Here lies old Soapy

The gold rush and gunslingers are gone but characters remain, writes Nigel Richardson.

Buckwheat, who earned his nickname in year 7, drives his pick-up alongside the wide, ankle-deep Skagway River, then crosses railroad tracks to reach the Gold Rush Cemetery. Wooden grave markers are dotted among birch and cottonwood trees: Chadwick Biggs, Hasel Achison, Unknown - there are plenty of unknowns.

We are looking for the grave of Jefferson R. Smith, known as Soapy. Back in the days of marshals and baddies, Soapy was unwise enough to boast that he was no ordinary gambler. "When I stake money it is a sure thing that I win," he liked to tell people.

The Skagway News remembered these words in its gleeful report of July 15, 1898: "Soapy Smith is dead and buried. Never again will bunco steerers [card sharps] and sure-thing men flourish in Skagway."

Picture Lee Marvin playing the psychopathic outlaw in the John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and you have a pretty good idea of where old Soapy was coming from. He's just one of many vivid characters I encounter on my journey along the Alaskan panhandle, the south-eastern archipelago of the largest state in the US. Many of these personalities are historical - including the Birdman of Alcatraz and Wyatt Earp - but most are very much alive, just like Buckwheat Donahue.

Like many I meet, Buckwheat is a blow-in from the "Lower 48", the contiguous US. But he has found a freedom in America's Last Frontier, as Alaska styles itself on its vehicle number plates. "I bought a grave here, I'm stayin'," he tells me. "I just wish I could go to the party. It'll be a lot of fun."

He is a poet, performer, recreational gold prospector and marvellous tourism ambassador for his neck of the backwoods, the former goldmining town of Skagway.

In the late 1890s, this was the gateway to the Yukon goldfields. Thousands of chancers funnelled through its boardwalks and drinking parlours, many of them unwise enough to cut a deck with Soapy.

Skagway is typical of the communities dotted among the inlets and islands of the south-east. They sprang up like extreme weather events in the 1800s, flourished on fish and timber through the 20th century and have now settled into their dotage as tourist attractions - principally as stops on cruise ship itineraries.

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Many places have no roads in or, like Skagway, are most easily accessed by sea and that is my means of transport, too.

The plan is to spend 10 days ferry-hopping 480 kilometres north through the panhandle, sampling the history and atmosphere of the towns along the way.

Sampling, too, the things for which Alaska is best known - immense landscapes that slide past the windows of the observation lounge: sounds, channels and inlets named after the 18th-century British explorers who charted them; forests, mountains and glaciers with the majesty of Ansel Adams's photography; the tail flukes of breaching humpback whales; the caramel heads of speeding sea lions; and the white-cowled bald eagles - the birds on quarter-dollar coins are a dime a dozen out here.

Mine is essentially the same route as that taken by the cruise ships but, where the cruise ships are floating chain hotels, the ferries are movable villages used by locals and full of character.

When I board the MV Matanuska at Ketchikan, the start of my journey, a young couple has pitched a tent on the Solarium deck, tying the guy ropes to the guard rail; a vicar conducts an ecumenical service amid the red plush of the cocktail lounge; and a man who looks like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead is running up pink and purple fishing flies in the study area.

In Ketchikan, where "Alaskeros" - Filipino Alaskans - make up about 8 per cent of the borough population of 13,000, I eat fusion Filipino-Chinese food in the Diaz Cafe and stay in a hotel opened by a Japanese couple in 1924.

Around the corner in Creek Street, hookers with marvellous noms de guerre such as Deepwater Mary and Dirty Neck Maxine were once run off their feet. The men they entertained came to can salmon, mainly. "We eat what we can. Can what we can't," was Ketchikan's motto in the mid-20th century. Out at the George Inlet Cannery, now a museum, Chinese, Filipino and Puerto Rican workers lived on site and when they were not working, kicked back by smoking opium.

Six hours' sailing time north, the fishing town of Wrangell (population about 2000) has been ruled under three flags and four nations: Tlingit (the native nation), Russia, Britain and the US.

During the gold rush, Wrangell was too strong a brew even for lawman Earp. He left town after serving 10 days as deputy marshal, calling it "Hell on wheels".

These days, it remains gratifyingly rough around the edges.

Following the closure of the sawmill in the mid-'90s, it ekes a living from fishing, adventure tourism in the glaciated valley of the Stikine River - rafting, kayaking and wildlife watching - and a rich native history.

Alaska's south-east is populated by three main "nations". My guide in Wrangell, Wilma Leslie, is descended from two and proudly aware of the branches of her complex heritage.

"I am of Tlingit and Haida descent, of the Haida nation, Raven moiety, Yahku Laanaas clan and Double Fin Killer Whale House," she says as we clamber around a beach dotted with ancient petroglyphs - whorls and fishes and faces carved on rocks by her ancestors. The modern history of native culture started in my next port of call, Sitka, where almost half the population of 8000 are registered tribal members. To reach Sitka, the MV Taku threads through the tight Wrangell Narrows, flanked by walls of forest and backed by snowy peaks.

"We just got in our second stop light," says the bus driver in Sitka. It is safe to say that Imperial Russia would have paid no heed had the traffic light been in place in October 1804, when a Russian landing party attacked and ousted the defending Tlingit to establish Sitka as New Archangel, the centre of Russian America until 1867.

In that year, on Castle Hill in Sitka, Russia ceremonially handed over Alaska to the US for $7 million - about 50¢ a hectare. Neither the Tlingit nor any of the native Alaskan nations were included in the deal. They had to wait more than a century for redress.

In 1906, Sitka ceded its status as capital of Alaska to Juneau, my penultimate stop (Skagway being the last). Two years later an 18-year-old named Robert Stroud washed up in Juneau with a good-time girl twice his age, Kitty O'Brien, shot dead a punk named Charlie Von Dahmer, got banged up for the rest of his life and became the Birdman of Alcatraz. The good-time girls and gunslingers are long gone.

United Airlines has a fare to Seattle for about $1390 low season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax; it's non-stop from Sydney to Los Angeles (13hr 30min) then change aircraft for Seattle (2hr 45 min). Melbourne passengers transit in Sydney. Alaskan Airlines flies non-stop Seattle to Ketchikan (2hr) for about $370 return including tax. Australians must apply for US authorisation at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov. There is a $US14 charge, see www.cbp.gov/travel.

When to go: early May, when it is relatively dry and before the cruise ship season has properly begun, or mid- to late September.

More information: see www.travel-alaska.co.uk; www.visitusa.org.uk.

- Telegraph, London