A guidebook to Juneau sums it up: ''For Mt. Roberts, you take the wooden stairway at the end of Sixth Street and continue upward.'' Mt. Roberts is a 3,800-foot peak. Past its summit, the Juneau ice field stretches unbroken and trackless for 1,500 square miles. But six blocks from the Sixth Street stairway, Le Petit Paris serves croissants and barquettes aux marrons as good as the best in New York.
Alaska blends wilderness with the most sophisticated modern technology. Part of the charm of the state is that the telephones and the post office work. It defies logic to pick up a telephone in the Pribilofs in the center of the Bering Sea (in a mid-size Alaskan town - St. Paul, pop. 591) and speak within seconds with Minneapolis. But this is the United States - and in Alaska's cities you know it.
Urban Alaska - embracing Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks - runs small. There are after all only 400,000 people in the whole state, 100,000 fewer than in Seattle and fewer even than the annual number of tourists. None of the three cites is a metropolis - not even Anchorage, which is by far the largest, with a full half of the state's population. And yet Juneau, the capital, with a population of only 21,000, is without question a cosmopolitan city.
Juneau looks like a small town. Old pastel wooden houses climb the hill from the Gastineau Channel - the demands of their precarious perches made clear by the long wooden stairways that continue almost every street up the mountain.
But within a dozen blocks stand: the State Capitol; one of Alaska's most comprehensive ethnographic museums; a nature-food restaurant - the Fiddlehead - that rivals anything in Boston; a playground in the side yard of the oldest extant Russian Orthodox church in Southeast Alaska; an active waterfront; formal Victorian houses that are still residential; and a business district that has everything from Haida bowls to a tiny obscure screw for a Swiss Army knife.
The streets are decorated with the umbrellas of sidewalk carts - one selling Vietnamese snacks; another, gourmet sandwiches; and others, hot dogs.
A few feet from the road along Gastineau Channel, a friend of mine backpacks her young daughter while she catches enough salmon to can for a winter's supply.