Alaska I – Juneau and Haines

My very first solo adventure in 2008 was an effort to get over my fear of flying so I could get to Venice the following year. I debated reposting this journal from my previous website, which crashed, taking most of my photos with it. I decided that my travel tips and historical notes (in the absence of photos for 2/3 of this trip), may still be of use and interest to other travelers.

September 6, 2008 – Seattle to points North

From my window seat on the tarmac at SeaTac Airport, I watch the luggage handlers throw boxes and luggage onto the conveyer belt and into the belly of the plane. I make a mental note not to buy anything fragile in Alaska…

The passenger next to me is Joe, a fisherman on his way to Yakukut for salmon and halibut. I comment on the coolers and bundles of fishing poles that are being loaded. Joe says it’s cheaper to ship his catch home commercially rather than ship an empty cooler up north. I mentioned that I had looked for a charter in Ketchikan, but failed to find one that a single person could get onto. Joe said the fishing charters cater to the cruise lines, and that I run the risk of catching more fish than I could afford to ship home anyway. That is very good to know…

And we’re off, white knuckles and all!

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… glaciers!

Through my binoculars I can see the face of the Taku Glacier. The water at the base is deep jade green and full of ice floes. Joe says he has never seen this area because it is always covered with clouds. I loan him my binoculars… 

Taku Glacier in the Juneau Icefield

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 that hat.” 

The airport is closer to the Mendenhall Glacier than to town, so I walk around 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. 

  • Originally named Auke Glacier, it was renamed in 1892 to honor Thomas C. Mendenhall who served as superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. 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). (EDITOR’s NOTE – this should probably be compared to 2019 figures…)

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 trails. My rolling suitcase is really noisy on the gravel walkways 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 Snoqualmie Falls in Washington State.

Mendenhall Glacier

On my way back up to the observatory, I stop and look down a path that leads to a tern nesting area, and a park guide alerts me to watch for a young male bear that was spotted a few minutes ago. The path is beyond my physical capacity 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”. Alaskans call bear droppings “scat”, a much more civilized word than the three and four-letter equivalents… 

I see a beaver dam, and a black salmon with a white tail, which I later learned was spawning. Another vantage point allows me to watch a heron, who stands for several minutes before taking off. Too weighted down with luggage to go any further, I head back up to the observatory.  The telescopes there offer a view of ice that is pale electric blue, with formations in a variety of shapes, including upward pointing fingers and free standing spirals. 

Travel Tips:

  • See 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. 
  • Take food and water. 
  •  Do Not Feed the Animals! 
  • Pack 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 will 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. 

If you encounter a bear: 

  • Stand 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.
  • If 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… 

I find a pay phone, which releases a handful of quarters before I even make a call. An unexpected slot machine! Bob, shows up 15 minutes later and takes me to the ferry terminal, where I begin my tour on 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. 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 comparable to the cost of the smaller cruise ships. I chose the AMHS because it’s 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’ll have to walk fast to see the sights in Sitka… 

The Malaspina arrives – at 408 feet long, with a capacity for 50 crew, 500 passengers and 88 vehicles, she’s the biggest ferry 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 since you can see movement along the coastline.

I booked this leg because it was advertised as the most picturesque part of the Inner Passage. 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.

Travel Tips: 

  • Bring 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. 
  • Put 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. 
  • There are lockers on board, but it costs 50 cents every time you open the door. 
  • Always have your camera and binoculars in your pocket. Always! 
  • The best observation deck is aft, behind the solarium, which acts as a windbreak. 
  • 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.

It’s finally dinnertime. I choose a halibut burger, a cottage cheese salad and pumpkin pie for a cost of $16. The halibut is the only thing that’s not classic comfort food from the 1950’s. The sunset is stunning. I watch glaciers until dark, and fall asleep before we reach Haines. 

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. 

  • This Victorian-era building is where Eleanor Dusenbury wrote the music to Alaska’s Flag Song (the state anthem). Eleanor was the wife of the commander on duty there when Alaska transferred from Russian to U.S. possession. 

Hotels here do not have porters, so I haul my luggage up the stairs to my room. I had reserved a European-style room with a shared bath, but ‘unfortunately’ they had to upgrade me to a room with a private bath :) The room is more barracks like-than Victorian, but it is clean and quiet, and for $69 I can’t complain. Groundhog Day, one of my favorite movies, is on the TV, a nice ending to a very long day. 

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 stand against a backdrop of rugged glaciated mountains in a slight fog over a 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…” 

  • Haines was founded in 1881 by the Presbyterian Church by permission of the Tlingit Indians. The church deeded it to the U.S. government at the turn of the century, and it became Alaska’s first permanent military installation, established to control border disputes with Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush. It was named after William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State who arranged for the purchase of Alaska from Russia.
  • Fort Seward reached its peak of 255 men in the 1920’s. Although it’s primitive location qualified it as a foreign duty post (and double pay for those who served here), it did not see active combat.  Fort Seward became a training base during both World Wars, and was decommissioned at the end of WWII.  War veterans returned with their families to form a cooperative community.  It became part of the City of Haines in 1970 and was designated a national historic site. 
  • Haines is home to more than 120 species of birds, most notably the American Bald Eagle, which migrate to the Chilkat Valley every November. At 3,500 birds, it is considered the largest gathering of eagles in the world. 
  • It is also the ancestral home of the Tlingits, who settled here about 6,000 years ago. The Tlingits guarded commerce in the area, successfully preventing Russians and the Hudson Bay Company from establishing trading posts here until they were overrun by prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush.

On the way to the ferry terminal, Mike relates the local legend that when the fireweed turns white and starts to shed, the first snowfall is two weeks away. “From the looks of things, we’re about a week out”. 

The rain starts to pick up. I see a black bird close to the water, shaped like a heron but only half as big. I see another water spout this morning, and now recognize the distinctive ring in the water as whale sign. I find the best views from the side windows of the cafeteria. I see eagles as we pull into Juneau at about 1:30. 

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 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 navigate through the crowd and enter the Alaskan Hotel

  • The Alaskan Hotel is on the National Registry of Historic Places and is the oldest operating hotel in Juneau. It was finished in 1913 as a hotel for the upper class, although it feels like it hails from the earlier Gold Rush days. It includes several pieces of stained glass, including a Tiffany piece in the lobby. 

This place is a hoot! I start smiling halfway up the stairs. I had reserved Room 221, a European-style room with toilet and bathtub down the hall. I was happy to find a sink, and tried to ignore TV, which was jarring to the ambiance of the room. An ‘antique’ phone hangs on the wall, one of the ‘60s replicas that has push buttons in the rotary dial where the crank should be.  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.) 

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. St Innocent’s wood shop is in the white building at right

Shopping in Juneau includes the Russian American Company, where I buy a cookbook and 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 (Eastern WA). The entire historical downtown district would probably fit inside of SouthCenter Mall in Seattle.

The most awe inspiring geographic feature of Juneau is the mountain, which is 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. 

  • Juneau was originally fishing grounds for local Tlingit Indians before prospectors staked a claim in 1880 at the beginning of the Gold Rush. It became Alaska’s capital in 1906 when the government was transferred from Sitka. Government jobs employ half the population; tourism, fishing and mining are the primary industries. 

I grab my hat samples and hop the Mt. Roberts tramway to visit the gift shop. The tram is a 6-minute ride, but is a must-see attraction here. The ticket agent is quite taken with the cap I’m wearing and gives me the business card for the manager of the gift shop. Score! The tram ride is one of the coolest things I’ve done, more like an elevator than the swaying-box-on-cable that I was expecting. I see another eagle on my way up. 

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. 

After a mediocre dinner with inattentive wait staff, I visit the raptor center and meet 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 a lot bigger than I thought. After admiring the view, I think twice about taking the wet and dark trails back to town, and hop the tram back down the mountain.

On my walk-about downtown I see the Governor’s Mansion, built in 1913 and the 12th oldest continuously occupied gubernatorial residence in the country. I note with some humor the trampoline in the yard before heading back down to the city center.

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 a 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. 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 …

3 thoughts on “Alaska I – Juneau and Haines

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