The first time I went to Cordova, my companion and I arrived at the Mudhole Smith Airport in a small plane and happened upon an old guy with a pickup truck who offered to let us ride in back to town. The highway led out onto a broad, wetland plain -- among the largest contiguous wetlands in the Western Hemisphere, as it happens. Our guide's voice, studded with profanity, boomed through the back window as he told us proudly about the diversity of the wildlife to be found out there. Then, absolutely bursting with enthusiasm, he leaned on the horn and bellowed, "Look at them f -- ing swans!" We looked; trumpeters paddling in the marsh looked back. He would have invited them along to the bar, too, if he'd known how.

Every time I've been to Cordova since, I've been taken under the wings of new friends. Although they usually don't express themselves the same way that first gentleman did, they are just as enthusiastic to show off the amazing natural riches of their little kingdom. Tourists are still something of a novelty here, for Cordova isn't just off the beaten track -- it's not on the track at all. There's no road to the rest of the world. Boosters call their town "Alaska's Hidden Treasure," a nickname I endorse. But that's for folks who enjoy the outdoors; if you're looking for commercial tourist attractions, you won't find them. Go to Cordova as a traveler, not a tourist, ready to create your own fun.

Cordova owes much of its uniqueness to a rich history and remote location. Its biggest political controversy -- simmering for 70 years -- concerns whether to build a road to the outside world. The town's heyday was in 1911, when the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad opened, carrying copper ore down from the mine at Kennecott; it hit a low when the mine closed in 1938. Since then, boosters have been trying to get a road built on the old rail line, north along the Copper River to Chitina. The road builders have made it only about 50 miles out of town so far. From Cordova, the Copper River Highway provides access to the best bird-watching and, in my judgment, the most impressive glacier in Alaska, as well as trails and magnificent vistas and areas to see wildlife. In town, the small-boat harbor is a doorway to Prince William Sound.