Alice wears a red-and-black button blanket of goat hair and abalone shell whose design tells the story of her venerable lineage. She carries a deer skin drum, and has the requisite permission to sing her mother’s song, a melancholy dirge that she accompanies with a simple two-four beat. I ask her a question and her eyes light up. ‘You are English,’ she exclaims at my accent. ‘I just love Lady Diana!’
Alice belongs to the Kittiwake Clan, a division of the Raven Moiety of the Tlingit tribe one of the five major Native American Indian cultural groups that inhabit Alaska. The Tlingit have been in the Glacier Bay region in south-east Alaska for 12,000 years. The Kittiwake Clan no longer inhabit traditional wooden houses, which were lost in a fire, but in prefab houses that fell off the back of a ship in the remote town of Hoonah. Otherwise, traditions survive intact.
This surreal conversation takes place on Spirit of Oceanus. Outside, the sun spangles the blue waters and dances on the icy cliffs. A bear and her cub gambol on the icy shore, digging for clams. Ahead of us looms the massive, rock-strewn bulk of the Grand Pacific glacier and the mint-blue Margerie glacier. When George Vancouver set out to search for the North-West Passage in 1794, this very wall of ice blocked his progress. For those who wish to visit wild regions and blanch at the prospect of a regimented cruise with thousands, here is the solution. A mere 60 luxurious suites await passengers aboard Spirit of Oceanus, as she sails along the coast from Anchorage to Vancouver. Larger vessels can only dream of such an itinerary.
Take Sitka, on Baranof Island: a town of 8,800 people and 4,000 bears, which was Russia’s glittering colonial HQ in the 19th century, the party town of St Petersburg’s elite and the centre of the lucrative trade in sea-otter fur. It was in Sitka that the handover of Alaska from Russia to the US took place in 1867, for $7.2 million.
The Russians were given three years to adopt American citizenship, or leave. They left. Little remains of their presence, only Governor Baranov’s Castle, Bishop Veniaminov’s wooden house and his Orthodox cathedral, whose only congregation now consists, bizarrely, of native Tlingits, who constitute 20% of the population. We sailed through steep-sided straits wooded with Sitka pine, into treacherous narrows and past deceptive fjords leading the unwary into dead ends. Fog banks lifted to reveal Dall’s porpoise racing beside us and Steller sea lions basking on floes.
At Skagway, we reached one of the two muster points for the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896. As 100,000 prospectors brimming with post-Depression hope descended here, hotels, bars and colourful conmen materialised overnight. Despite the 1927 yellow streetcars that roam the town and its air of a film set for a spaghetti western, Skagway’s wooden buildings are original down to the restored Red Onion brothel, now a bar: ‘$5 for 15 minutes’ to take a peek at a room, ‘just as it used to be’.
A small museum tells the subsequent tale of hardship and shattered hopes, as people struggled for three winter months along the infamous White Pass to the Yukon, dragging their provisions behind them. Only a third reached the goldfields. Ironically, when the White Pass & Yukon Railroad was built in 1898, the Gold Rush had gone to Nome.
After dinner, we attended lectures on local beliefs, the rudiments of native tongues that teeter on the brink of extinction, and the strict etiquette that governs the potlatch the ceremonial status feast thrown by chieftains. At the Tsimshian Reserve of Metlakatla, we saw clan dances and attended a potlatch with the Chief draped in a cloak trimmed with puffin beaks and a crown of sea-lion whiskers. We bore witness to a proud display of a culture that has survived against all odds.
A pang of nostalgia greeted my arrival at Vancouver. We had seen a vast wilderness, and a world all its own. The call of the wild is powerful, especially if answered in comfort.
North American Highways (01902 851138; www.nahighways.co.uk). 12 nights from £4,737pp. Visit www.cruisewest.com