water and came up with a silver salmon, chomping a crimson bite out of its back as the salmon thrashed desperately.

A sow thrust her snout into the salmon beating their way up the current, her muzzle alive with fish for two cubs by her side.

She climbed to a flat rock after the cubs ate, washed the fish slime from their faces with her tongue, then rolled on her back and cradled them against her massive chest as they nursed.

I watched the bears for hours, sharing the viewing platform and blind with fewer than a dozen other people.

Back on the Kraken, Buness motored to a whitewater river, to show us sockeye salmon milling at its mouth, their long, powerful bodies thick as a thigh finning in the current.

Entertaining passengers

The stars were shining in a perfect night sky swirling with northern lights as the Kennicott slid up to the dock at Wrangell, en route to Ketchikan. The newest in the fleet, with an acoustiscal tile ceiling, brutal fluorescent lighting and loud carpeting, the ferry felt like a cross between the office and a cheap casino.

My cabin was a utilitarian cubical with none of the charm of the TAKU's little hideaway. The reading light over the bed was the harshest I've seen since my last hospital stay.

The walls were so thin when the guy in the next cabin rolled over in bed, I felt the wall curve. Kind of creepy. And I know it was a guy because I heard his every cough.

Up at 4 a.m. to pack for a 5:45 a.m. arrival in Ketchikan, I found an espresso machine in the galley. I stumbled back to my room and encountered the ship's staff banging on passenger's doors to roust them to disembark.

Working on the ferries is never dull, said crewmember David Kimberley.

In three years afloat, Kimberley said he's seen it all:

Naked European sunbathers in the solarium; stowaways who bed down on piles of dirty linen in the laundry; an amorous couple unaware they were providing a very X-rated view through the sunroof of their dome tent for the entire dining room in the deck above.

"Passengers make our trip very interesting," Kimberley said. "I'm getting material for my novel while I work."

Consider Daniel Brown, 25, and her companion Tim Ciosek, also 25, whom I met on the Ketchikan ferry route. Brown fingered her necklace of bird bones and trade beads, collected on a remote British Columbia beach midway through her summer-long exploration of the coast by kayak with Ciosek.

Eating breakfast in the dining room of the ferry, they told of battling storms, bears and the huge wakes of cruise ships that sent them paddling to the shore for safety. Ciosek said he liked mooning the big boats from the beach.

Brown, who'd never been in a kayak before the trip, said she found the head of a bear carcass on a beach and mailed it home to her mother in Ohio, with a note asking her to bleach it and save it for her.

Tourists everywhere

As we docked in Ketchikan I knew right away we were in for a different kind of time than we spent at Wrangell. One huge cruise ship had already docked and several more were to arrive that day. By noon, the downtown docks were teeming with people as thick as the salmon in Anan Creek. Ketchikan can see its population jump by half on a busy cruise-ship day.

"I don't want all these other people in my picture,"wailed a cruise-ship tourist on the packed boardwalk of Creek Street, the city's historic district, crammed with tourists walking four abreast from gift shop to gift shop.

They grazed the gold nuggets and tiny bottles of fireweed honey and packed into Dolly's House, a restored brothel quite infamous in its day.

It wasn't any quieter on the water, with seaplanes roaring off from the Tongass Narrows and tourists lined up on the bridge over Ketchikan Creek shoulder to shoulder, fishing for hatchery salmon.

Floating above it all was the yodeling of actors in the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, re-enacting feats of logging derring-do a stone's throw from the Creek Street tourist district.

I preferred the totem park at Saxman Native Village, three miles south of town. Ringed by 26 totems gathered from around Southeast Alaska, it felt like an oasis of quiet and authenticity after the crowds and kitsch of the downtown dock.

I walked the park wondering at the faces, animals, and spirit-creatures rendered in weathered wood sprouting ferns and moss. Some of the totems are more than 100 years old.

Ketchikan is a totem lover's city, with original and modern poles as well as replicas of ancient carvings to see throughout town.

Inside a carving shed at Saxman I met Nathan Jackson, a prominent Tlingit artist. Jackson carved some of the landmark totems in Seattle, and created the totem designs caste in bronze manhole covers in Seattle's streets.

Jackson's warm welcome, his calm, take-your-time storytelling, the fresh cedar curls on the floor, and the well-used hand tools on the work benches felt more like the real Alaska I'd made this trip to see.

To me, Ketchikan was more dominantly flavored by the cruise-ship industry than Juneau, where I began my ferry trip through Southeast.

But in 10 days of ferry travel, I had only one regret: I wished I had scheduled more time to cruise on the boats with no destination at all, for the pure pleasure of the voyage.

Lynda Mapes can be reached at 206-464-2736. E-mail: