In the Lower 48, residents can drive to their state capital, but in Alaska, the only way to get to Juneau is to fly or take a boat. We booked a day tour to the Alaskan capital with Alaska Fjordlines aboard Alaska Fjordland, a 65-foot, fast-hulled catamaran specially designed for the waters of Lynn Canal.
Lynn Canal is North America’s longest and deepest glacial fjord, stretching over 100 miles in length and plunging 2,000 feet deep. The fjord’s steep slopes rise from a forested shoreline to snowcapped peaks. Along the mountainsides, waterfalls spill into the canal, some in pencil-like streams and others a tumble of white water gushing off ledges.
On the day of our tour, which originated in Skagway, the Lynn Canal and surrounding mountains were under a clear blue roof. Sunshine glistened on the still, deep water and warmed the Fjordland’s passengers.
Our captain provided a knowledgeable narrative about the scenery and wildlife, stopping the boat for whale watching. We saw numerous humpback whales breach, blow, and then sound. We learned that a breach describes the arch of their bodies above the water. Whales plunge into the water headfirst and blow out water through a spout. When they dive deep for food, their tails come up. The captain called that position “sounding.”
We were awed by the up-close encounter with the magnificent animals. I questioned the captain about their close proximity to the shoreline. He said, “The whales easily trap their prey next to the rocks. Mostly, they feed on needlefish and herring.”
The captain shut off the catamaran’s motor at a stellar sea lion rookery. The sea lions hauled their bell-bottomed bodies out on the rocks, and piled themselves in heaps to sun. Some slept, but others noisily barked. The unmistakable wild odor of a seal rookery floated across the water to the boat.
Once the boat started moving again, porpoises frolicked alongside. Eagles soared overhead. The deck hand served blueberry muffins and apple juice as we passed the octagonal-shaped Eldred Rock Lighthouse, lighted in 1906. The captain told us that the property—now maintained by the Coast Guard and electrically lighted—is rumored to be haunted. He related that the Clara Nevada, supposedly loaded with Yukon gold, struck the reef below the lighthouse on February 5, 1898, and sank. Only the captain and his engineer survived. Exactly ten years later, a fierce storm lifted the hull of the Clara Nevada onto the rock shoreline. Supposedly, drowned passengers haunt the lighthouse.
However, I researched this wreck on the Internet and discovered all passengers and their possessions survived. Most of the wreckage lies in pieces on the bottom of the canal between 25 and 40 feet. The captain’s account is likely a fanciful, romantic tale, but it makes a believable story while traveling on the glassy waters of the Lynn Canal.
At Juneau’s harbor, we slipped past a pleasure boat at the fish cleaning dock just as a man slapped a 20-pound king salmon on the bench, ready to fillet. We disembarked and got onto a tour bus, which took us to downtown Juneau. The personable and informative driver for Princess Tours related facts about the modern, bustling city and its history. Downtown Juneau has over 90 inches of rain annually—and 222 days of rain each year. Yet, our tour day happened in abundant sunshine under a sky-blue canopy.
Three gigantic cruise ships docked downtown and the streets were crowded with shoppers. We arrived at lunchtime, and local workers had converged on a park at the marina, some reading, others lying in the sunshine, and many eating lunch at picnic tables. We went into a mall for lunch at a pizzeria. Then we walked the streets, observing the numerous shops, many with storefronts that recall gold mining towns of the early 1900s.
By mid-afternoon, we were back on a tour bus, and I reminded myself that no roads lead to Juneau. All the vehicles on the streets had been shipped in. Our driver noted that restaurant food in Juneau is expensive. However, people who fish can stock their freezers with halibut and king salmon. He had landed a 120-pound halibut, which he said provided his family with fish for a year.
Our next stop was Mendenhall Glacier, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. A huge frozen river, pale blue in color, flowed into Mendenhall Lake. Massive icebergs, calved from the glacier, floated in the glacial lake.
Mendenhall Glacier is one of 38 major glaciers flowing from the 5,000-square-mile expanse of snow, ice and rock of the Juneau Ice field. We learned that the glacier, like most glaciers in North America, is melting. Mendenhall recedes by approximately 100 feet annually, and began its retreat in the 1700s. In fact, about 200 years ago, the glacier covered the hillside where the Visitor Center now sits. At this rate, several hundred years will pass before the glacier totally melts.
Located in the nation’s largest forest, the 16.9-million-acre Tongass, the Visitor Center and surrounding hiking trails draw both tourists and locals. Amazingly, people were swimming in the frigid lake with their children and dogs. Our driver recounted that in winter, the lake freezes solid and residents sled, ice skate, cross-country ski, and ride snowmobiles below the glacier.
We loaded back onto our tour bus and returned to the harbor for the departure to Haines. The return trip was smooth and scenic. Fewer whales were evident during the afternoon ride, but we observed more porpoises and eagles. Before arriving in Haines, the Fjordland staff served smoked salmon chowder, a roll and cookies—a hearty supper.
This day trip afforded us the view of a chain of snowcapped mountains, whales breaching and sounding, porpoises playing, and a stellar sea lion sunning on a buoy in the middle of the canal. We could not have experienced this Alaskan scenery and wildlife in any other mode of transportation. Our fare was money well spent.
Writer Arline Chandler and photographer Lee Smith live in Heber City, Arkansas.