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Juneau, Alaska
Capitalizing on the outdoors

Article and Photos


Lee Juillerat


Juneau is more than the government center for Alaska, and more than just a place to pass through while traveling the Inland Passage or making your way to Glacier Bay. It’s also a place where residents, and travelers with insight, capitalize on the outdoors.

In recent years I’ve made a pair of visits to Juneau, and both times I’ve wished the stays had been longer. There’s lot to do, from automatic outings like visiting the Mendenhall Glacier, riding the Mount Roberts Tramway to the hills overlooking town, taking in a Gold Creek Salmon Bake, visiting the city’s three excellent museums or chowdering down at waterfront restaurants. But there’s also good reason to wander about the hilly walkways behind downtown, board ships for day-long whale-watching or fjord tours, or catch a floatplane to visit an island where the views of hump-backed brown bears are virtually guaranteed.

Without claiming to have done it all, here are some capital ideas.

Zipping Along
Pulley Power
Tree Time

Zip, zip, zippa-de-doh!

Actually, it really wasn't until the third section of the zipline ride that, instead of hanging on and spinning out of control, I got silly. I released my death hold grip on the lanyard that connected my harness to the heavy steel cable and trolley, relaxed, did a little jiggle, a few quick half-turns, then ran in place. My zip-quick ride ended as a helping hand plunked me to a stop on a 10- by 10-foot platform perched in a tall, big-bellied hemlock. "Nice moves, nice running man," the others shouted.

I was part of a group with Alaska Zipline Adventures at the Eaglecrest Ski Area 12 miles from Juneau. We were outfitted with jackets, helmets and safety gear during an orientation-safety briefing. The steel cables, we were assured, can hold 27,000 pounds, or two elephants or a semi-truck. Zipline tours are sometimes called canopy tours because platforms are located in trees. At Eaglecrest, the highest platform is 82 feet above the ground, the longest ride about 150 yards. A series of seven platforms and six routes veer from tree to tree above a mixed hemlock-Sitka spruce forest and garden of wildflowers watered by a weaving, bubbling stream. Even when we weren't zipping, the views were spectacular.

I joined a wacky bunch that included a mother and son, 20-something couple and assorted others. At zip No. 3, we all displayed a variety of moves - tucks, bends, cannonballs, spins and Michael Jackson-styled maneuvers. At the fourth zip, a long ride that cruised over a stream, our guide, who always left first to be waiting at the next platform, demonstrated the Mission Impossible move. She folded her arms under her head, stretched her legs and leaned back like lounging on a lawn chair. The next zipper tossed in a Superman pose, with one arm extended out front, the other behind. The kid did snowboard maneuvers, I tried Mick Jagger "Under-My-Thumb" flexes. There were jackknifes, motions like a marionette controlled by a set of strings, human crosses. At No. 5 we stepped off backwards. At No. 6, most of us were turned multiple times for an intentional spinning ride.

Zip-zip-zipping was a wonderful day.


  We entered the cave cautiously, stepping carefully on the erratic and slippery route while trying to avoid incessant droppings of melting ice. I’ve been in ice caves, but nothing like this one, an unnamed cave along the western flanks of the Mendenhall Glacier, a massive receding river of ice just 13 miles from downtown Juneau. It had been a 3-mile hike by trail and a lesser used climber's route over terrain scoured, cleaved and carved by the Mendenhall, which is receding 25 to 30 feet a year. "Our hike gets longer," said a smiling Becky Jeans.


Becky and her husband, Sean, owners of Above & Beyond Alaska, led the way. With Becky in the lead, we ambled over rolling terrain and did some low-level rock climbing on our way to the glacier, where we detoured to the cave. Inside, the colors varied from soft aqua to vibrant azure to deeply saturated midnight. I wasn't prepared for what followed - a glacial river noisily boiling through the cave. A short ways downstream it plunged through a frightening gash. Upstream, the cave's narrow passage opened into an amphitheater sized room. Its ceiling and walls reflected the varied tones of blues, with some of the ice as shiny as if had been exactingly polished.



We had come to hike on frozen ice, so we exited the glistening subterranean world and stepped onto the glacier. We fitted crampons onto our boots, put on helmets and gloves, clipped into harnesses and carried ice axes.

"Follow the ice," Becky said, as if chanting a mantra, so we did.

We strolled about, stepping over chillingly blue streams created by melting ice. It was so pure we dipped and filled our bottles, then savored the naturally ice chilled water. While rambling about, we peered into eerie crevasses. Some were just slices but others were deep scars made beautiful by ever-deepening hues of blue. At one wall, water gushed out like a broken fire hydrant. For more than an hour we wandered and explored. I've hiked on many glaciers while mountain climbing, but this was different and fascinating.

Later, Sean and Becky set up ropes on a steep vertical wall and demonstrated ice climbing techniques. After going on belay, we angled up the wall, using climbing axes to hammer up the wall, then rappelled back down.


A few hours later in Juneau, I was hydrating while sampling beers at the Alaskan Brewing Company. The water for their beers, including Alaskan Amber, a Northwest favorite, comes from the Juneau Ice Field, which includes the Mendenhall Glacier. Thinking of Becky's mantra, I focused on following the ice.

For a short time it was the world’s largest gold producing mill. Now the Alaska Gastineau Mill is a shell of its former self, a collection of ruins that remember a time 90 years ago when the hills behind Juneau handled upwards of 10,000 tons of ore a day. During three eight-hour shifts, which employed 1,800 men, that ore produced about 630 ounces of gold a day. From 1915 to 1921, it’s estimated the mine recovered 500,000 ounces of gold.

Panning for Gold

Now the mine is a place where visitors can sample a taste of its history on a tour that includes views of remnants of the railroad superintendent’s house, coarse crushing plant, main mill and, more interesting, a stroll through the conveyor tunnel where 12 million tons of gold bearing ore was moved to the mill.

The tunnel is a place where guides like Daivin, a long-time miner, feel at home. When visitors arrive, he takes them down the 900-foot long tunnel to work stations. Before he turns on machinery, he issues earplugs that mute the deafening sounds. It’s said that the few days the mine was closed and the equipment was silenced, townspeople in nearby Juneau complained about the ethereal silence.

Later, near displays and a gift shop, a former miner demonstrated how to pan for gold from the mine’s tailings, then let us try. Everyone had some luck, but not enough to quit our day jobs.

We hadn’t even reached the designated viewing spot when a loud whisper told us to speak softly and look in the meadow. Sure enough, a young female brown bear was munching sedge grasses. We were at the Pack Creek on Kootzoowoo, the Tlingit name for Admiralty Island. The 96-mile long island has 1,600 brown bears, about one per square mile. The largest concentrations of viewable “habituated” bears at Pack Creek are seen from July to August, when they feast on pink and chum salmon.

It wasn’t the peak season, but the viewing was fine. As the female grazed, occasionally dipping into ponds and tall grasses, a large male appeared at the meadow’s outer perimeter. He cruised the outer edge, ambling through fields of lupines and buttercups. Through binoculars and spotting scopes we watched for more than a half-hour as he stuffed himself with grasses, then disappeared into the thick woods. It wasn’t even a minute later that a small blonde female galloped into view, settling into a grassy swale.

When it was time to leave, we hiked over the tidal flats to our floatplane. During the 30-minute flight back to Juneau we soared high enough for panoramic views of islands, bays and flocks of resting and flying waterfowl. As on the flight to the island, our pilot, Butch, chatted about the sights below. Unlike the flight to the island, when he was peppered with questions, he spoke to a silent audience. Maybe that’s because all of us were rehearsing the bear stories we planned to tell.

“Well,” Steve Weber announced over the loudspeaker, “we’re missing a couple of passengers, but late is late. Hope they enjoy their day in town.” With that, he cranked on the engine and headed the 56-foot long Adventure Bound out from the dock at Juneau’s Marine Park for the hour-plus ride to Tracy Arm Fjord.

Going with the Floe
Shaken, but not Stirred


Later than morning, Steve angled the boat around a never-ending series of icebergs. Some he lightly tapped with the boat’s hull, others he dodged like a halfback weaving through a series of would-be tacklers. We were in the fjord, a 30-mile long, often narrow passage surrounded by spiring snow-topped mountains, shear rock palisades and littered with remnants of icebergs from the Sawyer Glacier.

“It’s an honest to God fjord,” Steve said, passing along tales from seasoned travelers who said the Tracy Arm is equal or superior to fjords in New Zealand and Sweden.

It’s hard to imagine anything better. Even before reached Tracy Arm, we tracked a group of seldom-seen orcas. At the fjord’s entrance, Steve circled the boat around a large ice floe with a bald eagle perched on top. The eagle kept us in sight, twisting his head but remaining non-flustered. Once in the fjord, the scenery included a series of waterfalls, some making breathtaking tumbles from hundreds of feet high cliff, two others that Steve nudged close enough to that the spray showered passengers seeking relief from the unusually warm weather. On several floes we spotted harbor seals nestled with their babies. The floes are used because they offer safe harbor from predators.  
One Cool Eagle

The true treat was the actively calving South Sawyer Glacier, which is more than a half-mile wide. The retreating glacier is continually shedding large walls of ice. We watched several break off, with the largest sending up sprays of snow and ice, and heard their cannonball-like explosions.

On the ride back, I thought about the missing passengers and what they had missed. I hoped they had a good day in town. We had a great day in the fjord, one I couldn’t afford to miss.

When You Go

Juneau is packed with a wide selection of lodgings, from downtown hotels and B&Bs to rural and plush accommodations outside town. The downtown possibilities include the Baranof Juneau, which is easy walking distance from the state capitol, boat docks and shops, and is best known for its comfortable lobby. More basic but equally accessible to downtown is the Goldbelt Hotel Juneau. For people seeking luxury the easy choice is Pearson’s Pond Luxury Suites & Garden Spa, a place that attracts honeymooners and people on their second, third or, in some cases, 25th honeymoon. For groups or families wanting to be away from town and seeking a rural experience, The Williwaws is an excellent choice. For information about all four, and a wide selection of others, contact the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau.

For more about Alaska Zipline Adventures visit their Web site at www.alaskazip.com or call (907) 790-2547. For information about Above & Beyond Alaska call (907) 364-2333 or www.beyondak.com. No experience is necessary. Equipment, gear and snacks are provided. For information on the Mendenhall Glacier call (907) 789-0097 or www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/districts/mendenhall/. For AJ Mine/Gastineau Mill Enterprises call (907) 463-5017. For more about the Tracy Arm Fjord cruise, contact Adventure Bound Alaska at (800) 228-3875 or www.adventureboundalaska.com. To learn more about Pearson’s Pond Luxury Suites & Garden Spa, call (888) 658-6328 or visit www.pearsonspond.com. For information on all things Juneau, contact the helpful staff at the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau at (888) 581-2201 or www.traveljuneau.com or www.juneaualaska.com.

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Lee Juillerat lives in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where he is a writer and photographer for a daily newspaper. He also freelances for a variety of magazines, including Horizon and Alaska Airlines in-flight magazines, Northwest Travel or Oregon Coast, and has written two books about Crater Lake National Park. His email address is lee337@cvc.net.

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