Summer is peak season for the huge cruise ships that ply the coast of Pacific Canada and Alaska. While the coastline glimpsed from the deck of a cruise ship is a truly awesome sight, it can't compare with the picture you get roaming on land. Of the options available, adventurous souls who aren't slaves to luxury might consider a method I've found extremely rewarding as well as inexpensive: cooperative camping.
From June through September, several outfits can comfortably transport you at low cost through the national parks back country and areas that most mainstream tourists never see. It's not for everyone, since you have to pitch in with camp chores, sometimes make do without regular showers and sleep in tents and sleeping bags. But for those who are independent-minded and game, it can be the experience of a lifetime.
The pioneer in the field is a 14-year-old company called Camp Alaska, telephone (800) 376-9438, or (907) 376-9438, fax (907) 376-2353, Internet http://www.campalaska.com. With the most in-depth and varied selection of all the cooperative camping tour operators, it offers 20 itineraries. They vary in length from six or seven days for $840, up to 16 days for $2,010, working out to a typical cost per day of $120 to $125.
Some of the areas covered include Kodiak, Valdez, Fairbanks, Whitehorse, Anchorage, Prince William Sound, the Alaska, Brooks and Chugach mountain ranges, and Denali (Mt. McKinley) National Park.
The general setup: Groups of up to 12 are escorted by an experienced guide in a 15-seat passenger van. The cost includes campground and park fees and other internal transfers, such as flights and ferries. The outfitter provides two-person pup tents and all meals (for which each participant contributes $75 to the "food kitty"; that amount is included in the prices cited above). You bring your own sleeping bag.
There's a schedule each day, but it's not rushed as can be the case with so many of the more conventional tours; there's also plenty of time and flexibility for hiking, canoeing, sea kayaking, salmon fishing, river rafting and even scenic flights. If you spot a moose or want to take a snapshot (or if the guide has an interesting tidbit to share on a passing sight), the van will pull right over. It's all very well-informed, relaxed and convivial.
Other Alaska operators include:
AmeriCan Adventures, tel. (800) 864-0335, Internet http://www. americanadventures.com). Among its itineraries are a 14-day "Alaskan Adventure" out of Anchorage, starting at $999, and a 28-day "Yukon to Alaska" extravaganza out of Seattle or Vancouver, Canada, for $1,349.
The same outfit does Roadrunner Tours, tel. (800) 873-5872. These are hostelling treks throughout the world, ranging from one to four weeks. It has an Alaska two-weeker through mid-August for $999.
Trek America, tel. (800) 221-0596, Internet http://www.trekamerica.com. Offerings out of Anchorage, with departures through late August, include one-week tours, such as "Alaskan Denali" for $648 to $660 and "Alaskan Kenai" for $654 to $666; the 13-day "Alaskan Wonder" costs $1,263 to $1,286; and the 18-day "Alaska Yukon Explorer" is $1,640 to $1,734.
For more information on Alaska, contact its Division of Tourism at (907) 465-2012, fax (907) 465-3767; Internet http://www.commerce.state.ak.us.