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A DIFFERENT KIND OF ALASKA CRUISE

For armchair family travelers -- of which there are millions, judging by the e-mail I get -- I'm writing four Alaska columns in a row about the people we met and the other adventures we had during our two-week trip. I think families will especially enjoy tuning in to the ``next chapter'' as they settle back into fall school routines. Upcoming columns may include:

-- The Denali National Park ``Bush Lady'' and naturalist who let the kids take care of her sled dog and regaled the kids with stories about raising her children in a remote log cabin.

-- Secrets to successful gold panning in Skagway: Getting beyond the tourist hype to teach the kids Gold Rush history with ``Buckwheat,'' the tiny town's poetry-spouting leading light.

-- The Alaska high school kids who spend their summers working on the Alaska Railroad to tell tourists what it's like growing up here (like waiting for the school bus when it's 50 below!).

-- Ice climbing on a glacier with the kids and other possible family adventures as Alaska now opens its arms to pint-sized travelers (and their moms and dads). -- Eileen Ogintz

ABOARD THE S.S. BABKIN IN PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND, Alaska -- Eight-year-old Melanie is ankle deep in a glacier-fed stream, grabbing for a slippery, thrashing salmon with her bare hands. That's a lot easier than it sounds.

In late August, this icy stream, like others in Alaska, is choked with scores of spawning pink salmon that will die soon after laying their eggs in the rocks.

Fifteen-year-old Matt and 13-year-old Reggie are in the water, too, keeping one eye out for the lumbering black bears and bald eagles that use streams like this one as personal refrigerators, pulling out a salmon when they need lunch for their ``kids'' or a snack for themselves.

Bears. Eagles. Glaciers. Squirming salmon. We're about as far away from our mundane suburban life as we can get.

``I've got one!'' Melanie yells triumphantly, holding up a slippery five-pound fish. We all cheer.

Maybe we're nuts but this little excursion, slogging upstream in our rubber boots, swatting mosquitoes as we go, is exactly why we're not seeing Alaska from the decks of a luxury cruise ship, though we're spending just as much for the privilege. We're sleeping in sleeping bags in cramped 9-by-5-foot cabins aboard a fishing boat -- Melanie is thrilled to have the top of a triple bunk -- sharing meals and bathrooms with strangers, and we're loving every minute.

We're tooling around Prince William Sound aboard the S.S. Babkin, a 58-foot boat skippered by 38-year-old Brad Von Wichman, a second-generation Alaskan, and his 33-year-old Norwegian-born wife Kjersti, a former ski racer. They were waiting to greet us when we got off the train in the tiny town of Whittier, south of Anchorage.

I'd told the kids that on the Babkin, they could help drive the boat. We'd fish whenever we wanted, kayak with sea otters and hike to glaciers, though I admit I had a sneakier agenda than just a fun vacation.

This trip was a 50th birthday present to my husband, Andy Yemma, and I hoped we'd have a better shot at those once-in-a-lifetime, just-us adventures that build memories than would be possible on a big ship where we'd be bound by schedules and surrounded by other people everywhere we went.

``Some people have a hard time understanding there's no real itinerary on a trip like this,'' said Brad Von Wichman, who seems to know all of Prince William Sound better than I know my back yard. ``The trip depends on what the group wants to do.''

And these days, that group might include 80-year-old grandparents as well as a couple of kids. Just ask Lisa Jobin, who lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., and engineered a three-generation trip aboard the Babkin to celebrate her dad's birthday.

``My parents had never been in a kayak. They were as excited by everything as the kids!'' said Jobin. ``Now my husband wants to do this with his family. Getting so close to the wildlife and the glaciers and being able to share that with my family, that's what made the trip so special.''

``This is true wilderness,'' explains Kjersti Von Wichman, an athletic blonde, as she prepares a knockout lunch of boiled shrimp and Italian cold cuts, with PB&J on the side spread out on the two long tables in the cozy cabin. ``There are no signs, no interpretive displays and very few trails. It's not Disneyland. You can't expect to press a button and a whale shows up and then you push another button and there's the bear. Kids coming from cities and suburbs need to see that the wilderness is still here!''

We get an unexpected environmental lesson aboard the Babkin, too. Brad and Kjersti met a decade ago as college students working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill clean-up and give us a firsthand account of the damage the spill did -- they still have a baggie filled with oil-slicked sand -- as we look out at the obvious success of the massive and expensive recovery effort -- icebergs floating in crystal-clear water, playful sea otters twirling in the placid sea, salmon jumping in the air, hundreds of gulls congregating on rocks near shore.

Even the kids are awed by nature at its finest. We let what we see dictate what we do.

That's easy because on the Babkin, it's just us, the Von Wichmans and Kurt Kutay and his 10-year-old son Tarek. Kutay's Seattle-based adventure travel company Wildland Adventures helped me arrange the Babkin charter (and our trip to Denali National Park). Since there was room on the boat -- it sleeps 10 to 12 -- Kutay decided to bring his son along, too.

We prove to be a congenial traveling group. A real plus turns out to be the chance to get to know Alaskans like Brad and Kjersti who regale us with stories of his parents' early days in Alaska in the 1950s -- his mom arrived as a young New Yorker for a summer adventure and never left -- as they feed us fresh fish and guide us to hidden spots in the sound.

Melanie and Tarek became fast friends. I'm glad we didn't try this trip when Melanie was any younger. She's just now able to maneuver a kayak on her own, keep up on a hike or grab a snack from the always-filled bowl of cookies and granola bars. Still, she does have a few meltdowns -- once while trying to cast a fishing pole on her own. Kjersti and some M&Ms get her smiling again in short order.

Matt and Reggie, meanwhile, are in their element -- even talking about how they're going to jump into frigid Prince William Sound.

We're all delighted to be away from phones, faxes and e-mail. We tell a lot of jokes. We play Scrabble and cards late until the evening. It doesn't get dark until 10:30 p.m., and then the stars come out in all their glory.

Except for the commercial fisherman we greet -- he proudly held up his 60-pound halibut for us to admire -- we don't see anyone for four days. We do meet lots of seals, sea otters and even a bear. We're on our way back from a before-dinner foray in the kayaks when we spot him along the shoreline snacking on dead fish. Reggie is 20 feet away, watching him gorge. He doesn't seem to notice us. Bears don't have very good eyesight but very keen hearing, Brad tells us. It's unbelievable how normal it seems to be sitting in a kayak watching a bear eat his dinner.

The next day, we're two miles from where we've anchored the Babkin, munching cheese and crackers, watching huge ice chunks calve off the Nellie Juan Glacier, crashing into the slate-gray water below with a loud roar. The glacier itself is ice blue, just a finger of a huge 19-square-mile ice field. Because it's active, we don't climb it but instead hike to the top of nearby ridges for a better view. On the way back, we stop to pick up some chunks of icebergs called ``berg bits'' to stock the coolers. The kids suck on glacial ice. Better than snow cones!

Later, they swear ``berg water,'' made with glacial ice chips, is the best they've ever drunk.

We kayak around the lagoon near where we've anchored before dinner, surrounded by jumping salmon. Reggie gets out her pole and doesn't quit until she catches a big one. Tarek catches a salmon too-by kicking it. We're learning all salmon aren't created equal. There are Pink, Chum, Silver, King and Sockeye, all with taste differences and therefore different values on the market.

The next morning, there's serious salmon fishing on the agenda. We take the kayaks over to shore and hike up a stream, over slick rocks, through knee-deep water to a series of freshwater pools where the water runs deeper and the silver salmon, we hope, are resting. Melanie gets frustrated very quickly. Fishing is no fun if you don't catch anything immediately.

We're back on the boat, eating lunch, when Matt radios -- we've found our pocket-sized Motorola walkie-talkies work great on this trip -- that he's caught a big eight-pound silver salmon. He and his dad will catch three that day.

Melanie, meanwhile, gets her ``blankie'' and takes a rest. Even in the wilderness, she explains, kids need some down time. Later, she's all giggles when Matt and Reggie decide the time is right to jump off the boat into Prince William Sound. The water is not even 55 degrees, but the sun is shining. ``Now I know how they felt on the Titanic,'' Reggie gasps.

Matt first suits up in fisherman's survival neoprene gear that has enabled men to last up to 36 hours in the frigid waters, Brad tells us. But Reggie won't let him get off that easy. There's sibling rivalry, even in the middle of Prince William Sound. Matt gamely strips down to a bathing suit and jumps from the top of the boat.

He and Reggie haven't even gotten warm when the real excitement starts. Killer whales! We realize there are at least eight of them, even some babies. We rush to get the binoculars and more rolls of film. One swims right under the boat.

But even seven-ton whales can get boring -- when you're only 8 years old and hungry. Melanie and Tarek decamp for pasta and an elaborate game with Beanie Babies.

The rest of us don't put down the binoculars until the whales are out of sight more than an hour later. Then we settle down to eat some of the salmon Kurt caught for dinner.

It's our last night. Everyone's smiling and a little sad at the same time. I'm more stunned than anything. For once, a trip has lived up to expectations, even surpassed them. I may not have caught any fish, but I'm taking home the bragging rights to a near-impossible score -- the perfect family vacation.

IF YOU GO

Don't forget sturdy rubber boots, the kind you get for under $20 at the nearest surplus store, as well as quick-dry hiking pants and fleece pullovers rather than sweatshirts. Rain pants and jackets are essential as are binoculars. The kids will want to take their own pictures so pack extra disposable cameras and travel journals so they can have a personal record of the amazing sights.

We booked through Wildland Adventures, which handled our train reservations and other travel arrangements within Alaska, including Denali National Park, making logistics and planning a lot easier. Call Wildland Adventures at 800-345-4453 or www.wildland.com.

You can also call Babkin charters 907-272-8989 or www.babkin.com. Ask about the smaller Alexandra, skippered by Brad's younger sister Alex Von Wichman. Charters on the Alexandra start at $385 per person, $450 on the Babkin, half-price for kids 12 and under for two full days and one night, including lodging, meals and all activities (prices drop the more nights you book) -- comparable to what many Alaskan cruises cost. The difference: You forsake the luxury for a close-up encounter with what makes Alaska great. You're also not paying extra for expensive shore excursio.s.

If you're overnighting in Anchorage, a good bet is the Copper Whale Inn, a kid-friendly B&B in the heart of downtown with first-rate breakfasts and a playground overlooking the Cook Inlet around the block. Rooms start at $145, including breakfast. Call 907-258-7999 or www.copperwhale.com. E-mail cwhalein@alaska.net.

For general tourism information about Alaska, call the state Division of Tourism at 800-862-5275 or apr.travelalaska.com.

Books that proved especially useful:

``Alaska's Best Places,'' edited by Nan Elliot (Sasquatch Books $19.95)

``Alaska Almanac: Facts About Alaska'' (Alaska Northwest Books $11.95)

``A Child's Alaska'' by Claire Rudolf Murphy (Alaska Northwest Books $16.95)

The award-wining ``The Girl Who Swam with the Fish,'' an Athabascan legend retold by Michelle Renner (Alaska Northwest Books $8.95)

Visit the Alaska National History Association Web site at www.alaskanha.org for other Alaska titles for adults anf kids.

M M NEXT: Mount McKinley,`Denali Netional Park and the mom who raised her kids alongside sled dogs in the bush

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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