Before we get on to the finale of this adventure a couple things – first sorry it took a few more days to this posted but the shed roof called and we had to finish it while the weather was good. Second I apologize for the small images in the last post. I am still getting the knack of WordPress and I did not realize that the mosaic would actually shrink the photos down to a size that was low-res when expanded. I will post photos as individual on this one.
Juneau is the capital of Alaska and as such is the largest city in SE Alaska with a population of a little over 30,000 most of whom either work in government or tourism. It is a typical city but far from a metropolis. Again they have a tourist shopping district right off the cruise ship docks and there were at least 5 in port that day. Like all of the ports the mountains and pines loom over the city providing a great backdrop. Since we had no sun, the clouds hung over the city blocking out all but the tallest peaks.
Our first stop here was the Mendenhall Glacier which is surrounded by the Tongass National Forest – the largest National Forest in the US. (It is 19 million acres which is over 6 times as large as the Mark Twain National Forest where we live). The glacier is a receding glacier that terminates in a small lake with a great view from the paths that go down along the water. It is not as large or spectacular as Hubbard but it is quite beautiful especially the way the mountains, lake and glacier harmonize the view. It was here at the nature area that we finally saw a bear. As we walked down an elevated path a group was gathered looking down into the brush and there was a brown coated black bear eating a salmon it had just caught. It was unperturbed by its meal time audience and once it was done it moved on for another catch. We talked to a ranger who said it was a female who is 17 years old and had three cubs. We did not see the cubs but we were very excited to get close look at momma. We were also surprised to find out that black bears come in several colors so you have to look at the ears and back hump to tell if it is a black or brown bear.
Mendenhall Glacier and the proglacial lake it flows into
A black bear enjoying a lunch of fresh salmon along the walkway at the Mendenhall glacier site
After Mendenhall we went to Glacier Gardens which is on a former landslide area that the owner shored up and rebuilt into a lovely garden area. The claim to fame are the flower beds planted in the roots of trees turned upside down. It is a steep ride up the hillside to a nice observation point and the flowers are beautiful – totally unexpected in a climate like this. Because of the climate they dig up the plants in the fall and replant them in the spring. The hanging baskets in the gift shop at the end are gorgeous and fill the air with a lovely scent.
The signature planting in the roots of the upside-down tree at Glacier Gardens
The last stop was a salmon hatchery. Because SE Alaska was so overfished in the last century, the only way to re-populate the various salmon varieties is these large scale hatchery operations. There are several along the coast and they release tens of millions of salmon into the waters of the area every year. The hatchery was not operating since we were there on a weekend day but we got to see the salmon ladder filled with fish coming back to spawn and also the tanks of fry fish waiting to grow large enough to put in the water. The fish are tagged a couple of different ways so that when they are caught by commercial fisherman, they know where they come from. This is to make sure they pay their share to the hatchery which is a major source of funding for these hatcheries. The government provides some funding and the rest comes from tours and other since these are all non-profit endeavors. For more information you can visit this site.
After the hatchery we wandered around downtown Juneau where we saw the state capital building which is just a regular office building. We ended our tour of downtown with a ride on the tram to Mount Roberts. It a large tram and at the top of the mountain are trails, a nature center and other interesting things to see. It was pricey but the view at the top was great.
The last port we stopped at was Skagway which is the only town with a road out. In fact we rode that highway all the way up to Fraser, British Columbia in Canada where we caught the Yukon and White Pass Railroad for the amazing scenic ride back to Skagway. Even if you are not a train person this is worth the time and money. The scenery from the bus on the highway was great but it is way better from the train side. Spectacular gorges, waterfalls, glaciers and wildlife are all things you see on the train side. The crew of the train does a great job making sure you don’t miss a thing and for you steam engine folks they do have a steam engine that makes a couple runs a day.
Single cantilever bridge on the Yukon highway from a stop right after our tour bus drove across
One of the most interesting stories told on the trip was how during the gold rush, Skagway was the supply port for the miners and the Canadian Mounties were so tired of people coming through who had no idea what to prepare for that they made a rule that to get in Canada you had to have a 1000 pounds of supplies like bacon, flour, coffee and other staples. If you did not, they would send you back. That meant you had to have a pack animal and this created a market for unscrupulous operators to bring in old and tired horses and mules to sell for a huge profit. So many of these animals died from exposure, old age, sickness and lack of food (the miners didn’t want to bring any more food than they thought necessary), that one area was called Dead Horse Gulch. It was said the the trail was so packed with miners heading north that if you got out of the line for any reason it could be a day or more before you got a chance to get back on the trail.
A smaller glacier in the mountains on the way back on the train. This is typical of the many glaciers we saw in Alaska.
Our train as it made a stop in downtown Skagway
After the train ride we visited a little spot called Liarsville which was a re-creation of a tent city that was typical during the gold rush. They feed you grilled salmon and then do a little show and some panning for gold flakes. Not the most interesting stop on the cruise but still fun. The last stop on this excursion was the Red Onion Saloon which had a brothel tour. As you would expect when you have men with money long way from home the working gals follow. The tour was interesting and the gal conducting had a great personality and of course was dressed in the garb of the day. Afterwards we walked around the town a bit but it is small so not a lot to see. The national park service has re-created a saloon that is well done with mannequins and some interpretive exhibits on life in Skagway during the gold rush. Like most of the stops tourism is the major economic driver here.
When a cruise ship makes its first stop in Skagway, the crew paints a tribute to the captain on this mountainside at the docks. The rumor is the more the crew likes the captain, the higher up the mountain the sign is painted.
This was our last stop on the way back to Vancouver and it is a long fjord that ends where Sawyer Glacier terminates. It is another tidewater glacier like Hubbard but is not as large or as active. The day we were there it did not calve but it was spectacular and the mountains to either side were beautiful and had their own smaller glaciers as well as a small little waterfall running down from the top. We did get to see a mountain goat laying on a flat spot on one of the hills. The sun was out and it was a very pleasant day which made being on deck and seeing the natural beauty a joy. One of the things that registers is how quiet it is in these fjords. You kind of shutout the background noise of your cruise mates and just listen to the birds and the wind and think of how such an unspoiled place can exist in out world today. As we slowly made our way out of the fjord it was clear that our trip was coming to a close and civilization lie ahead.
Sawyer glacier at the end or Tracy Arm fjord. Notice the black lines where different flows meet. Also notice the small boat at the right. It gives some reference to how tall the face of the glacier is.
A double waterfall in Tracy Arm. Notice the different colors in the rock.
After a day and half at sea we arrived in port and navigated the lines for the taxi, the ride to the airport, customs and the whole check in process. We had a late enough flight that we were never pressed for time even though from the time we walked down the gangplank until we reached the gate was nearly three hours.
Sitting in the airport waiting for our flight I thought about all the great scenery we saw as well as the wildlife and the people of SE Alaska. I thought about how different a life the people lead, both those who come up for the tourist season and those who live there year round. I though about how we have visited all 50 states in the U.S. and how different so many are and I pondered how I hope Alaska never loses the beauty and wonder of it’s unique nature. I may never get to the mainland of Alaska but I am sure it is also very interesting and beautiful in its own unique way. I relished the wonderful time we had aboard the Disney Wonder and time spent with the two gals from Germany who were our table mates for dinner each night. It was a great nine days and I am so happy that Janice and I had a chance to share this adventure and am looking forward to many other travels we have planned. I hope you have enjoyed my journal of this adventure and if you haven’t been to Alaska yet, I hope you can find a way. You will enjoy it.