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PUBLISHED: 4:43 PM on Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Gustavus' Iditarod for tykes, sampling crab in Sitka and meandering around the Golden Loop
People used to take long vacations once, or if they were lucky, twice a year. For many Southeast families, that has changed and vacationers are now dividing their time into smaller parcels. Children want to stay in town for soccer games and summer camps; Mom or Dad can't arrange work schedules so they both are free for two weeks at the same time.

"A lot of families I know hop on the ferry and head to Tenakee Springs or Glacier Bay for a weekend or a few days. They don't go for longer because there's always other things happening," said Diane Cathcart, Juneau resident.

For those who live in the lower 48, it takes a major time commitment to visit Southeast Alaska. For those who live here, the sites can be seen relatively quickly and cheaply.

Early written accounts of Glacier Bay evoke monumentality. One visitor compared it to "a great castle whose towers and turrets had fallen to ruin." John Muir wrote that all the glaciers of Switzerland could not equal the immense volume of ice that had so recently occupied Glacier Bay.

Glacier Bay remains as fascinating today as when the naturalist wrote about it more than a century ago. That's one reason it is one of the most visited parks among all the National Parks in the state of Alaska.

For some, paddling Glacier Bay's waters in a kayak is a once in a lifetime experience. If your child is schooled in boating safety, traveling in a double-hulled kayak, with your kid in front, offers a close up of harbor seals, moose, bears and killer whales.

About 50 miles west of Juneau, Gustavus forms the mouth of Glacier Bay.

It is small town America. There's a gas station and golf course, a general store and a few galleries and about 450 full-time residents.

In addition to its world famous national park, the town offers other activities for children. For those seeking a chance to try a mini - Iditarod, the Great Alaska Husky Ranch is the place to do it. Owned by fourth generation descendents of early Gustavus homesteaders, the ranch opens to visitors on May 27 and closes in September. In the summer on weekdays, visitors can mush dogs in the evening. The cost is $15.

"We offer it from 7-9 p.m. because it can get hot for the dogs," said owner Marilyn Trump. The ranch has wheeled sleds for little tykes who want to mush. The ranch is open on summer Saturdays from 1-9 p.m. and Trump says children love touring the kennels and playing with the dogs.

Summer music festival, a gallery of totem poles in Sitka

In a short jaunt to Sitka, visitors can see why some critics call the Northwest Coast Indians the greatest artists North America ever created.

The 113-acre National Historical Park at Sitka has 11 magnificently carved totem poles arranged in a forest that once was the site of a Tlingit fort. These towering sculptures in cedar look out to the bay as if expecting lost boats. The path through this outdoor gallery winds through giant spruce and hemlock and skirts a beach strewn with shells and pebbles.

The Sitka Park provides a glimpse of what Southeast Alaska must have been like when it was dotted with Indian villages. Explorers in the early 19th century, sailing the Inside Passage, wrote of seeing dozens of totem poles towering above single story houses along shore lines.

Anytime between June 3 and 23 is the time to visit Sitka. Not only will children be able to comb beaches below watchful totem poles, they'll have a chance to hear what one music critic called, "by far the best music, and the best played music, that Alaska has ever experienced."

The Sitka Classical Music Festival (www.sitkamusicfestival.org) is three weeks of concerts offering everything from piano solos to sextets. This year's performers include Paul Rosenthal, Sungmi Im and Jeffrey Solow.

Highlights for kids include the community concert and ice cream social, and the all-you-can-eat crab feast picnic.

The Golden Loop road trip

The Golden Loop is a driving tour that starts in Haines, winds into Canada, stopping at Kluane National Park and Whitehorse and ending back in the U.S. in Skagway. Some call it the Golden Circle, others say it's a long drive, but families with kids who have made the trip say it's worth it.

"It's very doable in five or six days," Cathcart said. The loop breaks up nicely into three segments of a little more and a little less than 100 miles each. Historically, culturally or geologically significant landmarks bookmark driving segments and offer families a good place to spend a few days and nights. Along the way, watchful drivers (and passengers) will likely see grizzlies, moose, the occasional intrepid summer cyclist, wildflowers, historic log cabins, weird rock formations and one of the worldOs smallest deserts.

Start the Golden Loop on the Haines Highway. Shortly outside the town is the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, home to one of the worldOs largest concentrations of bald eagles. The next stopNa mandatory oneNis the border crossing into Canada. Following is Haines Junction, a small town with gigantic neighbor--Kluane National Park, and its shimmering ice covered peaks. Nature lovers doing the loop usually spend a night here.

From Haines Junction itOs less than 100 miles to Whitehorse where Alaskan families come for the water park community center and summer camps. Camp Beringia (www.Beringia.com) offers pre-teens a chance to step back into the era of the woolly mammoth. Kids can use prehistoric style tools, make a spear thrower, learn about First Nation oral history and excavate a mock site. Out-of-towners can enroll in the camps, which are held throughout the summer, but must make arrangements in advance.

The Yukon Summer Music Camp

Found online at www.yukonmusiccamp.ca, the camp offers children age three and up a chance to try modern dance and making music from July 30-Aug. 5.

From Whitehorse, the 110-mile drive to Skagway runs by Carcross Desert, among the worldOs smallest deserts and Lake Bennett, once a stopover for prospectors en route to the Yukon gold fields.

The route covers high passes and rock formations that look like art projects. Skagway draws crowds in the summer, for good reason. It offers a live version of Southeast Alaska history. Interpretive guides from the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park give daily walking tours in the summer. Kid pleasers also include OThe Days of 98 Show with Soapy Smith,O a revue about a bygone era villain, and the four hour, spectacular White Pass and Yukon Route Railway.

Those families with a tight timetable can take an abridged Golden Loop tour. In Skagway, they hop the White Pass Yukon Route railway and then take a short bus ride to Whitehorse.

Getting there

The Alaska Marine Highway serves both Haines and Skagway. At time of print, ferries were scheduled to go from Juneau to Golden Loop towns most dates in the summer. Ferry service was also scheduled to go to Bartlett Cove (Glacier Bay) three times this summer. Local airlines also make the trips.


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