Alaska's Capital City is a Beautiful and Unique Place
Juneau, the capital of Alaska, is probably the most scenic capital in the United States. It is often referred to as a 'little San Francisco.' The city center, which hugs the side of Mt. Juneau and Mt. Roberts, has many narrow streets running past a mixture of new structures, old storefronts and slanted houses, all held together by a network of staircases. The bustling waterfront features cruise ships, tankers, fishing boats, a few kayakers and floatplanes buzzing in and out. Overhead are the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Roberts and Mt. Juneau, which provide just a small part of the superb hiking the area is known for.
The area of Juneau is larger than that of Rhode Island and Delaware individually and almost as large as the two states combined. Juneau, with an estimated population of 30,988, is named after gold prospector Joe Juneau. The town was for a time called Rockwell and then Harrisburg (after Juneau's co-prospector, Richard Harris). Downtown Juneau sits at sea level, with tides averaging 16 feet, below steep mountains about 3,500 feet to 4,000 feet high. Atop these mountains is the Juneau Icefield, a large ice mass from which about 30 glaciers flow; two of these, the Mendenhall Glacier and the Lemon Creek Glacier, are visible from the local road system. The Mendenhall glacier has been generally retreating and its front face is declining both in width and height.
As Reginald and I left the ship after it docked in Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier was foremost in my thoughts. I had booked an excursion called "Mendenhall Glacier and Salmon Bake" which promised a visit to the glacier, a tour of a salmon hatchery and a late lunch at a outdoor facility where we would experience a real Salmon Bake meal. We boarded the tour bus with other passengers and found ourselves treated to an impromptu concert by our bus driver who played a small guitar and sang to us prior to driving away from the dock. Needless to say, that put everyone in a very good mood.
After a short tour of the town, we pulled up to the park area near Mendenhall Glacier. Mendenhall Glacier is a glacier about 12 miles long located in Mendenhall Valley, about 12 miles from downtown Juneau. The United States Forest Service administers the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center as part of Tongass National Forest. Forest interpreters offer conservation education programs throughout the year for children and adults. It is the only visitor center in the United States within a half mile of a terminal glacier that calves icebergs into a lake. The center is open year-round and receives close to 500,000 visitors each year, many coming by cruise ship in summer.
Walking up to the Visitor Center from the parking area I was amazed to see the huge glacier right in front of us. It was truly an awesome sight! The day had started out overcast and chilly with a little drizzle of rain here and there, but that did not dampen my spirits at all, getting so close to a natural wonder that I had only seen before in photos. Reginald and I walked down to the edge of the glacier and a fellow cruise passenger took our photo with the glacier behind us. It is one of my favorite photos to this day.
Reggie & Me
The Visitors Center was full of information about the glacier and Alaska in general. We walked through the exhibits and stopped by the souvenir shop to buy some postcards on the way out. As we headed toward the parking lot, we stopped to listen to a Park Ranger give a short lecture on the glacier to a group of visitors before we rejoined out tour group and left the park for our next stop.
Mendenhall Glacier Visitor's Center
Our next stop was the Salmon Hatchery. The hatchery, was designed to allow visitors to watch the whole process of harvesting and fertilizing eggs from outdoor decks. From mid-June to October, salmon swim up a 450-foot fish ladder, visible through a window, into a sorting mechanism, then are "unzipped" by workers who remove the eggs. Guides and exhibits explained to us what happens. Inside the hatchery building, large saltwater aquariums showed us the area's marine life as it looks in the natural environment. After the tour, I bought some canned salmon made by the hatchery, along with some fresh salmon dip to snack on back at the ship later on.
Leaving the hatchery, our tour took us to the Salmon Bake for lunch. I was good and hungry by then and this meal was well worth the wait! We arrived at a beautiful setting, in a lush rain forest alongside a creek. There were translucent domes set up to protect you from the elements. The rain had stopped by then, but it was nice to be covered in case it returned. I could smell the aroma of wild salmon grilling over a wood fire as we joined a line of diners waiting to get a cup of homemade clam chowder. We found a table and then went to the buffet that had a sumptuous spread of grilled salmon, Cheechako Chicken, Chilkoot Baked Beans, Tongass Wild-Rice Pilaf, White Pass Pasta and a large selection of other sides, salads and beverages. Beer and wine were available for purchase. We helped ourselves to the buffet more than once as a local musician played music while we ate. It was a grand and delicious meal in a wonderful setting.
Juneau Salmon Bake
Salmon Bake dining area
Excellent grilled Salmon, YUM!
Feeling stuffed from a fantastic lunch, Reginald and I chose to be dropped off in town on the way back to the ship to walk off some of the meal. We wandered down the narrow streets and stopped at the Red Dog Saloon to buy a tote bag to haul all of our goodies. We found some great Alaska T-Shirts in a small shop and then walked back to the cruise ship pier to board the Diamond Princess. It had be a fabulous day in Juneau! I got up close and personal with a glacier, gained insight into raising and harvesting salmon and had a great lunch to boot! Who could ask for more than that!
Downtown Juneau, Alaska
Next up, cruising Glacier Bay and College Fjord. To be continued......
Gerrilyn Grant Gipson Esq.
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