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Excerpts of Alaska Travel Diary
State 25 - ALASKA 21 JUL 99 - 27 JUL 99


(Now a word from our driver . . . Halfway through the trip, it's time for Ken to pen the diary.)

Flight to Juneau. Lost luggage. Buy beer

Flight from Reno to Seattle: See Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier. Yama yama yama

Arrive at Juneau airport about 1:20 PM. Airline loses luggage. All clothes and prepacked lunch are elsewhere. A long delay at the airport. Miss the shuttle to hotel. Take another shuttle. Many phone calls from hotel to airlines provide clues to locate the lost bags. Finally bags are delivered at 6 PM.

Meanwhile we make use of what remains of the afternoon by taking a walking tour of Juneau. Start at the wharf and then head to the Davis Log Cabin Visitor Center, a replica of the first school in Alaska.

Take a quick walk to St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox church. It's too late in the day to get good pictures, so I plan to return another day at an earlier time.

Next we go a few blocks to the capitol, to scope out picture possibilities and plan the best angles, the best sunlight and best time time of day to shoot. The building is in the shadows, and quite overcrowded by other buildings. This will be the most difficult capitol building to shoot yet. It's surrounded by other buildings. A quick scouting shows that the best place to shoot from, if possible, is from the top floor office window of a building across the street. What's the likelihood of getting access to those offices? We'll see what we can do when we come back another day.

Take a walk "up the hill" as they say in Juneau to the Governor's mansion. It's in a nice setting with a commanding view of Juneau's harbor and downtown.

Shop at the A&P, buy beer at the liquor store, and hummus at Rainbow Foods health food store.

Return to the hotel for hummus sandwiches.

Visit the wharf area at night; it doesn't get dark until 10:30 PM.

A Day on Tracy Arm Fjord

Depart from the Juneau pier at 8:30 AM sharp. A bright sunny day. Warm in Juneau, but as we head out of the Gastineau Channel onto Stephens Passage the air became chilly. The shelter of the cabin is more comfortable. Spend a good part of an hour on this leg of the journey speaking with our Captain, Steve. He's been captaining this boat for twenty-two years now and still loves it, although during the tourist season, he has no days off for five months. He is a former high school math teacher from Washington. When his daughter graduated high school, he and his wife (also a former teacher) decided it was a good time to make a change, and came to Alaska. On this boat, there is an abundance of teachers. Five that I met.

Almost two hours at full-throttle brings us to the entrance of the fjord. We start to see some small icebergs. On either side, mountains rise from sea level to heights of 3500 to 7500 feet. Ice and snow crown their caps. The water in this fjord is 9000 feet deep! We see ribbon-like waterfalls streaming down the steep emerald mountain sides. The captain takes us in for a close look at one of them, maneuvering the 56-foot boat to within inches of the shear granite walls, so that curious passengers can touch the walls and put their hands in the spray of the falls. The boat emerges untouched by rock, and some of the more curious are wet, yet wiser.

An iceberg is the next attraction. It's a small one, and with one quick circle of the boat, we're at full-throttle heading down the fjord again. Sightings of soaring eagles in the skies and foraging bears on the shores, momentarily detain and entertain us, as the captain zigzags his course down this waterway. The temperature is distinctly crisper here, as the frequent chilly blast encourages all to button up. Another falls appear. This one is a real gusher. The captain says they unofficially call this "Jack Falls,"named after one of his deckhands, Jack, who wanted to climb to the top of rock outcropping of this falls. Well, the story goes that Jack climbed up the rock slope, with ease, but on the way down the rocks were slippery, and so "Jack Falls." He wasn't hurt, but found the near-freezing water cooled the idea of ever doing that again.

Speeding down the center of the fjord again, the boat makes steady progress. I roam about the foredeck searching the distant shorelines and waterways for new discoveries. All the while I'm warmed by my new wool hat, purchased in Sacramento and snugged securely on my head. But to my dismay, an odd turn and a strong gust of wind blasts it eternally from my crown into the depths of the Tracy Arm Fjord. The captain, my captain, having a front-seat view of this, announces on the loud speaker "Ball caps we just say 'goodbye' to, but that was a darned nice hat, we'll have to go back. Get out the net, Paul." (The deck hands, Paul and Scott, are two University of Utah college students working here for the summer). So as the captain turns the boat in the direction of the floating felt hat, passengers amusingly look on while Paul readies the net, and with a sigh of relief I ready my camera to record the catch of the day. Paul nets the soggy hat, and hands it over to me.

Ice floes on the fjord take many shapes and colors, some white and frosty some, others clear, others shades of turquoise or shocking blue. A pair of sculpted ice swans float by seemingly having escaped a local hotel buffet table. Others are the shapes of sailboats, giant dentures, frosty chiffon topping, and whales' tails. Have fun finding the most absurd characters in the bergs.

Turn after turn, and mile after mile we wind through the fjord. There seems to always be the end of the fjord insight, only to be revealed upon closer approach that the waterway continues at some obtuse angle into yet another long corridor of mountains and even larger icebergs. Finally, when the icebergs get so numerous that the boat can no longer make straight progress, but must zigzag around them, we round the last granite mountain and see South Sawyer Glacier in the distance. It's size is deceiving, because upon closer approach its full size is realized. It must be over 150 tall at the base where its frozen edge meets the water. And from this edge, this river of ice rises at a steep slope miles up the side of the mountain valley. The blue color is unbelievable to those like myself, who have never seen a glacier before. The blue color is due to the lack of air (white ice has more air) and the large mass, which causes a filtering effect that only lets the blue light through.

The glacier is immense, more than a mile across at the base where it meets the water. Immense and blue. We spectators stand statue-like on the boat staring intently at the face of the glacier waiting for some action, waiting for 'white thunder,' waiting for 'calving' of a new berg as the extreme weight and pressure of the glacier pushes another tower of ice into the sea. Minutes pass, finally we have a small payoff as a small hill of ice cascades from its edge and sends up waves and frosty mists. A cheer arises from the boat, shutters click.

Ice floes, a lazy seal, lying on a slab of ice to catch some warm rays from the afternoon sun.

North Sawyer Glacier, more of the same. Windswept rocky ridges, glacial water, more 'white thunder.'

Boat ride back. Talk to other tourists. Someone jokingly says that there's been talk of splitting Alaska into two states, "but Alaskans decided against it, because the Texans couldn't bear being demoted from second largest to the third largest state in America."

Sunny and warm again, back in Juneau.

Hanging around Juneau

Sleep late to recuperate from the previous two days. (The days are long here in summer: 18 hours and 18 minutes of sunshine.)

Juneau is a small city. You can walk around the downtown area in ten minutes. But that doesn't mean it lacks in attractions. There's the expected art galleries, jewelry shops, souvenir shops, restaurants serving local fare, and a few fast food places. If you want rustic watering holes walk up and down Franklin Street. For cuisine with a view there's the wharf area a block or two away. Directions to any place in Juneau is always, "up the hill." To locals this makes sense since they know where the place in question is and everything is indeed "up" the side of the mountain from the water's edge, but to us visitors we still don't know whether that means to the right or to the left. I learn that sometimes "up the hill" means up three blocks and over one. For more accuracy, I rely on the city map. Soon Juneau's dozen streets and landmarks are committed to memory.

Visit the National Forest Service office, see a movie, review exhibits and literature. Nervous fidgety guy keeps tapping his fingers on the counter right next to me as I try to ask the attendant questions about the local trails.

Take pictures of the capitol. The most difficult capitol building to shoot yet. It's a plain office looking building, surrounded by other buildings across the street. It's best scenic asset is that it's on a corner of an inclined street, and that massive Mount Juneau looms behind it. After getting only poor pictures from the odd angles available at street level and from various staircases, I try my luck in finding a vantage point in a state building located diagonally from the capitol. To my delight there is no security, and the top floor has an empty conference room with windows overlooking the capitol. Extending my camera out the window at arms length I am able to get a clear shot.

Now, I am ready to tour the interior of the capitol. Next tour in 25 minutes. Well after a 40-minute wait, no tour guide has yet shown up. Decide a self-guided tour is better. It's an ordinary looking building, with some minor architectural elements worth a quick look. A few of the chambers and meeting rooms have been restored. More interesting are some historic black and white photographs hung on the walls of the upper floors.

Next revisit St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox church.

Grab a salad from the Rainbow health food store.

Tour the wharf area. Get an ice cream.

Ride City bus to Mendenhall Glacier

Wake up call at 5:30, prepare for the day's trip to Mendenhall Glacier.

Upload today's postcard with disasterous affects. It seems that all of our internet services decide to go haywire at once. Several days of trouble shooting are required to untangle the problem.

Catch the 9:05 city bus to Mendenhall. Lots of locals taking the morning bus to work or shopping. Many seem to know each other. Bus buzzes with town gossip. Ride past ordinary small ranch homes in neighborhoods. At one stop a troop of boy scouts, scout masters and fathers boards. Looks like they're going to the Glacier. The city bus doesn't go all the way to the Mendenhall Visitor Center. Instead, it drops you off at the access road, and then it's a mile walk. (A more expensive tour bus will take you all the way to the Visitor Center, but then you must keep your visit short in order to catch the tour bus back to town.The city bus is cheaper, more flexible -- and you get to eavesdrop on local politics.) Arrive at Mendenhall. Passengers unload -- boy scouts, scoutmasters and dads -- 17 scouts; 10 fathers. This is the reward for each boys having sold $1000 worth of mulch. They've been saving for two years. A nice bunch of troopers from Nashville Tennessee.

The Visitors Center has a good 15-minute film about the glacier and related scientific studies. The exhibits provide a good idea of what a glacier is, and how it functions. They offer no food facilities, so pack a lunch.

Several trails promise good views. We take the east glacier trail, which winds up the mountainside and offers panoramic views of the valley, Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall Glacier. Most people we meet on the trail are either Californians or Washingtonians. The trail forks up a creek to a waterfall. Didn't do that. Instead continued on the loop trail that returns via the dense forest where you can see the beauty of the ferns, wildflowers and trees. There are some more spectacular vistas along this trail.

Ride the city bus back to town with fellow hikers: two women and a couple from Australia.

Hummus sandwiches for dinner again.

Another day, another trail

Today, we're hiking Perseverance Trail, one of the trails that begins just "up the hill" from downtown Juneau. The Basin Road climbs through the valley to the official trail head, about a mile down the road. Perseverance Trail follows the old mining road and passes old mining tunnels and ruins. At some points it offers a nice panoramic of the valley. Meet families and small groups out for a hike on this overcast day. Perfect weather for hiking. About two miles along the trail, brings us to Ebner Falls. The vantage point below the falls is spectacular since the full force of the water and mist can be experienced. The constant mist has enabled the surrounding rocks and cliffs to become overgrown with vegetation.

Hike a little farther up the trail before returning to town. On the way back down, meet a 60'ish Juneau couple who tell us about the trail and invite us to a choral recital later this evening. We decline because of planned tourists activities.

Tossed out of the Alaskan Hotel

An unexpected event has taken place while we were enjoying today's hike. Returning to the hotel, it's discovered that all our things have been removed by the maid. (Well everything except for a shelf of toiletries and a draw of computer cables -- guess the maid isn't too thorough). Like Superman in a time of crisis, I bound down from the third floor room to the front desk and demand an explanation. "What happened to my stuff? My room is empty!" My investigation is met by a dull, vacant expression from the woman behind the desk. "We have you scheduled to check out today, so the maid put your stuff in the back."

Me: What? You just take it upon yourself to pack up my computer, cameras and clothes?

Her: Sorry, we've got somebody checking into that room tonight.

Me: Not THAT room. I've got it. You made a mistake. I'm checking out tomorrow morning.

The woman calls for help. "Help" arrives on the scene.

Help: Sorry. Our computer says we've got somebody else coming in tonight. As a matter of fact the hotel is booked.

Me: Well, the hotel made a mistake when they recorded my reservations. There should have been no misunderstanding because I inquired specifically about the Sunday morning shuttle to the airport and expressed my concerns that I have accurate information about that service's availability at 5:30 AM on a Sunday morning. I'm here and I'm not leaving until tomorrow.

Help is frozen by the apparent impossibility of finding an extra room in hotel that's full up. Yet I'm an immovable object in front of his desk.

Help: The person that took your reservation, was fired last week. She probably didn't enter it correctly in the computer. What do you want me to do, call her back in to punish her?

Me: This isn't a matter of punishing anyone, much less your guests. It's a matter of the hotel booking a reservation and honoring it.

Help, finally: I'll see if I can get you another room. It won't have a kitchenette, though.

Me: No. I booked a room with a kitchenette and that's what I want. Move the NEW guests into another room.

Help: Why don't you go into the bar while I work this out? (I still don't budge.)

Then Help calls in Jabba-like Management who grunts one or two words as he pecks at the computer.

Jabba-Man.: Uhh. Uhh.

Finally after 30 minutes of demanding to be reinstated to the same or equivalent room, they say it's OK to stay in the same room and to claim the luggage from the back.

Upon claiming the baggage which had been stowed in the back room, I find that my computers and camera equipment had been carelessly thrown about. No apparent damage, but a very frustrating mess to sort out. They had also thrown out our refrigerator of food -- items intended for dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow.

Amends are made by offering tonight's lodging free and $20 bucks towards dinner. This is hardly amends for consuming the last afternoon in Alaska, which ruined plans of visiting the State Museum and shopping at the stores which are now closed. And $20 won't even cover breakfast in Juneau, never mind dinner. But, it's their only offer.

Although the hotel staff strives to portray a hip image, their klutzy handling of guests suggests they could use a degree in Hotel Management. Messing with a guest's personal belongings seems a bit unorthodox.

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