Alaska 1999

July 1999

My sister Carita is doing a second master’s (first one was in from the Harvard School of Education) in English through the Bread Loaf program at Middlebury College. This is the English program Robert Frost was at for 40 years. Anyway, I guess it’s designed for working teachers (like her), so instead of going full-time for two years, students do six intensive weeks per summer for five years. The program operates four campuses. Last year Carita was in New Mexico, and this year, she, husband Chris, and five-month-old baby Annika packed up for Juneau for six weeks.

It’s possible that you get more than one opportunity to go to Alaska in the course of your life, but I doubt you get more than one really good excuse, so I called in every frequent flyer mile I had to make the trip. It was still only enough to get me to Seattle. Believe it or not it’s the peak tourist season in Alaska and really expensive, but my mom offered to fly me the Seattle to Juneau leg because I was being cheap and waffling, and she wanted us to go together (thanks, mom!). I won’t go into the boring details of my New York-Chicago-Seattle-Juneau 18-hour trip, but of course flights were cancelled, and it was a drag, etc. etc. Love going places; hate traveling. At least I got there though. My mom had to spend the night in the Seattle airport and come in the morning. Plus, Chris and Carita don’t have a phone in Alaska, and I didn’t know their address or anything, so it was a little hard to make those flight arrival adjustments. Whatever. We got there.

As you get farther west out of New York, people get fatter. It’s kind of nice really, puts a little perspective on your normal weight paranoia. And when I say yours, of course, I mean mine. You even notice it from airport to airport. In New York, everyone is thin and hurried; in Chicago they’re looking a little larger; and by the time you’re waiting to get on a flight from Seattle to Juneau, which is about as far west as you can get, you start looking around the waiting area afraid of who’ll be seated next to you on the plane, by which I mean who will be sharing your seat.

Anyway, my flight got in around 1:00 a.m., and even though I had an aisle seat I noticed that I could see snow-capped mountains as I was flying in. It wasn’t even really dark. Juneau is in the very southeast of the state, and in July it’s completely light from 4:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. and pretty light the other five hours. It was eerie. I guess farther north (and the state goes farther north from there more than 1,000 miles) the sun never sets at all. Chris and Carita had to tape newspapers over Annika’s bedroom window so she would sleep. When we went to the 4th of July fireworks (which, in the very smart way they also do them in Chicago, were on the 3rd of July so everyone gets the next day off), they had to hold them at midnight, because it wasn’t dark enough until then.

Alaska as seen from the plane at 1am.

I can’t even imagine what Alaska is like during the eight months of the year when it’s dark 20 hours. Maybe that’s why everyone stores the weight.

Anyway, now that I’m getting ahead of myself anyway, I’m not going to do a day-by-day travelog, just some impressions:

Alaska was beautiful, and Annika was amazing. Those were the two main things.

Bread Load Campus
Bread Load Campus, right in front of their house.

The entire Juneau area, which basically consists of Juneau and “across-the-bridge” Douglas, has a population of 30,000. The town is so small that the local paper is a weekly and only has local news. You get anything else from NPR, which, by the way, plays rock and reggae and all sorts of cool music so you never have to switch stations after All Things Considered.

So the city is tiny,` and you cannot drive there from anywhere—really, you can only get there by air or by boat. It’s on this strip of bays, inlets, and islands, and it’s surrounded by these beautiful but completely impassable mountains that only get carved through by glaciers every now and then. Being summer, it was lush and green, mainly with conifers, especially hemlock and Sitka spruce, and lots of wildflowers, including daisies and lupine. Behind the forest in every direction are huge beautiful mountains topped with snow caps or glaciers.

We did see glaciers, both hiking and by boat. The Mendenhall Glacier, which comes right off the Juneau Icefield (the ice field is larger than Rhode Island), is right there!

Mendenhall Lake
Mendenhall Glacier behind Mendenhall Lake. We tried to hike to that waterfall.
Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier.
Mendenhall again.
Different foreground. Same background.

Judy and I also took a boat trip through a fjord called Tracy’s Arm to see Sawyer glaciers (north and south).

Sawyer Alaska
Judy and I on the boat near one of the Sawyer glaciers.
Sawyer North
One of the Sawyer glaciers.
Sawyer Waterfall
Waterfall and glacier. The pictures are a little washed out. The colors were stronger.
Seals and Sawyer
The brown smudges on the ice flows are baby seals.

The glaciers are an eerie electric blue, as are the bigger icebergs. The smaller icebergs look like either snow or ice and stick up out of the water in funny sculptural shapes. The glaciers are loud—they’re moving, remember—and although we didn’t see any big icebergs break off, we did see some calving of smaller pieces in cascades of snow.

The ice was really this blue, the water was at least this green, and the mountains were purple.
Iceberg, Goldenburg… What's the difference?

The glacial lakes are bright jade green, because the bedrock there is a green schist, and as the glacier moves through, which it does extremely fast, traveling over a foot a day, it pulverizes the rock into bits so fine that the sediments never settle, but stay suspended in the water. Despite this and the fact that the water is only around 42 degrees in the summer, a ton of fish, whales, and seals live there quite happily. We saw a humpback whale, a ton of harbor seals, and several sets of bears including mothers with new cubs. I’m still not sure if they were brown or black bears, because different people said different things. We luckily only saw them from the boat, but you do have to keep talking or making noise whenever you hike or even walk around campus, because they come right into town.

The brown spot is a bear climbing into the forest.
Bear family
The brown spots are a mother bear and her cubs.

We also saw a mountain goat, which seemed to be standing on the side of a sheer rock mountain face, and a ton of bald eagles, including brown young who were old enough to fly but not quite coordinated enough to grab their own fish yet. We’d see them swoop down, talons out, and then, well, just swoop back up, wet and empty handed. The adults were more intimidating and majestic.

Mountain goat
Part of the fun of seeing animals in the wild is trying to spot them. An eagle-eyed fellow boat passenger spotted this mountain goat. Can you?

The scenery everywhere was amazing, but on the boat trip it was just, well, even more amazing. The fjord cuts between 3,500–5,000 foot mountains, which are green and lush or sometimes snowy and dramatic and laced with waterfalls that you can follow with your eyes down the entire drop. Most of the waterfalls are tiny streams, but the boat pulled right under a few bigger ones and splashed anyone who wanted to be splashed.


After that trip I had to have a real talking to with Annika, because she’s already five months old, way older than some of the bears, eagles, and seals there (local animals tend to birth in the spring), and she can hardly do anything for herself whereas those other babies were taking care of business. Even the eagles who couldn’t fish, well, at least they could fly. She’ll be a lot smarter than them eventually, but she’s sure taking her time. I did see a harbor seal pup that was at about the same developmental place Annika is in terms of rolling itself around. The seal was pretty cute too, but she’s cuter.

Baby seal
This seal was about five or six months old, same age as Annika.
More baby seals. They're the brown blobs on the white blobs.

We ate a ton of salmon—smoked, cured, fresh, mesquite, Cajun, roe, lox, and more. Locals have a smoking method that smokes and cooks it (lox is just smoke-cured, not cooked) as well as doing it the normal way. All the fish was delicious. I kept trying to tell apart the king (Chinook), sockeye, pink, and dog (chum) salmons, but never got it. The daily fishing reports said the salmon were beginning to run, so we did go to a hatchery and check a few streams, but we didn’t see any really jumping. It was still interesting to see how it all works, well, the parts people know. They still don’t even know how the salmon know to come back to where they were hatched.

One of the most interesting facts we learned was how the hatcheries vary the water temperature in the salmon breeding tanks, which permanently affects the bone growth so when they’re caught years later and miles away they can tell where and when they were hatched by the changes in the bone from the periods of hot and cold water (like tree rings show wet and dry seasons). The hatchery also had cool fish tanks with lots of anemone and suction-y things. Plus, we got yummy salmon samples.

We also ate halibut—halibut tacos, halibut fritters, halibut nachos—and both king and Dungeness crab. Actually, we ate really well the whole time as my family likes to do.

We timed all our activities on about three hour cycles to accommodate Annika’s eating and sleeping. She has such a perfect temper. She does cry when she is starving or exhausted but absolutely never for no reason. She has begun eating “real” food, which is hilarious. She likes it and tries to “help,” so she gets her own spoon, with which she smears food around her face, and Carita has another spoon to scrape it off and put it in her mouth.

Maybe it doesn’t sound so cute (or so interesting) to anyone else, but I’m smitten. She can also laugh now, real belly laughs with squeaks and howls.

What else? We went to the most beautiful beach. Mountains in the background all around and clear water with dramatic rock islands poking up.

Beach "up the road." The colors were richer than they appear.
beach up the road
My nice mom and a nice beach.
Judy on beach
Too bad the colors didn't come out, but you can see the mountains in the background.
tree roots
Overturned tree on beach. The weather was perfect; the umbrella is to keep the baby out of the sun.

I made friends with a very smart child on the boat trip through Tracy’s Arm who turned out to be on my plane home. We tried to tour one of the many cruise ships in Juneau, but they wouldn’t let us on board (“How do we know you don’t have a bomb in that bag?” they asked, and didn’t accept the answer “Uh, you’re welcome to go through the diapers and look for one”). We saw an old mining museum in the back of a restaurant that turned out to have been a mine shaft. We drank the local beer. Always drink the local beer.

The temperatures the entire stay ranged from the low 70s to the high 80s, and the skies were clear and sunny. I’d packed for normal Alaska summer, 60s during the day to 40s at night and lots of rain, so I actually had to buy a pair of cheap shorts there. The Alaskans were so unused to the weather, which set a few records, that after reading the weather report, we heard a radio news host comment: “that looks so weird, low 80s.” We also heard a lost cat report on the local news.

Outside the amazing supermarket where I bought the shorts.

When I got back to New York I learned I’d missed a heat wave here in the low 100s (and the air conditioning was still broken at work). Perfect timing.

I left Juneau at about 5:00 p.m. one day and got home at 2:00 p.m. the next. Part o it was the four-hour time change and part was having to change planes in Dallas (they don’t check a map before making up these routes), but I also had my usual bad luck getting back including equipment failure on two of the three flight legs. Whatever. I had plenty of time to juggle in the airport (DFW was empty in the middle of the night), and I get to stretch across three seats and sleep on the plane.

When I got back Jon had made a 2:30 lunch reservation at Chanterelle, the restaurant where I had told him I’d had the best meal of my life (with Scott and Isabell. I still dream about that fois gras sampler). It’s restaurant month, so we were trying to hit all the shmancies for their $19.99 prix fixe lunches. It’s hard though because of my work schedule, so, even though I was exhausted, I jumped into the shower as soon as we got home, and we raced downtown. We got the menu and there were no choices on the special. The entree was… salmon! Oh well. It was delicious.

And so was the two pounds of smoked sockeye I brought back. Mmm. Salmon.

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