Don’t drive to explore Alaska’s capital city, Juneau. Who needs roads when you can walk on a glacier, helicopter over valleys and waterways carved out by glaciers, and watch salmon return home? Visitors can even ride a tramway up the mountain.
Forty miles from downtown expands the mighty Tongass National Forest — 17 million acres in all. That’s where the road ends; all you can do is turn around.
Small Ship Cruise in Alaska
Alaskans make the most of every inch and every splash of sunshine, so I learned in Juneau before getting on the Island Spirit, a small, personable ship exploring southeast Alaska waters.
This is a temperate rainforest city with 100 inches of annual rain. Cold air from the Juneau Icefield meeting warmer air from Gastineau Channel hands out beautiful dewy complexions along with lots of light showers.
To act like a local, leave the umbrella at home. These people pull up a hood and shrug it off.
They also use flowers to forecast the winter. Handsome tall blooms called fireweed. Blossoms start low and move up to the top of slender stalks.
Tip-top blooms mean winter is next. Dozens bloom around secluded rental cottages at AK Fireweed House where I was a guest.
Glacier Colors Penetrating
Mendenhall is the glacier 15 minutes from downtown Juneau with an ice field on top and fresh water lake below — living, breathing, melting, moving.
Kayakers in Mendenhall Lake looked the size of a pinprick. I didn’t paddle, but hiked a short trail in the National Forest Service recreation area.
Colors are as curious as depth and distance in Alaska’s icy expanses.
Penetrating blue icebergs and crevasses mean ice is dense, packed and pressed in Juneau by 150 feet of snowfall each year, absorbing all the color of light except blue.
White ice means cracks created air pockets, then fractures scatter the light spectrum.
Grayish comes into play too, because flowing glaciers grind their ice, creating dusty powder.
Helicopter to Icefield
Juneau comes with an icefield, not routine the other places I go, so I felt compelled to splurge and booked a helicopter ride to the top.
Looks like ribbon candy from above, dense and frozen.
Remarkable contrast can be seen from the helicopter window: blue/brown water of the Gastineau and Taku rivers different from the aqua of the ocean, green bog-like marshes next to startling blue glacial ice, white air-pocket ice and gray/brown powders of grinding sliding ice.
View changed when we landed on Norris Glacier, climbed out and I promptly fell down. Slippery on that Juneau Icefield.
Waterfalls in every direction and a stretching-forever horizon, a profound sense of isolation.
In the streams and rivers, eons of time repeat themselves when the salmon run.
I saw king salmon fight their way up a short, fast-rushing waterfall. They knew the way to their birthplace and that’s where they intended to their offspring to start life.
Imprinting birthplace waters this phenomenon is called, and at Juneau’s Macaulay Salmon Hatchery I learned why scientists say with confidence salmon return to their starting places.
They code the ears of newly born salmon fry by changing water temperature. Just a bit creates a specific marking, checked when salmon return.
Tramway to the Top
Stand in the tramcar named Raven to ride 1,800 feet to the top of Mount Roberts.
Dinner is available and so are hiking, admiring Tlingit art and watching the 18-minute docudrama “Seeing Daylight,” a Tlingit legend about the source of light.
Wheelchair accessible and one-mile loop trails at the top too.
Down below, Juneau has normal city experiences: fine history museums, state capitol tours, restaurants, shops, art galleries and heritage centers. Walking tours provide detailed brochure guides.