Before this past month, I’d never been to Alaska before. Now, I can say that I’ve been twice. Twice in the span of 4 days, but twice nonetheless. When you’re tagging along with aircrew, flying along on their routes, you get a lot of time in the air and enough time on the ground to feel rested before you’re back in the air again. As for that time on the ground- you’d better make the best of it.
But the time in the air, coming in to Juneau, is something spectacular. The route goes from Seattle, up over the mountains of British Columbia, and then in to the Juneau airport. If you’re lucky enough to have a clear day, you have a view of the most pristine expanse of snow-covered peaks that I’ve ever seen. Untouched by humans, or at least untouched for a very long time- it’s a true wilderness that you fly over, and it lifts my heart to know that there are still a few places that we humans haven’t messed up yet. For the two hours it takes to go from Seattle to Juneau, you get a macro view of this extraordinary stretch of the Coast Mountain range of British Columbia. And then, as you begin the approach into Juneau, you can start to see the details of that expanse of wilderness- a glacier here, a waterfall there, the channels along this coastline where the ocean cuts into the landmass. It is these channels that make Juneau so remarkable in many ways; the word that comes to mind is extreme. The mountains are high, the channels are deep and narrow. There are no roads in or out. You do not go to Juneau accidentally- you have to want to go. It gives the place a strange energy, this isolation.
So, what do you do with 30 hours in Juneau, Alaska, which is what we had (twice)? You get out and enjoy nature, whether that is through hiking, whale watching, or glacier walking. You do not try to stay in town, because you will run out of things to do long before your 30 hours is up, I promise. There isn’t much to this town, and most of what there is caters to the many cruise ships that stop here each and every day. Imagine the daily ebb and flow of people arriving, and then leaving, via these huge ships that pull into port. Many of the shops cater to these people coming in- resort wear and sandals in a place that rarely gets above the 60 degree mark? And I don’t need ANYTHING made of fur… Yes, nature is the reason you come to Alaska, not the shopping or the coffee.
And so seeking opportunities to enjoy nature is what we did. Fortified by a lunch consisting of the freshest halibut and salmon I’ve ever tasted, paired with a view of the mountains and the seaplanes coming and going, we took the tram to the top of Mt. Roberts for some hiking. Mt. Roberts is just one of the many mountains that cradle Juneau, and the word extreme does indeed describe them all, so taking the tram up to 1800 feet and then beginning your hike is the way to go.
I thought I was in shape before attempting this hike. As it turns out, I am not.
But, I gasped and panted my way towards the peak, and the view as we progressed along the trail towards the summit was the reward for my hard work. It was nothing short of spectacular. From high up on Mt. Roberts, we could see up and down the channel to the snow capped mountains that are on all sides. It was a clear, relatively warm day for hiking, a rarity in this temperate rain forest, and many others were out taking advantage of it as well, which somewhat allayed my fears of bears, moose, and other wildlife that call Alaska home (that old joke about only having to out run the other person, not the bear? Yes, that came to mind). The only wildlife we saw, which I am thankful for, were the bald eagles wheeling and calling overhead as they caught the updrafts coming off the mountains. I love animals, but I don’t like the idea of riling a grizzly.
In any case, I only made it halfway up the 6 mile round trip trail. When we got to the snowy parts, I decided that I’d hiked quite far enough, and parked myself on a ledge to enjoy the view while the Pilot hiked on to the top (he has a bit of an obsession with completing things. You can’t stop halfway!! I do not share this belief, thankfully, and stopping halfway suits me just fine). From my vantage point, I could enjoy the beauty of the place, feel the sun and the breeze on my skin, and watch the canoes of the Alaska native population as they approached for a festival celebrating their heritage, which was happening while we were there. The lupines were in full bloom, the sky blue, the air cool but the sunshine warm; what better place could there be just to sit and enjoy life?
That evening, we enjoyed Alaska in a very different way. I’ve already mentioned the native heritage celebration that was going on, and I count myself very fortunate to have been able to watch the parade of all the different groups through town as they headed for the opening ceremonies. Though I have no idea what was going on, really, I do know that it was all part of that very human need to celebrate where we’ve come from and who we are. And I understand the beauty of it; the colors of each group on their button blankets, their furs, their unique adornments spoke to me. The parade was followed by a meal of more halibut, which has now become my favorite fish. The stuff is like candy! So sweet and tender- just don’t get in the way of its natural flavor and you have my attention fully. Fully. And then some.
And then to the Alaska Hotel for its bar. You have to have your priorities straight, you know. I’m not much of a drinker, having a two glass limit at all times and all. But for people watching and good conversation, and if you’re lucky, some live music by characters that look like they are straight off a movie set only they aren’t, this is your place. Neither the hotel nor the bar have seen a remodel since, well, ever. Built in 1913, it looks exactly the same as it did in 1913, and in my opinion, that is not such a bad thing. If you find yourself in Juneau, go here, if for no other reason than to marvel at the beards that you will find. I can’t say this emphatically enough.
Trust me, I will be taking my own advice when I am back there again in a few weeks. But I will be purchasing a bear bell.* That way, hopefully I don’t have to outrun anybody.
* Whether they work or not, it will make me feel a little better. And make my mom feel better, too. She’s even more concerned about bears than I am.