Into the clouds of Juneau

Looking at Juneau from the top of the tram

Looking at Juneau from the top of the tram

After a full day at sea we made it to our first port, the capitol of Alaska, Juneau. The city has a population of about 30,000, making it just a hair smaller than Walla Walla. We ate a quick breakfast and then made our way down the gangway to the dock. At the end of the dock two unfortunate Princess employees were dressed up in animal costumes, one a bald eagle, and the other a very starved-looking polar bear. They seriously couldn’t find a bigger employee for this costume? This was like the polar bear who gets stuck on the ice flow and can’t eat for three months. This was a polar bear costume in the “vintage” fit of straight up and down torsos. I ducked the photographers who were clicking pictures of people leaving the ship with the animals, because hello, I’m not getting in a photo where I’m bigger than the bear. Polar bears are supposed to outweigh me by several hundred pounds!

Our first event of the day was to head up the tramway to the top of Mt. Roberts, overlooking the inlet and the city. It was a pretty 4-minute ride, and at the top there was a nature center and several hiking trails. We picked a half-mile loop, and got to see many different vantage points of the mountains, glacial waters below, and treescape.

At the nature center the local native population has been rehabilitating an eagle named Lady Baltimore who’d been shot a few years ago. A bullet through her beak and face, she’d landed hard and detached her left retina and broken her right wrist. I asked if this was accidental, and the guide told me that shooting an eagle just can’t happen any way but intentionally. It was good to see that she’s doing better, and being taken care of, but I did have to question, privately to Susanne, if she’d gone hunting with Dick Cheney. Shooting or killing a bald eagle, by the way, will get you jail time and a $50,000 fine. As well it should.

We descended back down on the tram and took a look around town, which near the port is filled with tourist traps and 60 gazillion jewelry stores. As an east coaster, I’m used to kitchy boardwalk souvenir shops filled with tacky t-shirts that say nasty things, cheap bathing suits, and bins upon bins of flip-flops. Other than the Alaska T-Shirt Company, the stores are hawking loose diamonds, jade jewelry, and precious stones I’ve never heard of before but that seem to cost a fortune anyway.

We walked to the state capitol building, and it occurred to me that when McCain’s people flew in to meet Sarah Palin, they must have realized immediately what a culture gap there would be. The 4-story building in the tiny coastal village is not what D.C. insiders think of when they think state capitol. I’ll bet they told John he was out of his mind. But the capitol is friendly; a sign exclaimed that they held daily “complementary” tours of the building. Complementary to what, we wondered. Oops, they said, at some point in the past, because by the time our feet stood on the capitol steps, someone had plastered an “i” over the original “e,” correcting the usage error. And they say government doesn’t care about quality.

Grabbing a bus to the Mendenhall Glacier later that afternoon, we descended upon our first of many national parks. This refuge had a raised walkway with high, tight railings, the purpose of which quickly became clear to us. Splashing around in the stream were hundreds of pink salmon, otherwise known as “dinner” to the local bear population. Lo and behold, about 15 feet from us, otherwise known as “close,” a young black bear did his best to catch a leaping fish. He clearly needed some more practice at this and settled on tearing apart a recently dead salmon. High above in a tree right behind him, perched a bald eagle, the second eagle we’d seen that day. This one presumably had not had a run in with anyone trying to shoot it.

Young bear looks for lunch

Young bear looks for lunch

We watched the bear for a while, amazed and mesmerized, and then walked over to the glacier. Parts of it were the color of Windex, a shade of blue I never thought I’d see in nature. Icebergs littered the turquoise, still water like crumpled pieces of paper on the floor of a writer’s studio. We dipped our hands into the lake, feeling the frigidity of it. I picked up a rough pebble. These were not like the polished stones on the western side of Glacier National Park. They were probably rocks deposited much more recently, as this section of land has been left behind by the receding glacier only in the last 50 years. I could see where new calves had broken free from the 200 foot high ice shelf, presumably in the last few days.

Our tour only allotted one hour for people to gape at Mendenhall, so we scurried back to the bus and rode back into town. There were so many people on the bus from our cruise ship we badgered the driver into taking us back to our berth, although he didn’t exactly care. Alaskans seem to be fairly laid back, having realized already that a lot of life is beyond one’s control. If only I had learned this lesson earlier, I might not have been struggling against the limitations of Walla Walla all year….

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