Sizing up my fellow passengers boarding the Alaskan state ferry Columbia at Seattle, I flinched to see that a band of roughly clad sourdoughs wore on their belts hunting knives with six-inch blades. Conditioned by years of magnetic frisking in airports for hidden weapons, I was made uneasy by all the cold steel nakedly displayed. I voiced my alarm to a Juneau lawyer who had offered to guide me on the ferry trip through his home waters.

"Not a thing to worry about," he said loftily. "Why would a hijacker want to go anywhere else when he's already right here?"

He had a point. Steaming up the narrow waterway called the Inside Passage, sheltered from the open sea by a string of offshore islands, Alaskan ferry passengers can traverse up to 1,000 miles of virgin forest along the Pacific coast from Seattle to Skagway. Immense spruce, fir and hemlock mantle the sides of snow-crowned mountains and fog-shrouded fiords. Only rarely do picturesque fishing or Indian villages fret the unbroken line of wooded shore. Chuffing little salmon trawlers, majestic cruise liners and great log rafts under tow keep the traveler from feeling lonely. Wildlife teems as it must have everywhere when the world was young.

Why, indeed, would a hijacker want to be anywhere but right there on a state ferry going up the Inside Passage. (Besides, as I later discovered that same day, those intimidating-looking sourdoughs were the heartiest of good fellows, bursting with bonhomie because they were coming home from the Outside; they carried those fearsome knives only in case of an emergency bear skinning.)

To this day, no highways attempt to cut through the jagged mountains and dense evergreen jungle of the Alaskan Panhandle; until 1963, the few towns scattered along the Inside Passage had for generations depended on airplanes or sporadic ship arrivals and departures for contact with the outside. When car ferries linked the towns with regular and frequent service, a revolution came to the Panhandle's culture.

Today six ferries serve the Panhandle. During the summer, the Columbia begins its weekly round trip from Seattle on Friday; it is sometimes relieved by the Malaspina.

Cabins on both vessels range from four-berth space with sitting room through four-, three- and two-berth cabins with shower, toilet and wash basin. All the cabins are comfortable but, in keeping with the frontier tradition, little effort has been spent on chintzing the de'cor. Dining room service is cafeteria style, but there is plenty of snowy napery to give a touch of style ... and everybody is straining to gawk out the windows at the scenery anyhow. The cuisine ranks somewhere between roadside chain restaurants and big-city posh eateries. Dishes based on local specialities, such as salmon, are unrivaled by the world's most famous kitchens.

The Columbia carries up to 700 passengers and 160 normal-sized vehicles. There are 96 cabins including some with sitting rooms, a cocktail lounge, store, snack bar, cafeteria and solarium. If you sign on with the infinitesimally smaller Malaspina, you'll have to grit your teeth and do without the snack bar. Incidentally, all passengers and vehicles need reservations to board at Seattle.

The other four vessels run from Prince Rupert, the farthest northern Canadian port, to the major towns between there and Skagway at the head of the Inside Passage, or make short local runs between smaller Alaskan ports. (Two other ferries serve ports in distant parts of Central and Southwest Alaska and do not connect with the Inside Passage service.)

Foot passengers without cabin reservations can get on and off at will, spending whatever time seems indicated at by-ports and catching the next ferry that comes along. In years past there was no charge for stopovers, but now fares are computed on a point-to-point basis. It is rare to have to wait more than 24 hours in the major ports. It's best to plan your stops ahead of time, although the ticket office will recalculate fares and reissue tickets at each stop.

A car is virtually useless, for the ports along the way have only a few miles of paved road that peter out in the surrounding wilderness. A well-stocked recreation vehicle might be handy for overnight camping, of course, but it entails complicated reservations and schedule juggling. For real fans of wilderness driving who enjoy seemingly endless miles of spruce forest, there is a road that connects Haines near the end of the passage with the Alaska Highway to either interior Alaska or back to the Lower 48. From Skagway, there is another highway to Whitehorse in the Yukon and ultimately the road back south. But most non-Alaskan ferry passengers wisely come aboard on foot. They can penetrate deeper into Alaska or the Yukon, if they wish, by regular bus service from Haines and Skagway.

The affluent and elderly check into comfortable cabins (reserved months in advance), but the young and sprightly bunk down where the spirit hits them, spreading sleeping bags on lounge chairs or the naked deck, sometimes even pitching mountain tents that don't need ground stakes. Many a gray-haired veteran of ferry travel stakes an early claim to a lounge chair that makes an adequate bed for the brief snooze the short Northern darkness allows.

On my first trip, two young passengers, a shaggy fiddler and his companion flautist, entertained one end of the solarium crowd by playing a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of baroque classics. At the cocktail hour, strains of college fight songs from a dozen schools and mildly naughty barroom classics drifted from the lounge. By shifting just a few feet, music lovers could take their musical pleasure from the sacred or the profane.

After dinner (all Outsiders in their right minds ordered the superb poached salmon), my attorney friend joined me and a few others at the rail where we scanned the shore and sky with binoculars. (The wise travelers up the Inside Passage would leave behind shoes and socks to make room for binoculars.) He pointed out for me a wealth of eagles, one for about every three miles of coastline.

"You really want to see eagles," he said, "you have two great choices. You can see them a dozen at a time outside the fish-packing plant at Prince Rupert, where they scavenge the offal. Or, if you like to see our national bird in a more noble setting, you go to the Chilkat River outside of Haines near the end of this ferry run, and you'll see almost 2,000 of them picking off the salmon coming upstream to spawn. Any single tree along the river bank can have a dozen or so perching in its branches."

He spotted a black bear splashing across a stream, and he pointed out a bevy of blacktail Sitka deer that escaped my citified eye. Porpoises played. My friend steered me to the distant spouting of a humpback whale. But the big excitement came when a gam of killers joined company.

"Whales," somebody bellowed from up forward.

Passengers and even some of the blase' crew rushed to the starboard rail.

No more than 100 yards from our bow, a dozen fins cut the water like a fearsome flotilla right out of "Jaws." Then the troupe fell into an acrobatic routine they must have rehearsed for days just for our entertainment. They cut bewildering patterns, leapt in shallow arcs, soared almost full length from the water to stand on their tails and study us with ingratiating grins. Clad in their impeccable tuxedos like movie gangsters out for a night on the town, they exuded an air of mixed menace and amiability. Like their cousins the dolphins, they gave us a vague sense of distant kinship, as though they are what we might have become had we taken to the sea a few million years ago instead of taking to the trees. When they tired of the game and left us, we applauded and most of us quit for the night because we felt nobody could successfully follow that class act.

Next morning, encouraged by the carefree youngsters who had arisen and folded away their sleeping bags long before I emerged from the effete comfort of my cabin, I surrendered my reservations so I could follow their lead in hopping on and off as the spirit moved me, catching the first convenient ferry to come along and sleeping in lounge chairs or not at all, if the company was especially good.

That way, I spent plenty of time studying the superb totem art scattered in several parks around Ketchikan, a strange fishing port where there is not enough flat ground for a proper football field. Half the houses are built on stilts. A substantial portion of the population walks with a starboard or port list either because of the sloping sidewalks of the town or the cheerful bars, cozy refuges from the almost endless rain.

And at Sitka I got to see the splendid collection of Russian religious art saved from a catastrophic fire at the Orthodox Cathedral. Monuments, the restored cathedral and a band of dancers wearing Russian costumes keep alive the memory that Sitka was the capital of Russian America and entertained ballet and opera companies before the first Forty-Niner reached California.

Juneau held me for days: the immense Mendenhall Glacier, a flight over the frightening ice field as large as a whole state that looms back of town, an overnight trip to Glacier Bay National Park and a boat cruise about the bay, where I saw seals pupping, black bears, spruce grouse hens with their fuzzy chicks, weasels, a coyote -- I think -- and uncounted humpback whales and killers. On the bay islands I added six birds to my life list. It was a veritable orgy of wildlife watching that I would have missed from a luxury cruiser.

At Haines I visited the Chilkat Indian workshop, where they have revived the almost extinct art of authentic totem wood carving. Outside town, I visited the eagles my Juneau friend had told me about.

Skagway is now part of a national park that begins in Pioneer Square in Seattle and extends up the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon. The town works hard at looking like it probably did during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th century, when it was the jumping-off place for prospectors headed into the Canadian wilderness. Saloons keep scales on the bar in case somebody wants to pay the tab in gold dust. Shop windows offer nugget jewelry. Former bordellos try to maintain a raffish air despite the tamer merchandise they peddle today.

Skagway is the end of the line. The best way to go home is the same way you came, seeing the magnificent scenery of the Inside Passage facing the other way. And on the way back you can jump off in Juneau to take the little feeder ferry Aurora to Petersburg or Hollis, from which you can easily reach a magnificent totem pole park at Klawock.

From Juneau you can also catch the LeConte over to the small communities of Kake (one of a dozen sites that claims to have "the world's tallest totem pole"), Angoon, Tenakee Springs (once a health spa), Hoonah and Pelican, where the wooden ceiling of Rosie's Bar has been acquiring carved initials since the '30s.

Working out of Ketchikan, the Chilkat visits Metlakatla, a village of Tsimshian Indians, self exiled from British Columbia over some obscure religious dispute, and Hollis.

The little ferries have no sleeping accommodations, but that's all right because you don't ride them long enough to get sleepy.

Sooner or later, you find yourself back at Prince Rupert, where the basic Alaska ferry service begins. If you don't have a reservation on the single ferry going back to Seattle (and they are almost impossible to come by on short notice), you can stretch the joys of Inside Passage travel one jump longer by taking the splendidly equipped British Columbia ferry over to Port Hardy or Vancouver, depending on the season, and from there you can make it home by land, sea or air. Bern Keating is a free-lance writer.

THE FERRIES:The Alaska State Ferry Service operates year-round, but the peak season for travel is from mid-May to September. For ferry travel on the Inside Passage, reservations are a must for all Seattle sailings, including foot passengers without cabin space, but are required only for cabin or vehicle space from other ports. Foot passengers from Prince Rupert or between Alaskan ports do not need reservations.

Reservations must be made early (tickets for summer trips generally sell out by early January). Contact the Alaska Marine Highway, P.O. Box R, Juneau, Alaska 99811, (800) 642-0066.

You can request full timetables and rate schedules, but as a baseline guide, a foot-passenger trip (without cabin) from Seattle to Skagway and back is $416 during the summer. There is a point-to-point charge for each stopover made. Meals are not included. Cabins go for another $578 round trip from Seattle to Skagway for a four-berth and sitting-room cabin on the Columbia and Malaspina, down to $350 for a two-berth inside cabin. For the Prince Rupert to Skagway round trip, a four-berth cabin costs $258; a two-berth inside cabin, $160.

Any vehicle that can travel legally on U.S. highways is accepted for passage on the ferries. The rate for vehicles is considerably higher than passenger fare, however, with a15- to 19-foot family car costing $1,190 for the Seattle-Skagway round trip.

Passengers can visit their vehicles only during scheduled and escorted tours. A small fee is charged for pets, which must stay with the vehicleand can be visited only during the scheduled below-decks tours. WHAT TO TAKE: Dress aboard the ferries and in most of the port towns is most casual. In summer, a raincoat is handy, for the climate is wet; a jacket or heavy sweater feels good most evenings. Dining out in the top-rated restaurants of Juneau or Sitka calls for jacket and tie, but in general Inside Passage sartorial demands are slight.

If you plan to go through Canada (by catching the ferry at Prince Rupert, for instance), you will need proof of citizenship, or an alien registration card if you are a foreign resident of the United States.

If you have forgotten your binoculars, either buy a pair or give up and go home. -- Bern Keating