Day 4: Juneau
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.
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 cafÃƒÂ© 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.