August 11, 2012

Juneau and Ketchikan both squat at the bottom of very steep, verdant mountains, with the sea licking at their toes. We were up by 5:30 in the morning, (which might sound heroic but our bodies were still remembering that Oklahoma is three hours ahead.) The ship nosed its mammoth bow to the dock and the shore crew began preparing to lower the gangplank. 

     We went to breakfast, stuffing ourselves for a long, luscious day of sightseeing and wanting to blend in with the Eskimos. There was a distinct shortage of whale blubber on board the Diamond Princess, so we made do with eggs benedict, bacon, sausage and ham, six varieties of fruit, pastries with fruit or chocolate filling and curried eggs. We decided to hold off on the cereals and non-American traditional breakfast offerings. We had NON-FAT  yogurt for dessert. (Yes, the irony that the ship offered only non-fat yogurt on board was NOT lost on us would-be Eskimos.)  Tricia settled for wafer-sliced smoked salmon and croissants.

We heard from our tour guide that he would meet us at the dock a little before nine, but since we were ready to go, we disembarked around 8:30, our backpacks loaded. One of the tour bus drivers, a cute little blonde girl who looked about 16, waved to us as she drove by. Alaskans sure are friendly! 

While we waited, I stepped into a gift shop right there on the dock and bought some jade jewelry and some hematite.  I really like the ultra polished black hematite. It seems so exotic and sophisticated. The idea that it’s “Alaskan diamonds”, as the shopping brochure suggested, is taking it a bit far. It might be compressed coal and turn into diamonds in a million years, but for now, it’s apparently fairly abundant and very shiny.

Finally we spotted our tour guide. He welcomed us all with warm hugs. He’s excessively handsome and charming with just enough scraggly beard to seem rugged. He wore dark rimmed glasses, which reinforced that fact that he was extremely knowledgeable. He seated us comfortably at the back of his coach, assuring us that those were the VIP seats.  As the 36 other tourists from our ship climbed aboard, he stood by the door welcoming each of them and answering any questions they had.

When all thirty six other passengers were aboard, he introduced himself and then told them that they were unwittingly honored to have us with them on the tour. They all turned and smiled at us as we basked in the glory of being so darn important.

As we set out, we were quickly engaged in the fascinating narration the guide offered as he drove.  He pointed out the different types of trees growing on the mountainside, (conifers higher, deciduous lower) because the glacier had scrubbed off all the old conifers and when it receded, the deciduous were the first to come back.  He told the history of the Roberts gold mine as we passed and then explained how a tunnel under the bay had yielded abundant gold and never leaked a bit until in one day, it filled with water, never to be used again.

He pointed out the bald eagles fishing in the shallows of the delta and explained the geology of why the island across the way was no longer an island. It seems that the tremendous weight of the glacier made a dent in the earth .  200 years ago, the channel was deep enough for “a steamship to float through” as had been written in earlier explorers’ journals, but as the glacier receded and relieved the elastic earth of its weight, the ground sprang back. The rebound is about an inch a year.  Coupled with the dark glacial flour(stone ground as fine as cornstarch by the glacier) that the streams dump into the bay, a low-tide land bridge has developed.

We turned off the highway that led along the sea, toward the Mendenhall glacier.  The guide explained that the only agriculture in the area had been to our right. It was a dairy farm, since milk products were spoiled before they could be shipped to Juneau in the old days. But a mammoth mud slide obliterated the farm and killed all the cows. Milk, once again, became exceedingly expensive. 

Our guide’s name tag appropriately read “Brain”. He warned us when we were about to catch a glimpse of the Glacier and was reward with an audible ‘OOOOOOOOOOHHHH’  as it came into view.  Who knew that glaciers are BLUE? 

Since our guide knew everything, he soon explained that it’s blue because of the extreme density of the ice that it absorbs all the other light wavelengths, but reflects the blue back because it’s the shortest wavelength.

Here’s a picture with our fabulous tour guide and the same darling little bus driver that waved at us.   For those of you who think they looked familiar, yes indeed, “Brain” is our son Brian who, with his cute, witty, little wife Kelsi, is spending the summer guiding tours around Juneau, Alaska.

Kelsi’s tour happened to overlap ours a little, so we got to see her for a little while at Mendenhall Glacier. She was driving a tour from another ship that spoke only Yiddish so she was strictly a bus driver that day.

After the group reassembled at the bus, Brian drove us to the Glacier Gardens.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  The odd gardens-in-a-tree were conceived when the gardener busted his rented backhoe and in frustration, flung a tree from his shovel. It landed upside-down in the mud. The areal root system arrested his artistic eye, and the sky-gardens were born.

At the gardens, I was introduced to the Alaskan delicacy of blueberry flavored hot cocoa.  I understand that this time of year, when the earth is baking under 100 degree scorch, the thought of hot cocoa doesn’t float your boat.  But though it wasn’t raining, the air temps were in the low 60’s at the highest and the hot, rich blueberry infused cocoa was beyond delicious.  (And remember that we had been away from our feeding trough on board for at least four hours by then!)

Though Brian had carried many tours to the gardens, the gardens’ own guide drove the electric carts up the steep, narrow, winding road to the top of the property where the view overlooked the bay and bits of the town below. Because we were along, the Glacial Gardens allowed him to take the tour with us.  

From there, we went to the “fishery” where they operate a hybrid version of a trout hatchery.  There’s a natural stream that runs into the bay there, and the salmon come up the stream, into the ladder (shown below) and into the hatchery holding ponds of their own accord.  The hatchery then cuts them open for their eggs and sperm, and then sells them to a fish-smoking plant, (which is just as uncommon as a plant smoking fish) (pardon the pun) or to a salmon cannery or to a dog food factory.

 The whole system is quite ingenious, I think.  The salmon are ready to spawn, but they begin to deteriorate as soon as they enter the fresh water. They fight their way upstream until they arrive in the pool where they hatched. The females lay their eggs on the bottom and the males swim over and release sperm.  It’s not very romantic, except  for the fact that as soon as they have accomplished the purpose of their trip, they die. So, by creating a place near the ocean for the fish to return to while they’re still in good condition after fattening themselves free of charge in the sea, the hatchery reaps the benefit of their lifecycle with very little cost.  The hatchery was also set up with a bunch of live displays of native fish in huge tanks. We also sampled teriyaki salmon jerky which tastes good until you swallow and then it just tastes salmon-y in your mouth until you replace it.  If you like salmon, it’s GREAT!  Unfortunately, I don’t fit into that group.

We had planned to borrow a van from Brian’s tour company, but there were  none available. So we went to the rent-a-wreck place almost next door, but they apparently only man that lot when the ships first come in, and there was nobody there. 

Brian called Kelsi, (who had finished conveying the Yiddish-speaking folks through town and received not ONE dime in tips,) and she picked us up in their SWEET truck.  It’s a custom vehicle, with unique cracks in the windshield,
 and a  skylight cut through the roof and a window glued in with about a quart of roofing cement.  The clutch seemed very happy-go-lucky.  (We were happy and lucky to make it go?) But the spacious bed allowed us Okies with an unimpeded view Facinating Juneau. Two of us piled in the front with the driver. Brian realized that there was no way for him to shift the floor-mounted gear without getting rather personal with his mother sitting beside him, he relinquished the wheel into Kelsi’s expert hands.

Brian and Kelsi live in a half a house they pay $700 a month for.  The other half is boarded up and there are trees growing through the floorboards. The whole structure seemed to rock more than the ship on open ocean.  But they have rusty wolf traps and a deer skull and antlers they found in the woods hung artistically on the walls for decoration. A ragged buffet cart is draped with a  beautiful sunset-toned scarf Kelsi rescued from a garbage can after she saw someone throw it away. Later in our trip, I saw a very similar scarf for sale in a nice shop. It was hand painted by Tlingit artisans.  They wanted $59 for it, I think.

We enjoyed the sandwiches we’d packed, ordered from roomservice the night before.  Unfortunately, they had not come wrapped, so we had stuffed them into odd tourist bags. Us cruisers didn’t touch the fruit we’d carried to our loved ones.  Food is VERY expensive everywhere in AK and our poor student/tourguides were hungry for fresh fruit.

After lunch, they took us on a fun hike behind the glacier to an old, abandoned gold mine.

Brian and Kelsi consider an update for their house.
Once down from the mine, they took us to a stream near the bay where the salmon were running.  Brian and Kelsi set the astonishing example of pulling giant salmon out of the water by their tales!  We quickly joined in, except for Tricia, who didn’t comprehend the transcendent delight of catching salmon barehanded.
Kelsi wrestled a huge salmon out of the melee and I wanted her to hold it so I could show the vicious spawning teeth. As she wrestled with the salmon, the poor fish got the wrong idea and spawned all over Kesli. “Those of us who are about to die, salute you!” He was way to frisky for a good picture, and he probably weighed about 8 pounds.

It was getting late and we were all hungry, but we hated to leave earlier than we needed to when it was our only day with Brian and Kelsi. We bought them some supper downtown and they toured us to their favorite shops, (namely the authentic native Tlingit arts shop.) If you have a spare $50,000, you can own a genuine wooly mammoth tusk. 

We saw the state capitol building, justly voted the ugliest capitol building in the US. We saw the governor’s mansion, recently renovated at great cost.  Sarah Palin lived in it very little which inspired a law that the governor of Alaska must reside in the mansion for a certain minimum period each year. 

Though it was after seven when we headed for the ship, it was so tough to leave our darling kids. Though we had many more fabulous adventures, that day was the highlight of the whole trip.

Alaska is so wild, untamed and unexplored, hiding treasure and wildlife, oil and abundant, vivid life, that that pair of dear ones seem to fit as natural parts.

We moved from So. California to the outskirts of Colorado Springs, CO when Brian was a kindergartener. We went from 1400 square feet on a quarter acre to 3600 square feet on an acre of pine and meadow.  One day in that first week, I sat on the covered porch,  watching Brian climb a tree, reminding myself to breathe.  I have the idea that most children can sense their own safety and barring unknown factors, they can judge what they’re capable of.  He was about 50 feet up when Jeff came home from work. I pointed out the “little red squirrel” in the top of the tree.  Jeff nearly fainted. 

“I can see Pikes Peak!” Brian yelled. 

Now in Alaska, he’s found the birthing ground for mountains.  If I were to write a new creation story, I would have life flowing like the glacial ice from Alaska to the rest of the world where it smooths and warms.  I’ve seen parts of several other countries around the world and all but (now) three of the United States, but nothing has gotten into my dreams like Alaska has. Every night since we got home 8 days ago, I dream of Alaska. I’m not encountering wildlife in my dreams, (we did plenty of that in our waking hours,) but the untamed, vibrant scenery influences my sleep. I don’t understand it intellectually, but I feel it on an essential level.

The day after Juneau was spent at sea, watching whales, in the cold, gray sea and sipping hot cocoa offered from white-uniformed waiters.  More later!       

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