Sunday, March 13, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cruising In A Small Boat To And Around Alaska

No matter how you get there, Alaska is a vacation paradise.

But going in a small boat may be one of the most exciting and rewarding ways to do it.

Sure, it's exciting to see humpback whales from the deck of a cruise ship.

But when they are nearly as large as your 42-foot boat and frolic only yards away as you're reeling in 20-pound king salmon, it's a thrill never to be forgotten.

Sure, cruise ships are known for fine dining.

But it's difficult to beat rushing fresh-caught salmon, halibut or Dungeness crab from the water to the galley to the table of your small boat.

Sure, the snowy mountains and sprawling ice fields in Glacier Bay are majestic.

But there's something extra special about carefully guiding your small craft through miles of icebergs - some as large as railroad boxcars - to find glaciers glistening in the sun. And top that off by snaring a small iceberg to chill the wine.

Sure, we saw the same scenery as the folks on the big cruise ships.

But there's a another, more personable, perspective when you're 10 feet above the water instead of 10 stories above.

Going to Southeast Alaska on your own in a small boat, as we did last year, leaves memories that will never fade:

-- Anchoring in Glacier Bay's isolated North Sandy Cove two nights instead of one because of the quiet and the chance to see a sow bear and her three cubs frolic on the beach.

-- Counting the hordes of bald eagles on patrol for a fish dinner.

-- Watching the sun set on the spectacular mountains and the purple twilight develop.

After two weeks to cover the 650 miles to get to Ketchikan, we had developed some confidence - and a feeling of exhilaration - about traveling more or less alone in sometimes dangerous waters.

And along the way we stopped as we wished in beautiful anchorages along the Inside Passage.

We lolled in the hot springs at Bishop Bay off Ursala Channel at the end of Graham Reach; mourned the ruins of a once-majestic fishing cannery at Butedale (and enjoyed its still beautiful waterfall); shopped in the Tribal Bands' stores in Bella Bella, Klemtu or other friendly towns in British Columbia; and rested in Prince Rupert. We crossed the infamous Dixon Entrance, at the B.C./Alaska border where ocean swells often scare off pleasure boaters.

At first glimpse, Alaska's islands and waterways looked a lot like those in Puget Sound - without so many people, of course.

For us, the key to enjoying a pleasure boat trip to Alaska was to be unhurried and flexible, and to watch the weather. We planned each day's trip, with alternates in case of bad conditions. We tried to go with equipment that worked and lots of spare parts. We carried every U.S. and Canadian chart we thought we would ever need, plus tried to have a sound knowledge of navigation. For although there were ample periods of calm, the waters can be treacherous for small-boat passages.

The rest is individual preference. You can fish or set the crab pot; visit the small towns passed by bigger ships; hit a few touristy spots and museums in Sitka, Juneau or Ketchikan with the cruise-ship crowd; visit the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, or go on 85 miles to Skagway; or navigate the 26 miles, dodging icebergs all the way - to the head of Tracy Arm to watch the North and South Sawyer glaciers calve.

In places like Misty Fjords National Monument, we considered the threat of bears but still went ashore and hiked to nearby lakes and scenic lookouts, picked huckleberries and gathered wild daisies.

Fresh food is available in all ports (hauled to Southeast on barges and container ships). But we carried canned and dry food in case we were detained by weather. Water was plentiful. The most aggravating situation we had to endure was getting to laundromats that were far from moorages and spending our precious hours waiting for the wash.

Many pleasure boaters travel with others. Some, however, simply planned occasional meetings with boating friends and tried to keep in touch by radio. Inevitably, boaters make friends with other boaters - cruise with them, share meals and anchor together in quiet harbors.

May and June are considered the best months to make the trip. There's less fog and northerly winds than in late summer.

For those who want a small-boat experience but don't have a boat, or are not confident of their skills, you can charter a vessel in most any port from Seattle to Alaska.

Or, you can book passage on one of several smaller vessels such as the classic 1929-built six-passenger Sobre Los Olas which offers nine-day cruises from Seattle to Ketchikan and cruises in Southeast Alaska.

For information about local excursions, charters, clearing Customs, fishing regulations, national park permits, and other activities, check with:

Juneau Visitors Information, 134 Third St., Juneau, AK 99801. Phone: (907) 586-2201.

Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, 131 Front St. , Ketchikan, AK 99901. Phone: (907) 225-6166.

Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1226, Sitka, AK 99835. Phone: (907) 747-5940.

Some books to browse in planning a trip, and to carry aboard for unexpected changes in plans, are listed below. We consider the first two absolutely necessary, as are the "U.S. Pilot" for Alaskan waters and the "Canadian Sailing Directions" for B.C. waters. Most are available in local marine stores in paperback:

"How to Cruise to Alaska Without Rocking the Boat Too Much," by Walt Woodward. Published by Nor'Westing, Seattle. It's especially helpful in planning a trip and knowing what to expect at each day's destination.

"Charlie's Charts North to Alaska," by Charles E. Wood, published by Charlie's Charts, Vancouver, B.C. His drawings help locate entrances to anchorages and where to go to avoid rocks and hazards, or drop the anchor.

Alaska's Southeast," by Sarah Eppenbach, Pacific Search, Seattle.

"North to Alaska," by Hugo Anderson. Anderson Publishing Co. Inc. Anacortes.

"Northwest Boat Travel." Anderson Publishing Co. Inc., Anacortes.

"Visit Alaska, Southeast Alaska Harbor & Boat Facility Directory," Order from U.S. Coast Guard, Director of Auxiliary, P.O. Box 3-5000, Juneau, AK 99802. $2.50.

Bob Lane is a retired Seattle Times reporter; Polly Lane is a Times business reporter. They spent 10 weeks in 1993 going to Alaska aboard their 42-foot power boat, Quadra.

Published Correction Date: 03/23/94 - The Alaska Department Of Transportation Has Increased The Price For Its ''Visit Alaska: 1990 Southeast Alaska Harbor And Boating Facility Directory'' To $5 This Year. An Item In This Article Gave The Wrong Price And An Incorrect Address For Ordering The Booklet That Details Moorage For Pleasure And Fishing Boats. Order From Alaska DOT And Public Facilities, Southeast Regional Administrator, Attn: Cecille Saceda, 3132 Channel Drive, Juneau, AK 99801-7898.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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