50 State Bucket List Blog #2
We left the port of Seattle, Washington on Saturday evening, September 9th and after a day and a half at sea, we landed in our first port – Juneau, Alaska. The entry was breathtaking and I listened in awe as the ship’s narrator explained everything we were seeing while the captain steered the ship through what is called Gastineau Channel – a narrow body of water that divides the Alaska mainland and Douglas Island. It was a typical day for Juneau in the summer, overcast, foggy and rainy since this part of Alaska is located near one of the largest rain forests in the world. Juneau is on the east side of the channel and Douglas Island is on the west side. The whole area is part of the borough of Juneau which has a population of 32,000.
Juneau is the capital of Alaska and 50 percent of the people are employed by the U.S. government – the biggest part of the economy. The next largest industry is the tourist industry which causes the population to swell by 6,000 on any given day when the tourist ships come in. The next largest employer is the fishing industry – especially the salmon hatchery that I visited on the tour. Juneau has no roads connecting the city to the mainland of Alaska so everything has to come in by ferry or plane. We saw several floating planes taking off and landing as the captain maneuvered through the Channel. Therefore, the cost of living in Juneau is about 30 percent higher than that of the “lower forty-eight.”
Our ship docked at what is called Front St. This part of Juneau was underwater when the first prospectors settled the area. The land has been created from silt and sediment from the receding Mendenhall Glacier which I also visited on the tour. Front Street has the look of an old mining town and at the center of the shopping area is The Red Dog Saloon – still looking like it did in the boom era of the 1880’s and 90’s. Wyatt Earp and his wife visited the saloon and one of his pistols is hanging on the wall next to the swinging doors that lead into the saloon. The state capital building is just a short walk up the hill that is the original land, and the capitol building is the only one in the country without a dome. As the ship docked, the narrator pointed out a parking garage with a building on top. This was the Juneau Free Public Library where there was free Wi-Fi. I would have visited that place first whether Wi-Fi or not. Imagine my excitement as I saw that one of the principal buildings at the center of town was a library.After using the Wi-Fi to connect with people back home, I talked with a young man and told him I was President of the Friend’s group at my neighborhood library back home, and he pointed me to a shelf containing books for sale. He also told me that there was a bookstore operated by the Friend’s near the airport. Since my tour did not go there, I bought a book off the shelf and was exited that that was the first souvenir of my trip. After finishing at the library, I walked outside and joined the group that was taking the Grand Juneau Tour which included a trip to the salmon hatchery, the Mendenhall Glacier and the Rainforest.
As we walked into the salmon hatchery, I saw two ravens sitting on the hand rail that overlooked the nesting area for the eggs and the salmon ladder. There were also people fishing next to the hatchery itself. The tour guide said that the hatchery did not compete with the fishing, rather It existed to increase the number of salmon production and to educate the children of the area about salmon. There was an aquarium that displayed all the different types of salmon and also a replication of a tide pool which had starfish and other creatures that one could pick up and touch if so desired. The tour guide on the bus said that most of the money made by the hatchery came from selling by-products or waste from the salmon to be ground up and used in pet food. The next stop on the tour was what I had come to see – the Mendenhall Glacier.
As we drove into the mountain area where the Glacier was located, the bus driver said that the Juneau Rainforest had the largest population of Bald Eagles in the country – about 30,000. The Bald Eagle is a vulture that subsists on the remains of dead salmon. We saw only one Bald Eagle on the entire tour – but what a sight as it flew across the lake at the bottom of the mountain range where the Glacier was located. When I first saw the Glacier I was taken aback because it didn’t look as white as I had expected, but as my eyes adjusted to the dim light and fog, I began to see it running down the length of the mountain. I looked across the lake and saw a 20 person canoe rowing toward the Glacier. This is the original way the indigenous tribes – the Tongass and Tlingit – traveled before the Gold Rush brought the American settlers. The Russians were here before that but that will be in another blog after we get to Sitka. There was a large totem pole in front of the hatchery that reminded me of the cultures that lived here when the prospectors arrived and still live here. In fact, the Tlingit own ten percent of the land in Alaska today.
At the base of the Glacier outside the interpretive center, a U.S. Forest Service employee conducted a lecture and showed pictures of the Glacier from the early 20th Century until the present. The gradual receding of the Glacier confirmed what we have been told about climate change. Glaciers have always receded but the rate of acceleration over the last 50 years has been disturbing. At present, the Glacier is receding at a rate of 400 feet per year, compared to 50 feet per year at the turn of the Century. The ranger made a case for a change in energy production – even in Alaska which is turning to hydroelectric power fueled by the churning water falls that have been exposed from the receding Glacier. There were several hiking trails around the area which have a lot of wildlife but most of them were probably trying to “get out of the rain” – especially the bear. I saw more black bear in my yard in Oregon than I did here. Overall, except for the Glacier the views reminded me of the Northwest Coast around Oregon, but the plant life in Glacier Rainforest was quite similar to that of Oregon with some differences.
The last stop on the tour was a trip through the Glacier Rainforest. The Rainforest is located atop a mountain where there was a massive mud slide in the 1990’s that filled the valley with debris making it an eyesore. An enterprising horticulturalist bought the land and cleared out the debris turning the area into a paradise resembling what I imagine the Hanging Gardens of Babylon look like. The most impressive sight is the upside down tree planters. The trees uprooted by the slide have been used as planters for all varieties of colorful grasses and flowers. On the trip up the narrow mountain road in a golf cart, the narrator pointed out the elderberry, huckleberry, blueberry and wild strawberry growing alongside the
Spruce trees and old growth trees hundreds of feet tall. By this time, despite my layers and rain gear, I was chilled to the bone and anxious to get back to the ship and a nice warm bath. Before returning to the ship, I had to go into the Red Dog Saloon for a brief look and picture. Tomorrow we will be traveling through Glacier Bay with a daylong narrative about this special place and then on to Sitka – the Russian settlement that was built before Seward’s Folly.