Tourists in Trees
Shunning the popular mega ship experience, Roderick Eime disappears into the Alaskan wilderness for a taste of the true outdoors.
The two mighty V8 engines erupt into a loud angry growl and the little jet boat begins to spin wildly in the rough white water. Passengers are screaming, hanging on for dear life as the scenery of sheer jagged cliffs and enormous boulders whiz past bare metres away. Then suddenly, we lurch to a violent halt, followed by a deluge over the stern that completely inundates those clinging desperately to the railings.
"How's that?!" yells Jim from the shelter of the tiny wheelhouse.
"Fantastic!" comes the exuberant reply from the saturated clients, still shaking the chilly mountain water from their hair and spray jackets. Skipper, Jim Leslie, is not a show-off, but after some gentle coaxing will execute a hair-raising '360' for the sheer thrill of it.
Husband and wife team, Wilma and Jim Leslie, operate Alaska Waters, a tour company in the little town of Wrangell Alaska, tucked delicately into a sheltered bay on the island of the same name. Wilma, a proud first nation woman, and Jim a dedicated outdoorsman with tough military training, conduct personalised, small group tours from the quaint little fishing hamlet that is almost dormant between weekly visits from the huge cruise liners.
Now that logging and mining are winding down in the area, tourism is moving in, and Jim and Wilma have become de facto tourism ambassadors for the town, representing the community’s interests at government level.
When the big ships arrive, like the huge Norwegian Sun and her 2000 passengers, the town is transformed into a veritable fairground. Local traders are out in force toting their wares and the tiny tour companies whisk batches of tourists around the town to the museum and other local attractions like Chief Shakes House. I can’t help but feel these folk, while lavished with all the trappings of the giant cruise ship, are missing out on the genuine local touch.
Australians are travelling to Alaska in record numbers, the majority enjoying well-rehearsed and orchestrated experiences that expose travellers on brief itineraries to the substantial natural beauty of this abundant land. But those with a more independent bent can “jump ship” at any of the little ports and experience the true small town Alaska made famous in such television shows as “Men in Trees” and the earlier hit, “Northern Exposure”.
I believe this one-on-one experience delivers a totally different perspective on travel to this great wilderness area of North America. Australians, with their undeniable love of the outback and open air, will embrace this convivial and intimate alternative.
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Wilma and Jim's signature adventure tour is a two-night, white water wilderness expedition up the magnificent Stikine River into the largely uninhabited forests of British Columbia. Jim pilots the Chutine Warrior upstream for six hours [165 miles], through wide shallow flats bordered by sheer majestic peaks and dense wooded fringes. About halfway, Jim pulls up to a small island for a BBQ lunch. The island, which he calls Devil's Elbow, is a handy refuge. Safely ashore, he can put down his heavy weapon, the last line of defence against inquisitive Grizzly or black bears, and cook some sausages. Giant paw prints decorate the narrow silt beach, interspersed with impressions from moose, bears and even a wolf, attesting to the abundance of big game roaming the neighbourhood.
The adventure culminates in a stay at the quaint Riversong Lodge way up the Stikine River in the forgotten backblocks of British Columbia where some local touring and spirited jetboat adventures take place.
Wrangell, as an example, is not driven by an all-consuming tourism agenda. Behind the dockside commercial centre is a quiet village surrounded by some of the most magnificent scenery imaginable. A small wooded hill overlooking the town is carefully landscaped to include a walking trail and lookout while a delightful nine-hole golf course is also on offer.
For my mind, Wrangell is an authentic microcosm of small town Alaska. Quirky, quaint, rough-around-the-edges maybe, but with an infinitely wholesome down-to-earth appeal that left this writer feeling a warm satisfaction and a bonding affection with the townsfolk who welcomed me so heartily for a few scant days one July.
Where: Wrangell, Alaska
Local Sights and Attractions: Stikine River, Shakes Glacier, Telegraph Creek, LeConte Glacier, ancient petroglyphs and Anan Wildlife Observatory
Activities: Hiking, fishing, sightseeing, golfing, bicycling,
Accommodation: Stikine Inn, Zimovia B&B, GrandView Bnb, Rooney's Roost B&B, Fennimore's B&B, Thunderbird Hotel
How to Get There: Alaska Airlines flies daily to Wrangell from Seattle (AS65) or Juneau (AS64). The Alaska Marine Highway ferry system visits Wrangell four times a week in summer.
Contact: Australians can arrange travel to Wrangell with local Alaska specialist, Spectrum Holidays.
511 Whitehorse Road,
Mitcham VIC 3132
Tel: +61 3 8804 2420
Fax: +61 3 8804 2426