6 – Seattle to points North
From my window seat, I watch the luggage handlers throw luggage and boxes onto the conveyer belt that takes them into the
belly of the plane. I make a mental note not to buy anything fragile. I tell Joe, a fisherman who is sitting next to me, that this is my first trip to Alaska. I comment on the coolers and bundles of fishing poles
that are being loaded. Joe is on his way to Yakukut for halibut and
King salmon, and says it's cheaper to ship his catch home
commercially rather than ship an empty cooler up north. I tell him I had
looked for a charter in Ketchikan, but didn’t find one that a
single person could get onto. He says it's because the fishing charters cater to the
cruise lines. He also said that I run the risk of catching more fish
than I could afford to ship home. That is very good to know…
And we're off!
30 minutes outside of Juneau, the cloud bank disappears and I can see rugged mountain ranges. Ten minutes later, silvery-green patches with
interesting striations start to appear...
Through my binoculars I can see the face of what I later learn is the
Taku Glacier. The water at the base of the glacier is deep jade green, and full of
ice floes, which I did not expect to see. Joe says he has never seen
this area because it is always covered with clouds. I loan him my
We land, and as I collect my things and
don my hat, I thank Joe for the conversation. He flashes a big smile,
and says “Have a good time. You look just like a local in
airport is closer to the Mendenhall Glacier than to town, so I walk
around outside until I find a “tour bus and taxi van”. A $14.80 fare gets me to the glacier.
Bob, the taxi driver, is very informative about “The Ice”. He hands me his card and tells me to call when I’m ready to be picked up. I would learn that cabbies are among the most informative people to talk to on this trip.
Naturalist John Muir first named the glacier Auke Glacier in 1879. (Auke Bay, where the ferry terminal is located, still retains its original name.) In 1892, this glacier was renamed to honor Thomas C. Mendenhall (1841-1924) who served as superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1889 to 1894. A noted scientist, Mendenhall also served on the Alaska Boundary Commission that was responsible for surveying the international boundary between Canada and Alaska.
The Mendenhall Glacier is located in the Juneau Icefield, North America's fifth largest, blanketing over 1,500 square miles, and stretching nearly 85 miles north-south and 45 miles east-west. Scientists estimate the icefield's depth to be from 800 to over 4,500 feet (245 to 1371 meters).
I walk up to the observatory, hoping to
find a place to eat and stow my luggage. No such luck on
either count. I watch the short film on the history of glaciers, survey the landscape, and then set out on one of the
My rolling suitcase is really noisy on the
gravel walkways, and some of the other visitors look askance at the racket I'm making, so I end up carrying it for the rest of my visit. One of the viewpoints affords a great view of “The Ice”, several large ice floes, and Nugget
Falls, an impressive waterfall about half the height of
my way back up to the observatory, I stop to peer down a path
that leads to a tern nesting area. A park guide alerts me to watch
out for a young male bear that was spotted a few minutes ago. The path is beyond my physical capacity to negotiate anyway, so I walk up to a wooden plank trail on the other side of the parking lot
where Bob said I could see beavers. I pass a pile of manure, which
the park rangers had marked with a hand written paper sign that says
“Bear”. I later learn that the Alaskans call bear droppings
“scat”, a much more civilized word than the three and
a beaver dam, and a black salmon with a white tail, which I later learned was
spawning. Another vantage point on the glacier side of the parking
lot affords a chance to watch a heron, which stands for a few
minutes before taking off. Too weighted down with luggage,
I head back up to the observatory.
Peering through the telescopes lets me to see that the ice is pale electric blue, and that
the formations take a variety of shapes, from upward pointing
fingers, to free standing spirals.
If you visit the Mendenhall Glacier:
the movie. It explains that the ice is blue because of its molecular
structure, and that the most vibrant blues are where a piece of the
ice has just fallen away. The blue starts to pale as soon as it is
exposed as oxidation and melting changes its chemical structure.
food and water.
Not Feed the Animals!
light so you can navigate the trails. Photo Point Trail is the one
that appears to take you closest to the glacier and the waterfall.
- If you kayak, Mendenhall Lake average 37 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Maintain a safe distance from the face of the glacier. Chunks of ice the size of buildings, fall off the face suddenly, which will crush you if you are under it, dislodge you if you are on top of it, and can also create waves that can sweep you into the lake.
your Ground! Do Not Run away from a bear! Maintain
eye contact and speak to the bear in a calm voice.
- If waving your arms does not make the bear back off, back away slowly, maintaining eye and voice contact with the bear.
the bear approaches you and contact seems imminent, drop to the
ground and cover your head and face. Play dead. Bears usually leave
dead meat alone…
The Alaska Marine Highway System
The AMHS began in 1960, a year after Alaska Statehood, with one small ship named the Chilkat. The system now has nine ships servicing 33 ports and covering 3500 miles of coastline, carrying 400,000 passengers and 100,000 vehicles annually. Like the BC ferries, it is considered an essential part of the state highway system. It’s also referred to as the “poor man’s cruise” although the cost for the full run to Anchorage with a berth is pretty comparable to the cost of one of the smaller cruise ships. I chose the AMHS because it’s also how the locals travel, and it allowed me to get closer to the coastlines and areas of the Inner Passage that cruise ships are too large to navigate through.
I arrive at the ferry dock and check in. The agent is wearing a Mariners Team sweatshirt, and while printing my tickets, asks me if I need anything else. I respond with, “Yes, the Mariner’s need to win a game”. He laughs, and tells me a story about a friend who was a major fan. When he died in 2002, his friends took his ashes to Safeco field and scattered them on the second base line. “Wasn’t that the last year the Mariners had a winning season?” I ask. He laughs again and says yes. “Thanks for jinxing the field,” says I.
He hands me my tickets, and I find that one of the legs has been rescheduled. I now have much less time in Sitka, and almost two full days in Ketchikan. I guess I will have to walk very fast to see the sights in Sitka…
I cannot see a restaurant within walking distance of the terminal, so I find a bench outside and embroider hats for the next two hours. It’s a brilliantly sunny day, and the locals say it’s the best day Juneau has had all summer.
The ferry arrives. At 408 feet long, with a capacity for 50 crew, 500 passengers and 88 vehicles, she’s the biggest ship I’ve been on. I choose a seat at the front of one of the upper decks, but it's like watching a big screen TV. A seat along the side offers a better perspective.
I booked this leg because it was advertised as the most picturesque part of the Inner Passage. I was not disappointed, and it turned out to be the only ferry that sailed past glaciers. This section of the Inside Passage is very fjord-like, and the face of the glacier comes straight down into the water. I see my first whales. The scenery is almost too spectacular to describe.
If you travel on the State Ferry:
a water bottle. Water at the vending machines runs as much as $2.25
for a small bottle. There is a water spigot in the beverage and
condiment section of the cafeteria.
luggage you don’t need onto the baggage cart.
- Don’t pack more
than you can physically lift. You handle all your own luggage when
you travel by ferry.
are lockers on board, but it costs 50 cents every time you open the
have your camera and binoculars in your pocket. Always!
The Halsingland Hotel shuttle is waiting for me at the ferry terminal. The hotel is a five minute drive and occupies the Commanders’ Quarters at Fort Seward.
September 7 – Haines to Juneau
I grab a coffee in the lobby and step outside into one of the most scenic vistas I've ever seen..rows of restored officer’s quarters, set against a backdrop of rugged glaciated mountains, in a slight fog, over a very still saltwater fjord. It feels surreal, like a movie set, and my first thought is that I want to wake up here every morning. I go back inside to find that Mike, one of the two owners, has comes downstairs. "You can wait at the ferry terminal, or wait here, and here's more comfortable", he says. "Have another cup of coffee and sit a spell…"
board the Malaspina, the
best observation deck is aft, behind the solarium, which acts as a
- The solarium is a shelter that is lit and heated, open at
the back, and filled with stacks of plastic chaise lounges the locals
use as beds. You can sleep here, or duct tape your dome tent to the
deck just outside the solarium if you are traveling overnight.
- Berths are also available for rent for under $80 for a single.
The city bus (Capitol Transit) stops a mile and a half short of the ferry terminal and seems to have a pretty patchy schedule on Sundays so I split the $37 cab fare with another couple. The woman asks about my hat, and Steve, the cabby, talks about the thriving arts community here. He also mentions that snow has started to fall at the foothills of the Mendenhall. It appears that my trip there yesterday was very well timed...
It’s pouring rain and downtown Juneau is hopping! Tourists in pastel, cruise ship-issue hooded rain ponchos are trying to avoid the drippy eaves. I weave my way through the crowd and enter the Alaskan Hotel.
The room faces out onto the main street, which sounds just like Seattle's Capital Hill. Although this room is said to be haunted, it doesn’t feel like other haunted places I have visited, so I think nothing of it, and after calling the front desk to set up a 6 AM wake up call, head back downstairs to see the sights.
I walk north and up hill to the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, an octagonal wooden structure built in 1893. Unfortunately it’s closed for a private function. I note a wooden door leading into the basement of what may be the rectory, with “St Innocent’s Wood Shop” carved into it with rough, penknife blade letters. (I would learn in Sitka that this is a reference to St. Innocent, the first Russian Orthodox Bishop of Alaska.)
I see my first totem pole, but didn’t find museums open. I’ve been here just over an hour and I’m already soaked to the skin.
Shopping in Juneau includes the Russian American Company, where I find an unpainted set of Matryoshka nesting dolls for my brother and a Russian cookbook for his wife (the start of my Christmas shopping list). I also find a felted Russian Army hat with earflaps that I plan to tear apart for a pattern when I get home. For being the largest city in Alaska (population 31,000), it feels more like a frontier town, similar to Winthrop. The entire historical downtown district would probably fit inside of Southcenter Mall.
The most awe inspiring geographic feature of Juneau is the mountain, which is, quite literally, in your face. Standing on the street, you have to look almost straight up to see the top of it. There are houses built into the mountain face, though it must have been by some unimaginable feat of engineering.
The complex at the top includes a restaurant, nature store, theater and a sizable gift shop. I have trouble finding Alaskan-made wares, even the stuff labeled Native art is made in Canada. I locate the gift shop manager, who will consider my hats for the next tourist season, which starts in May.
In the lobby of the restaurant, a native artisan is working. He shows me some mammoth ivory pieces and describes how he carves and insets the ivory with pinhead-sized pieces of abalone shell. He's carving a small soapstone polar bear, which, along with a small jade fish, will be mounted to a piece of driftwood. It’ll be a pretty cool piece when it is finished.
Dinner is halibut and waffle chips, recommended by the tram operator. The meal and service is mediocre, and the check is brought to me before I can order desert. I’m one of only three or four customers, but the wait staff are eager to go home because the cruise ship has left dock, and there won't be any more customers tonight.
After dinner I visit Lady Baltimore, a captive eagle who was blinded in one eye from a hunting accident. With a wing span of over six feet, eagles are bigger than I thought. I walk around to admire the view, and consider taking one of the trails back to town, but decide they are too wet and dark for me to go it alone. I hop the tram back down the mountain.
By the time I get back downtown, businesses are pretty much closed up, a problem I would encounter this entire trip. I go back to the hotel to drop off my briefcase, and get a head measurement for a cap for Mike, the hotel owner.
I head back out for a walk-about and stumble across some enchanting walkways. I see the Governor’s Mansion, which was built in 1913 and is the 12th oldest continuously occupied gubernatorial residence in the country. I note with some humor the trampoline in the yard. I head back down to the city center, and to the Red Dog Saloon for a whiskey.
The Red Dog Saloon is said to date back to the mining era. It was moved to its current location in the 1970’s, where it’s attractions include red swinging doors, sawdust floor, rustic interior and barkeep that starts giving you lip the second you walk in. I throw banter right back at him, which is a lot of fun, and order a whiskey. The barkeep banters with whoever is paying attention to him, about the local politics, and the last customer who tipped a beer over onto a pile of tip money, which is now being dried out with an electric fan.
It’s 8:30 and last call, so I finish my drink and walk around downtown for awhile. The homeless people start staking out doorways, and there’s a young guy that I manage to walk by at least 3 times, who smiles and says hello every time I pass by, regardless of what street I am on...
I return to the hotel and its quaint Victorian furnishings, for what I expected to be a quiet and uneventful night. But something else was in store ...