Alaska, the Yukon, and northern British Columbia represent an amount and degree of wilderness with which we were totally unacquainted. The country is huge, untamed, sparsely populated by humans, and filled with wildlife.

We thought we saw a lot of wildlife; but since this was our first visit we don't know for sure. We came in the spring, as ice was melting, birds and whales were migrating, and before the trees leafed out so we could still see into the woods. The moose, deer, sheep, elk, and bear were caring for their young. We beat the mosquitos and the summer tourists.

We learned to stop wherever another vehicle was parked. What did it mean that so many animals were close to the roads? Is the wildlife density greater or less away from human habitation?

How dangerous are the bears? So much of the information is anecdotal, it's hard to say. Residents are permitted to kill bears when they are in danger; this rule is abused, as the meat may be eaten and the skin sold. We dutifully made noise everytime we walked on a path or trail. There are books and books for sale on encounters between bears and humans, none of them pretty. When we got to Calgary we read that an 18-year-old boy was killed at a campsite in Yellowknife by a black bear.

We thought we were privileged to see these animals, peacefully eating by the roadside, but a fellow passenger on our whale-watching cruise complained that the whales weren't putting on the kind of show she had seen in the Vancouver Aquarium. Aside from the little hawk owl swooping down to catch a mouse in Fairbanks, we saw nothing that would have made the television wildlife shows.

This country made us reflect on the degrees of civilization, ranging from the world's most sophisticated cities to smaller cities and country towns, to rural but domesticated farmland, to forests and mountains close to civilization, and finally to the vast northwest wilderness. We noticed that most people aren't comfortable in all of these places, and that many young people who are raised in the wilderness will probably not move far away as adults. We had this feeling most strongly in Barrow, a town sustained by government payouts and tourism, in order to protect a way of life we found primitive.

Our trip to Barrow was probably the most exotic excursion of this particular voyage. To travel to a city where the only access is by air (even snow machines or dog sleds can only go so far, certainly not easily to another city), to move about on ice which will remain year-round, to see the fragile boats and other evidence of habits centuries old, was a memorable experience.

The northwestern coast of North America differs markedly from the northeastern coast, in the type of country, the people, the economy, even the politics. We find we enjoy the Canadians: they have highly developed social consciences and are very considerate and friendly. It's too bad their economy is lagging behind the U.S. Still, the strong U.S. dollar makes Canada an affordable country to visit.