HighOnAdventure.com   June 1, 2011

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  Juneau Jaunts


by Les Furnanz; Photos - Rita Furnanz

The humpback's dorsal fin rose, slicing above water, and he spouted a seeming greeting to us twenty onlookers aboard Adventure Bound. It was the tenth whale spotted. We were motoring in Stephens Passage, headed south from Juneau for fabled Tracy Arm. We glided close to a peninsula bounded with spruce trees where scores of bald eagles perched, hunting their day's catch. Individual eagles continually took flight or came to roost. Upon entering Tracy Arm, the waterway narrowed to a half-mile and the noted fjord cliffs appeared. Waterfalls cascaded thousands of feet to the sea. Where the cliffs lessened, black bears attracted our attention. Captain Weber idled and gave us a close view of a mother bear with cubs fording a steep stream. A few minutes later a large snow avalanche from the cliff rim provided a sparkling display. Soon an increasing number of glacier bergs forced us to slow and circumnavigate, admiring their deep blue hue. As we rounded the final bend, Sawyer Glacier loomed ahead. We further slowed, approaching carefully to within a few hundred yards. Twice we witnessed the glacier calve large bergs with thunderous claps. Harbor seals rested in groups upon larger floes, awaiting evening to submerge and hunt for shrimp. Arctic terns, recently arrived from their 12,000-mile south-pole migration, hovered like large humming birds. My wife and I hugged in glad congratulations that we'd decided to experience Tracy Arm and other Juneau-area wonders.
Sawyer Glacier
South Sawyer Glacier, Tracy Arm
Eagle on glacier
Mama bear with cubs, Tracy Arm
Eagle atop iceberg
Mama bear with cubs, Tracy Arm

Mendenhall Glacier

Every Juneau visitor sees the famed glacier, and for good reason... it's beautiful; it's immense. It towers at the heart of Mendenhall Valley above its namesake lake only fifteen miles from the city. Although it's receded over a mile since 1950, this twelve-mile glacier extends high up to Juneau Ice Field, the fifth largest in the Americas. The ice field covers 3,900 sq. km. and issues over 100 glaciers, including Mendenhall and the largest, Taku, still expanding with a depth of 1,300 meters.

  Mendenhall Glacier  
Mendenhall Glacier

We spent three days exploring Mendenhall Glacier, entranced by its grandeur. One day we kayaked 2-1/2 miles from the southeastern edge of the lake to within 100 meters of its face. We floated for an hour admiring its fissures, changing hues and large floes before the return paddle. On another day we hiked 7-mile West Glacier trail to look down upon the glacier and up into the ice field. The trail provided unique isolated views. We met but three other hikers. The third day we hiked East Glacier trail crowded with cruise ship tourists, but providing constantly overpowering scenes and roaring Nugget Creek Falls. At the worthwhile and nearby visitor center we learned about the glacier's formation, recent history and surrounding wildlife.

Kayaking Mendenhall Lake
Kayak Ready for Mendenhall Lake Paddle to Glacier

Rainforest Hikes

You can't drive to Juneau. Its roads extend north only 40 miles to Point Bridget, northeast 15 miles to Mendenhall and west for a few miles into Douglas Island. But this tiny isolated network of roads leads to many interesting hiking trails that climb surrounding peaks or follow valleys to secluded lakes. Rent a car and you have access to this great resource. Hikers on these rain forest trails often have them totally to themselves.

One day we drove to road's end and hiked the rain forest at Point Bridget. The trail went through several kilometers of bog lowland called muskeg. Plank-board and good hiking boots aided us in maneuvering and we viewed a complex environment of pines, lichens, sphagnum moss, and yellow-flowering skunk cabbage. We spotted many sparrows, swallows, and red-breasted sapsuckers. The surrounding trees changed to large Sitka spruce as the trail ascended out of the bog. The highlight of our trek was meeting a friendly snacking marmot who seemed to encourage our close picture-taking.

On another day we hiked along the Herbert River crossing a bridge onto one of its large islands, then crossing back further upriver towards Waterfall Lake. Snow-covered peaks rose above nearby Herbert Glacier. The well-maintained trail offered plank-board assistance as we passed through a muskeg region with the largest skunk cabbage collection. The serene lake shore provided a welcome picnic spot after the pleasant three-mile trek.

  Point Bridget Trail Scene   Marmot  
Point Bridget Trail Scene

Joys of Juneau

Juneau receives 1,000,000 visitors per year via cruise ships, staying just a few hours, and about 100,000 annual visitors who come via ferry or plane and stay a while. Keeping these figures in mind we devised an interesting tour of the town that wound up into the old miner's district and hit all the major sites. Several pedestrian stairways came in handy. We started at the Alaska state museum before any of the cruise ships had landed. The museum's eight rooms of historical and nature displays oriented us well to both Alaska and Juneau via an enjoyable 30-minute visit. During our two-mile circumnavigation of the town we often admired the surrounding 3,000-4,000-foot snow-covered peaks, waterfalls, and Gastineau Channel. The town highlight was St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church on 5th Street. Built in 1897 by converted Tlingit natives, it is still in use as a religious site and proudly displays its unique octagonal shape. Another interesting location was the Kennedy Street Mine Workers' Houses, built in the early 1900s.

There are three major major coffee shops in central Juneau, all with an obviously contented group of regulars. Our favorite was Heritage 2nd Street Cafe with good coffee, gelato and other treats. For breakfast the Sandpiper Cafe on Willoughby St. gets the most regulars, and there we chose an unforgettable version of French toast. For beer or cocktail hour the biggest tourist draw is the historic Red Dog Saloon. We immersed ourselves in the fun but crowded scene for a while. Our favorite dinner establishment was two miles across the channel from Juneau in Douglas. The Island Pub, with great pizza and views back to the capitol sported bald eagles flying by and seemingly checking out the clientele.

Juneau-Gastineau Channel
Juneau Across Gastineau Channel
Juneau Street Scene
Juneau Street Scene

North to Alaska

We had forgone a cruise ship for our first visit to the northernmost state, preferring to relax for a week in one location and sample the best that Alaska has to offer. We researched and wrestled with the question "where's best?" before deciding. An added advantage was proximity to Seattle, as Juneau is only 900 miles north and connected via direct daily flights. After our May visit, we're convinced that it is hard to beat. The week elapsed way too quickly. Our rental condo looked one mile from Douglas Island across Gastineau Channel to the city with its with surrounding peaks. A rental car provided easy access to the foot trails of our choosing. The nearby harbor offered tour boat choices to Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay. Juneau was an excellent introduction, and we we are now primed to further explore "North to Alaska."

When You Go

Good months for a visit to Juneau are mid-May to the end of September. As Juneau is in a rainforest climate, be prepared for days of rain. Bring good hiking boots and clothing layers for flexibility in your travels. Car rental is advised as transportation for hiking and sight-seeing. Alaska Airlines provides the broadest choice of daily flights to Juneau from the lower 48 states. Some useful links for planning a visit are listed below:

Tracy Arm Fjord Glacier Cruise
Alaska Boat and Kayak Center - Kayak Rentals
Lonely Planet Alaska - Guidebook
Douglas Island Condo Rental

        Article by Les Furnanz, Photos by Rita Furnanz



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