Day 4: Juneau

May 31, 2011

According to my parents, one of the few downsides of Juneau is the frequency with which loud city vehicles pass by the hotel early in the morning. I’ll take their word on this because I am peacefully asleep until a more reasonable morning hour of 8AM-ish.

Dad is torn because the streetsweeper is loud, but has a flair for design

Dad is torn because the streetsweeper is loud, but has a flair for design

Rather than rushing out to grab food right away, we met my parents’ travel agent Barbara Carpenter, who happened to be cruising (literally) through Juneau today with her husband. Barbara and Jim showed us a nice tiny cafĂ© run by a friendly old woman who prepared a variety of made-to-order egg dishes. Afterwards, we strolled around the Historic Downtown area to check off some of the standard things the guide books tell you to see in Juneau.

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church established in 1894

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church established in 1894


Alaska State Capitol building built in 1931, became the capitol in 1959

Alaska State Capitol building built in 1931, became the capitol in 1959


Downtown Juneau bus terminal and police station

Downtown Juneau bus terminal and police station

By the time we finished walking around under the bright midday sun, it was time to eat again — so we checked out the Twisted Fish restaurant near the water where all the cruise ships dock. We relaxed and chatted with Barbara and Jim until it was time to go, wishing them the best of luck as their boat sailed onward.

Twisted Fish pizza

Twisted Fish pizza

At 2:45PM, we were picked up by bus for the Gastineau Guiding Photo Safari tour, which includes a water portion followed by a land portion. First, the bus took us to Auke Bay northwest of Juneau. From there we boarded a small boat with our 12 fellow travelers, plus the driver and our tour guide David. If there was any concern about the boat ride being choppy, it was quickly dismissed. Today’s water was about as still as it gets in the Inside Passage.

Sitting by the dock in Auke Bay

Sitting by the dock in Auke Bay


Take a picture, I'm on a boat!

Take a picture, I’m on a boat!


I've seen choppier water in a fish tank

I’ve seen choppier water in a fish tank

After the captain kicked the motors up a notch and pointed us south from Auke Bay, we sailed down the west side of Douglas Island toward Young Bay and a large pile of rock in the middle of the bay, dubbed Skull Island. This first stop featured some distant views of cautious seals and sea lions chilling out on the surface of the water.

Skull Island, named for all the human skulls they found there, right?

Skull Island, named for all the human skulls found here, right?

The next few stops on the boat tour were dictated by the captain, who was doing his best Captain Ahab impression in an effort to find us a whale. Using a series of radio communications with other boats in the area, he picked a good spot and dropped the boat into idle. We all started scanning the waterline for activity. Minutes later, we saw the blow spout of a humpback whale feeding near the shore. Humpbacks tend to repeat the blowing process about four times, then they’ll breach, kick up their tail and dive under for 5-10 minutes before re-surfacing.

First humpback spotted

First humpback spotted


Humpback whale breaching and diving back underwater

Humpback whale breaching and diving back underwater

We saw another whale, but this one was “lunge feeding,” which is when the whale silently glides under its prey, takes a huge gulp, and then expels the excess water. Since the tail never rises like it does with the usual feeding method, it is less photogenic. All you see is a splash with a nose and mouth cresting quickly above the water.

Tour guide David leads us off the water and into the woods

Tour guide David leads us off the water and into the woods

After the marine portion of our trip, we returned to the dock and boarded another bus which took us to a trailhead near the Mendenhall Glacier. We were given the usual “watch out for bears” disclaimer before starting the hike. Five minutes later, the bears obliged. To the left, a mother black bear and her three cubs were heading in our direction (looking to cross the road to the stream to our right perhaps?). After pausing for a moment to let our group pass, the four bears started forward again and crossed the road about 20-30 feet behind us.

Mother black bear and three cubs

Mother black bear and three cubs


Bears relative distance from group, I was crouched down in front

Bears relative distance from group, I was crouched down in front

So that was awesome. We gathered ourselves and continued the hike. David pointed out a couple locations where bears had been digging in the dirt to snack on northern ground cones (which grow on the root system of nearby alder trees). For human appetites, he offered up spruce tips straight from the tree, which are rich with vitamin C — not to mention a key ingredient for the Alaskan Brewery’s special Winter Ale (which unfortunately was not in season). I tried a handful because I don’t want scurvey. They weren’t terrible.

Eventually, we reached Mendenhall Glacier. From the visitor’s center, we saw the glacier’s terminus, but the whole thing extends about 12 miles back up the mountains. There are helicopter tours that will take you back there and drop you off into a pile of snow (or so I imagine), but we were satisfied with our view across Mendenhall Lake in the golden sunset.

Mendenhall Glacier terminus

Mendenhall Glacier terminus


Intrigued by the refractive properties of glacial ice (clear, no air, blue tint)

Intrigued by the refractive properties of glacial ice (clear, no air, blue tint)


Take the picture quickly, this ice is cold!

Hurry! This prop ice is cold!

Tour complete, we returned to downtown Juneau. In an inspired move, we capped off the day with a meal of fresh Alaskan King Crab at the most highly-recommended crab shack in town (literally… Tracy’s Crab Shack is a mere, shed-sized building which sits near the cruise boat ports for high foot-traffic). After dinner, we returned to the hotel with full stomachs and SDHC cards and called it a day.

Fresh Alaskan King Crab is great, but the New England Patriots still suck

Fresh Alaskan King Crab is great, but the New England Patriots still suck

2 Responses to “Day 4: Juneau”

  1. Another beautiful day in Alaska: glaciers, bears, and crab! Bern and I might have to look into this. Great weather for you guys, as well. Enjoying ever day along with you. Pat and Bernie

  2. Matt,
    As a younger man I moved up to Alaska, to bring the oil down from Prudhoe Bay. I made so much money I could’ve bought Nebraska – spent half of it on whiskey, the other half on women, and the other half, well I just threw away — and then became a teacher. Trip looks fabulous. Have fun – hi to mom and dad. Bernie

Leave a Reply