Wilderness Explorer Alaskan cruise Summer 2012 – pre cruise in Juneau

The Mendenhall Glacier is a top attraction in Juneau.

When I left Indianapolis, the temperature was 103 degrees. When my plane landed in Juneau, the weather was 56. What a difference a flight makes.

I am in Juneau to board the Wilderness Explorer for an eight-day cruise into the Alaskan wilderness. Our trip will take us through Alaska’s Northern Passages and Glacier Bay, ending up in Sitka.

Since it is my first time in Alaska, I chose to spend an extra day in Juneau before my cruise started and an extra day in Sitka once the cruise ended. With the way flights can be delayed or canceled, it is always good to arrive in a cruise port a day before the ship cruises.

What to do in only 24 hours in the glacier-backed state capital of Juneau? Contacting Elizabeth Arnett at the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau, I quickly had a brief itinerary for some of Juneau’s top spots.

The city itself was founded as a gold mining camp in 1880 by two prospectors – Richard Harris and Joe Juneau. It became Alaska territorial capital in 1900, home of the Legislature in 1912, and Alaska state capital in 1959 upon statehood. It now has a population of about 31,000.

“Our No. 1 attraction is Mendenhall Glacier,” Elizabeth said. And I soon discovered why.

Located about 13 miles north of downtown Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier is a massive 1.5-mile glacier calving (when a mass of ice breaks away from a glacier) into its own lake.

Mendenhall Glacier is one of 38 major glaciers produced from the Juneau Icefield, a massive 1,500-square-mile area that sits atop the mountains behind the city of Juneau.  The glacier did calve on the day I was there.

At the Mendenhall Glacier, the US Forest Service operates a visitor center which was dedicated in 1962 – the oldest visitor center in the national system. “A lot of people have seen this on TV but they want to come here and see the real thing,” said park ranger Laurie Craig. “When they do, their jaws drop.”

In fact, Laurie added, “Visiting Alaska is No. 1 on most people’s bucket list.”

With its easy access and friendly forest rangers, Mendenhall Glacier is an excellent place to learn about glaciers and answer questions that people typically have about the mysterious massive blankets of ice.

“One of the most-asked questions that we get is why the ice on glaciers is blue?” Elizabeth said. Glacial ice appears blue because it absorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum except blue. “That’s the color that it transmits.  Your eye sees that blue wavelength which gives glacial ice its blue appearance.”

Glaciers are important to the world’s healthy environment and scientists keep careful watch on the movement of the ice masses. Most glaciers in Alaska are retreating at an amazing rate.  To illustrate that huge change, the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center has a big map that traces the glacier’s path over several centuries. The distance it has retreated is striking.

The Mount Roberts Tramway offers scenic views of Juneau.

In the mid 1700s, the Mendenhall Glacier reached its point of maximum advance. Then it began retreating. Today, the edge of the ice rests almost 2.5 miles up valley from where it was in the mid 1700s.

Along with the eye-catching glacier, the site also has a salmon stream running through the visitor center property. “Right now the salmon are running so black bears and their cubs are coming to the stream for the fish,” Elizabeth said.

To learn more about salmon, we headed down the road to Macaulay Salmon Hatchery where wild salmon are returning to spawn. At the hatchery, eggs are collected from the female salmon and milt from the male. Once the eggs are fertilized, they are rinsed and gently placed into incubation trays. Each tray can hold up to 180,00 eggs. A constant flow of fresh water supplies oxygen to the trays and removes any excess wastes.

About six months after fertilization, the small fry are moved to rearing pens where they spend nine to 12 weeks memorizing the unique characteristics of their surroundings. That way, the baby salmon will return to the hatchery when they are fully grown adult salmon.

“Once released, the salmon spend two or five years cruising the waters of the Pacific Ocean,” said tourism supervisor Crystal Bourland. “Then they return to their birthplace when ready to spawn and the process starts all over again.”

For a good overall view of Juneau, I climbed aboard the Mount Roberts Tramway in the downtown dock area and rode in the enclosed gondola to the 1,800-foot level of Mountain Roberts. It’s interesting to note that the tramway is operated by Goldbelt Incorporated, Juneau’s urban Alaska Native Corporation, which is owned by 3,300 Alaska Native shareholders.

For an introduction to the Tlingit Alaska Native way of life, I settled in the 120-seat Chilkat Theater for the award-winning, 18-minute docudrama “Seeing Daylight.” The movie is free for tramway ticket holders. If you’re looking for Tlingit jewelry, artwork and other gifts, shop at Raven-Eagle Gifts. For dining with a view, check out the Timberline Bar & Grill, which offers Alaskan specialties, including all-you-can-eat crab in season.

Lady Baltimore is a permanent resident atop Mount Roberts Tramway since she was shot in the beak.

Mount Roberts also has well-marked trails for every level of hiking ability, including a wheelchair accessible trail and a one-mile loop with interpretive signs and traditional living-tree totem carvings.  The Juneau Raptor Center is home to Lady Baltimore, a bald eagle that was rescued after being shot through the beak.

For my night in Juneau, I stayed at the Juneau Super 8 Motel, which is clean and comfortable and offers a major bonus that I always seek in lodging – free fast Wi-Fi. The motel also features a complimentary continental breakfast to start the day and a free shuttle to the airport or downtown port.

Another popular place to stay is the Silverbow Inn in the downtown historic district, two blocks from the waterfront. Owned by young couple, Jill Ramiel and Ken Alper, the Silverbow is a charming six-room boutique hotel in a newly remodeled 1914 building. A hot tub on the inn roof would be a lovely place to watch the sunset. Gus Messerschmidt, the original owner, is rumored to maintain a friendly haunting presence to watch over his beloved building.

The Silverbow also has a bakery and a café where I munched on a traditional New York bagel and a super moist, huge iced molasses cookie. On the lower level of the bakery shelves, I saw a little basket filled with free doggie biscuits. Definitely my kind of place.

For more information: Contact the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau at (888) 581-2201, www.traveljuneau.com.

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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