It seemed a strange gift on Christmas morning - a beribboned package containing an Alaska guidebook. But there was a note that said: "With a promise," and I understood.

This was a gift of self. A gift that on my long-dreamed-of driving and camping trip to Alaska I'd have the companionship of my wife who, while often apprehensive about my adventures, usually went along."If you are old, go to Alaska," Henry Gannett, a turn-of-the century tourist wrote. "But if you are young, stay away. The scenery is so grand, everything else seems insipid. It is not wise to dull the senses by over-indulgence."

Unconsciously we had heeded that advice. Now, retired and unencumbered, was our time.

So, in mid-June, our Toyota 4-Runner and its cartop carrier sagging under a load of cameras, backpacks, camping gear, and food, we were off. Seven thousand five hundred miles and 331 gallons of gas later, we can report that: 1. Alaska is big and a long way off. The mileage we rolled up represented 2 1/2 trips coast-to-coast - and that didn't count 1,000 miles saved by taking the ferry part-way home.

2. It is also empty - of people, that is. If Manhattan Island had Alaska's population density, 17 people would live there instead of 1 1/2 million. But what people! Gannett's advice notwithstanding, Alaska is a land of the young, vibrant and daring.

3. Highways range from good through most of British Columbia to nerve-wracking through most of Yukon Territory and Alaska. The heaving and sagging of permafrost leaves nasty dips that you hit unawares. A good set of shocks is essential. But driving's not as bad as we'd been warned; we came home on the same set of tires we started with, and avoided glass and paint damage on dirt and gravel roads by installing a hood cover and taping cardboard over our headlights.

4. Camping is the way to go; motels are few and far between. Look for Forest Service or state park campgrounds; they are cheaper, cleaner, and far prettier than commercial ones. Canada's campgrounds are newer and nicer than Alaska's.

5. On many stretches of highway you don't want to pass up a service station; it may be too far to the next one. With that caution, finding gas isn't a problem. But gas is expensive. Figure an average of $1.65 a gallon in Alaska, $2.25 in Canada. Our gas bill was a little over $600. And that was before Kuwait.

6. Even in mid-summer, we found no difficulty booking day cruises on the spot to places like Glacier Bay, Kenai Fjords, etc.

7. You can do yourself a big favor by taking ferries from Skagway or Haines to Seattle, stopping off along the way as you wish. The ferries are clean, comfortable, and relatively cheap. To take your car aboard, you need reservations way in advance, but the system is remarkably uncomplicated and efficient.

8. Though we were there in mosquito season, they aren't as bad as we'd been warned. They're far worse in the interior than along the coast. We fled one picnic spot under their attack, and were bothered from time to time, but with a mosquito-proof tent and lots of repellent it's tolerable.

9. Mid-summer or not, go prepared for rain and cold. You'll get both. Seal your tent seams. A rainfly over your camp kitchen is essential and easy to rig because there are trees everywhere.

10. You can save space by leaving your camp lantern at home. In summertime, it's never too dark to see.

11. A good supply of audio tapes helps. The miles are long, and much of the time you'll see only trees.

12. Despite bugs and bumps and plenty of long, tiring hours at the wheel, for those who are bored by cruises and can't stand the regimentation of tours, driving is the way to go. Alaska is a land of surprises. It can't be experienced on a preset itinerary. It demands a taste for adventure and the flexibility to take whatever time is necessary to see where that adventure leads.

"Look, instead of taking nine or ten days to get to Alaska," Donna asked, "why don't we fly there and rent a car?"

We could, I replied. But I want to see and feel what's between here and Alaska.

So we did.

The Milepost, that absolutely indispensable highway guide to Alaska, the Yukon, and British Columbia, lists four access routes to the Alaska Highway. Fastest from Salt Lake City is Route A from Great Falls through Alberta's prairie country to Calgary, Edmonton, and on to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, where the Alaska Highway starts. Route C heads north from Wenatchee, Wash., into British Columbia's Kamloops country and on to Prince George and Dawson Creek. Route D goes north from Seattle up the Fraser River to Prince George and Dawson Creek.

We chose Route B, and loved it. North from Boise, Highway 95 winds up the lovely Idaho Panhandle, entering Canada just north of Bonners Ferry. From there you're quickly into the valley of the upper Columbia River, its braided channels carrying milk-white glacial waters from the river's birthplace in the Columbia Icefield.

Here begins the Selkirk Range of the Canadian Rockies, into which nestle Glacier, Kootenai, Yoho, Banff, and Jasper National Parks. At Banff, we shook out the kinks of three days travel with a spirited hike to Lake Agnes, and lunched beside a waterfall thundering out of the lake and cascading down to tourist-thronged Lake Louise far below.

For the next 80 miles north on Highway 93, known as the Icefields Parkway, we marvelled at the towering peaks and the great, blue-white glaciers flowing off the Columbia Icefield.

Huddling against an icy wind sweeping off the icefield, we climbed the snout of the Athabasca Glacier, where a tiny trickle flowing from beneath the glacier marks the birth of one of North America's great rivers.

This is, in a sense, the roof of the continent. In this icefield, within a few miles of each other, are born four of its greatest rivers, flowing into all three of its bordering oceans.

From where we stood the Athabasca flows north into the Arctic Ocean. The Saskatchewan flows east all the way across Canada to Hudson Bay and, eventually, the Atlantic. The Fraser flows mostly west to enter the Strait of Georgia (and eventually the Pacific) at Vancouver, B.C. And the Columbia flows south and then west to reach the Pacific.

At Jasper, we turned west on the Yellowhead Highway (#16) and entered what was, for us, new, and certainly beautiful, territory.

Once around the shoulder of Mt. Robson (at 12,972 feet Canada's highest mountain), we drove through the Fraser River valley.

From Prince George, 235 miles west of Jasper, Highway 97 leads north to Dawson City and the beginning of the Alaska Highway. We chose instead to push on another 300 miles west to the junction of the Cassiar Highway. It's a more beautiful route north, we were told, is a bit shorter, and, though dirt much of the way, is almost as fast.

We'll have to take all that on faith. The days we had planned to enjoy this stretch turned out to be one long, long day, because it's no fun setting up camp in a cold rain. For 455 miles we endured the Cassiar, half of it dirt and mud and flying gravel, before joining the Alaska Highway and crawling into a motel - the only surrender we made to the weather in the 30-day trip.

Here, at last, after five days of hard driving and 2,200 miles from home, we entered Yukon Territory. This is the land of the sourdough, of Robert Service and Jack London and the fabled redcoated Mounties. On the long glacier-gouged lakes - Teslin, Atlin, Laberge - around Whitehorse, gold-seekers launched their flimsy, hand-made boats in their frenzied efforts to reach the Yukon River and the gold fields. The Klondike, a well-preserved paddlewheel river boat anchored on the Yukon River at Whitehorse recalls those days, and is worth a visit.

From Whitehorse, the Alaska Highway pushes on 600 miles to Fairbanks. But on a whim - which driving allows - we turned north instead, on the Klondike Highway to Dawson City. It added 100 miles to our trip, but it turned out to be one of our better decisions.

Dawson is the heart of gold-rush country. You know it as you pass the vast tailings piles where gold dredges turned lovely forested streams and hillsides into gravel wastelands. You know it as you trudge through the vast workings of Dredge #4, the largest wooden hull dredge in North America. You know it as you feel a touch of gold fever yourself, ignoring the crick in your back and the iciness of your feet as you pan the gravels of Bonanza Creek.

It was right here the discovery was made that ignited the 1898 gold rush; there ought to be some gold still here. But if there is, you don't find it.

Dawson City is a living museum. At the turn of the century, 30,000 people lived here, making it the largest city west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco. The shysters, the honky tonks, the whores, and, of course, the sourdoughs on whom they preyed - all are gone now; Dawson's population today is only around 1,600. But the turn-of-the-century buildings, many of them lovingly restored, remain as part of a great walking tour.

And there's the Robert Service cabin, where daily front-lawn readings bring Sam McGee and Dangerous Dan McGrew back to life. And the Jack London cabin, discovered and brought out of the back country by Dick North, a former Las Vegas newspaperman who now writes Alaska books, operates a small Jack London museum, and will be delighted to tell you how he discovered and recovered the cabin.

Leaving Dawson, you cross the Yukon on a tiny ferry and switchback up the spectacular "Top of the World" highway. Well, not highway exactly. It's dirt and narrow, closed in winter, and not recommended for large motor homes in any weather. But it gives long vistas of tundra slopes and the distant Ogilvie Mountains. At Boundary sits the most northerly U.S.-Canada border crossing office, tiny, isolated, and open only in summer months.

"Did you buy anything expensive in Canada?" the customs officer asked.

"Just gas," we replied - and were delighted to fill up from the single farm-style pump at junk-strewn Action Jackson Lodge, where even at that remote outpost gas was cheaper than any we found in Canada.

Two days of round-about driving brought us to Denali National Park, one of the reasons I had dreamed of this Alaska trip. We were not disappointed.

The mighty 20,320-foot mountain soars 18,000 feet from its lowlands, a greater vertical rise than Everest. But it makes its own weather, and is so often cloud-covered that your chance of seeing it is only about 25 percent on any given day. It was that way the day we had our backcountry permit - cloudy, rainy and cold.

But we went anyway, catching the free park shuttle bus 70 miles to our designated backcountry area.

The clouds hung close as we hiked the spongy tundra up a steep ridge above Moose Creek. By the time we set up camp, about 9 p.m., clouds were breaking up and the mountain began to appear. From then to sundown, shortly before midnight, it stood in glory, glowing salmon, then pink in the low, slanting light.

It was not a night for sleeping. Denali was too commanding a presence, looming ghostly through the brief hours of semi-darkness.

It caught the first rays of the morning sun, emerged white and shining, and remained with us for most of a delightful day as we wandered over the tundra, watching for moose and grizzlies and pretending to be fooled by the broken-wing act of willow ptarmigans leading us away from their babies.

They have their act together at Denali, thanks largely to the work of Ralph Tingey, a local boy raised in the Avenues of Salt Lake City. Until he was recently made superintendent of three national parks/preserves in Alaska's Far North, he was chief of planning and resource management at Denali. You can't drive your car into the park, but Tingey set up and managed a free shuttle bus system. Bus drivers are enthusiastic and knowledgeable in pointing out the grizzlies, moose, caribou, wolves, Dall sheep and other wildlife you'll see along the 80-mile drive.

There is great pressure on the campground, backcountry permit, and shuttle bus reservations system Tingey installed, and you may experience some delay in going or staying where you want. Get there and make reservations as early in the day as possible. But the system is fair and efficient, and eventually they'll work it out for you.

From Denali, it's a beautiful 250-mile drive along the Nenana and Susitna rivers to Anchorage, with spectacular views of Mt. Healy and Denali. For us, especially Donna, Anchorage and the gracious home of former Salt Lakers Dave and Susan Lowe meant a welcome five-day break from camping.

In, around, and out from Anchorage, there's much to see and do. The Anchorage Museum of History and Art is the state's finest, with outstanding displays of Russian, early explorer, gold rush, and Indian history, and, while we were there, a stunning exhibit of the Alaskan paintings of the great Sydney Laurence. There's the Matanuska Valley, where 18-hour sunlight and rich volcanic soil produce bushel basket-size cabbages and stalks of rhubarb the size of your forearm. There are the Chugach Mountains looming up from the city's backyards, and the waters of Cook Inlet and Turnagain Bay stretching out in front. A short float plane ride away are any number of fishable lakes and streams - which, of course, is true throughout Alaska.

A half-day drive gets you to the Kenai Peninsula with its famous Russian River where, when the timing is right, fishermen standing shoulder-to-shoulder haul in sockeye salmon in what Alaskans call "combat fishing." From Seward, cruise boats tour Kenai Fjords National Park, where in addition to splendid glaciers you'll see orcas (killer whales) in their synchronized dance beside your boat, sea otters doing their playful thing, seals and sea lions beyond counting, mountain goats, bald eagles, perhaps a grizzly, and sea birds of all kinds and almost infinite numbers.

Be warned, though: On this cruise, rain gear and warm clothes are a must, no matter how brightly the sun is shining in Seward.

From Anchorage, it's an 832-mile drive to Skagway past the Wrangell and St. Elias mountains that surely must be among the most beautiful on the planet. Most tourists catch the ferry south at Haines. We chose instead to drive an extra 60 miles to catch it at Skagway, because we wanted to experience this historic site where most of the Klondike gold rushers began their ordeal.

Even more than Dawson, Skagway is a living museum. Headquarters and visitors center of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park are housed in the old White Pass and Yukon Railroad depot dating from 1898. A well-organized walking tour includes two dozen other historic buildings.

Not to be missed, especially by Utahns, is the "Days of '98" show in the historic Eagles Dance Hall. Enthusiastic members of the BYU Drama Department under the direction of David Morgan reenact the life and times of con man Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, who with his 200 thugs, pimps, and gamblers ran lawless Skagway until his sudden demise in a shootout.

On the trip south, you and your car can leave the ferry and spend time at several towns - provided you have made the proper ferry reservations. Some highlights: Juneau, the state capital: Mendenhall Glacier flows practically into town, with a short trail right to its 100-foot face. And, of course, there's Glacier Bay National Park, a short plane and cruise boat ride away.

Wrangell: Our stop here was only two hours, but it gave us time to buy a few garnets from the kids who swarm the ferry pier. (There's a garnet mountain nearby that has been deeded to the Boy Scouts, and only kids can mine it.) And it gave us time to walk a mile north and make rubbings of the ancient petroglyphs carved in the rocks at tide level. Rubbing is easy; all it takes is large sheets of paper rubbed with the fern that grows nearby.

Ketchikan: This was once, in the 1930s, known as the Salmon Capital of the World. It's still the rain capital (13 feet a year) and the totem pole capital.

Most passengers stay aboard the ferry all the way to Bellingham. We left it at Prince Rupert, B. C., for the 1,033-mile drive, much of it along the Fraser River, to Seattle. One of the most thrilling experiences in a lifetime of travel was watching king salmon leap and struggle and batter themselves against the mighty cascades of the Fraser River gorge.

It's a great land out there, Alaska and, of course, British Columbia and the Yukon. Cruise ships and tour buses are easier ways to see it. But I'll trade the hardships for the rewards of doing it by car.

*****

(ADDITIONAL INFORMATION)

Alaska, Canada travel information

For the best tourist literature we have seen anywhere, write or call:

* Alaska Tourism Marketing Council, P.O. Box E-501, Juneau, Ala., 99811. Phone (907) 465-2010.

* Tourism British Columbia, Parliament Buildings, Victoria, B.C., Canada V8V 1X4. Phone (800) 663-6000.

* Tourism Yukon, P.O.Box 2703, Whitehorse, YT, Canada, Y1A 2C6.

Phone (403) 667-5340

For ferry schedules, fares, and reservations, write or call:

* Alaska Marine Highway, Pouch R, Juneau, Ala., 99811. Phone (800) 642-0066.

* BC Ferries, 1112 Fort St., Victoria, BC, Canada, V8V 4V2. Phone (604) 386-3431.