We opened the motel door to snow the first morning. Nevertheless, we decided to start our exploration with the Mendenhall Glacier.
The Forest service's visitor center overlooks Mendenhall Lake, where blue icebergs rest on the bottom, slowly melting. The glacier itself is huge, and the hundreds of years old ice is dirty. A bus from the year's first cruise ship had just arrived; the guests were trying to ignore the snow and still boast about what a great deal they got by cruising early. A few were unhappy that the trip to the glacier's surface by helicopter was cancelled because of the weather. Juneau as seen from Douglas
The video told the story of the formation of the glacier -- there are dozens of glaciers slowly flowing down hill from a massive ice field just east of Juneau -- and its recreational and scientific uses.
We drove to one end of the coastal road, then the other. There are no roads to speak of going inland because of the mountains and glaciers. Houses are strung along the highway, getting thinner the further away from downtown. The older homes have a haphazard amateurish construction and maintenance policy. The pattern seems to be a full-size four-wheel-drive pickup towing a fishing boat for the men, and a small cheap sedan for the women. Along the roads are boat ramps, and out in the Gastineau Strait are men fishing. Sport fishing is very good this year, a man in a restaurant told us.
The best part of the drive was the birdwatching. There are 18,000 bald eagles in Southeast Alaska; occasionally they can be seen by the hundreds. Today we never saw a group of more than ten. But our biggest fascination was for our new friends, the surf scoters. These are salt-water ducks that congregate by the hundreds in the strait -- forming long black ripple lines of duck bodies from shore to shore. We put the binoculars on them and watched as first one, then ten, then a hundred would dive. About a minute later they began popping up, a few with fish in their beaks. The males have black and white heads with a bright orange bill, and make a whistling sound with their wings when flying.
Today Juneau's biggest industries are government and tourism. The five-block shopping area just next to the cruise ship dock looks like a miniature Rodeo Drive, albeit with an Alaska touch. As we drove through the cruisers were happily returning to the Norwegian Lines' North Wind with full shopping bags, wearing the little plastic ponchos provided by the ship for those who forgot their rain gear. The aerial tramway was alas! closed due to weather, which was a mix of mostly light rain, with some snow and tiny hail.
A few streets bravely climb the steep slopes of the hills, but most of the town is built next to the strait, on what we later learned to be fill from the town's old gold mines. The Case of the Missing Sausage
The next day we drove across the Channel to Douglas, which once competed with Juneau for biggest gold mine (both are now closed.) The views along the shore of the strait were basically the same, but we did find a road to a small ski area, where a few diehard spring skiers and snowboarders had rigged up a small jump for practice.
We went to the small, friendly Juneau / Douglas museum, which had a fine collection of old stuff and a very good video. Secretary of State Seward bought Alaska from the Russians in 1869; there wasn't much Russian settlement, and little American interest either until gold was discovered by Messrs. Juneau and Harris in 1880. Then all hell broke loose! It was a typical gold rush town; the saloonkeepers, bankers and store owners got to keep the miners' profits. Tourists started coming early, to see the glaciers, the scenery, the wildlife, and the gold.
When the prospectors moved inland to the Klondike, Juneau remained a hard rock gold-mining town, with what were then the world's largest stamp and roller mills. The miners brought the virtues and vices of rugged individualism, which were passed on to their sons who developed the Alaska fisheries and their grandsons who built the pipeline. But today our largest state has less than half a million residents, and Juneau won't get much bigger on tourism alone.
Generally speaking, the native Americans and orientals were treated badly, although women received the franchise relatively early. Today the population appears well-integrated, with the descendants of Tlingit and Haida tribes fully Americanized.
For lunch we found a small restaurant which reminded us of all of the college restaurants of our past -- they make their own breads, show old movies on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and are generally very relaxed. We chatted with a local couple who gave us some travel tips and encouragement -- the weather is sure to brighten up eventually!
Later this afternoon we went shopping and watched in amazement as a group of about twenty ravens found an unprotected grocery bag in the back of a pickup and tore it open to get at a package of meat -- it looked like little sausages. When one of them pulled out a piece of meat the others immediately began to steal it away! When there was no more meat they remained around the truck, wishing for more. Mendenhall Glacier
We walked through the tourist shopping district -- lots of stores designed to catch the cruise ship passengers. They are rushing to complete some road improvements and park projects before the season gets into full swing. At the end of the street there were a few Sunday morning bars full of clientele, and a few wobblers on the street. Or was it a very late Saturday night? We checked things out at the tourist kiosk and discovered that we'd seen about all there is to see, except for the State Museum. The newly released summer literature told us it would be open on Sunday, but in fact that will start next Sunday. Too bad.
We did return to the glacier the last morning, and were glad we saw it in the sunshine. A couple of men had launched kayaks in Mendenhall Lake and were paddling up close for a good view.
It occurs to us that Juneau, Alaska, is rather like Ridgecrest, California. Both have around 25,000 people in the metropolitan area; both are dependent on government for survival (in Ridgecrest, it's the Navy, in Juneau, the state capitol); both are geographically isolated; both are jumping-off points for wilderness destinations. Communities like these tend to turn inward, with lots of local organizations and activities.