Day 8 of MikeandTobyTravels brings us to Juneau–and beyond.
Juneau is a clean and a lovely mix of green trees and steep, rugged mountains combined with modern, tasteful buildings and a shopping area near the cruise ship docks. It’s so much like Lahaina’s famous Front Street that we both comment on it.
We’re a bit cranky after my semi-meltdown, and Tawny, our daughter, gets a hold of us at the gas station where we’re trying to buy a map after debarking the ferry, and suggests alcohol might help. We need to eat anyway, and my book fan Amy Ely, who lives in Juneau, suggested the Red Dog Saloon. Sitting at a little table in front of a live country musician who looks like a cross between Willie Nelson and a gold miner, we order several drinks and a plate of ribs. Accompanied by live country music and the kind of ribald, sexual, politically-incorrect joking that went out in the 1980s, we mack down the ribs and two drinks apiece. We thoroughly enjoy the rugged environment of the saloon, with its sawdust floors, moose heads, and byplay between the waiters and the entertainer, who collects tips in a big white jug labeled VIAGRA.
Refreshed in body if not in soul, we get on the road for the campground at Mendenhall Glacier. It’s still eerily afternoon-like twilight even at ten p.m. when we enter the campground, and after a few glitches like being assigned the wrong campsite, we make friends with our fellow campers in the next campsite, a couple roughly our age on a month-long safari for their 30th anniversary. We borrow some kindling and starter fuel to get our fire started, and pretty soon we’re sitting around the metal surround in our camp chairs, listening to night birds and shooing the few but might mosquitoes.
We lock everything remotely smelly in the bear-proof steel container provided by the park and take a walk in the gloaming. I’m still nervous of bears but we see no sign of them, only beavers, ducks, herons, and sweet-singing birds. It’s painfully beautiful, with moss instead of grass providing a deep soft base around the trees, and interesting bamboo-like reeds and leafless plants that are some of the most primitive and early on earth, conquering the land left behind the glacier’s melt and making it into forest.
We get set up in the van and spend a wonderfully comfortable night in the back, with a futon and the “Ozzie and Harriet” zip-together sleeping bag for two. It rains on and off all night and it’s chilly, but not bad in the morning. We get packed up early, though, because we’re eager to get a whale watch before we take a seaplane to Glacier Bay Lodge where we’ll be spending a few days and sightseeing glaciers there. We’d glimpsed the whales “bubble-net” feeding from the ferry, and were eager to see it in person.
I was able to get enough reception bars inside town to book us a whale watch charter, and we ate a hasty and delicious breakfast (with wi-fi!) at a place called Gonzo’s next to Auke Harbor. OMG, the waffles! It’s nothing but waffles on the menu, with bizarre things on them and in them, but they were so good! Forgot to take a picture but Mike got the duck-and-brie one and I got lemon curd with cinnamon and graham cracker crumbs, and other than the carbohydrate crash I knew would come later, I was in foodie heaven.
We saw a large pod of whales doing their bubble-net feeding, a total treat. It would begin with birds hovering and landing on the water, then we’d see whales circling, and blasts of bubbles. Then, all would go silent, a long and pregnant pause that stretched out for long, chilly minutes of scanning the water. Often we’d be looking in the wrong place, the well-mannered British couple twittering beside us, or the Chinese tourists crowding in, chattering loudly and inserting their cameras between, above and beside us, with no sense of personal space. Then a tight-packed group of giant, open mouths would rise from the depths, suddenly emerging like some coordinated leviathan, their throats filling with herring like enormous black-and-white bellows. The birds would shriek and dive, sometimes right into the whales’ mouths trying to grab fish. We’d all be yelling, and cameras going, and then, just as suddenly as it started, the whales all disappeared again.
If my character was tested yesterday, Mike’s was today. A little Chinese woman with a video camera, refusing to follow directions from Chelsea, the nice whale biologist cum/hostess, held us all up several time by ignoring directions to sit down, come inside, or otherwise follow the program. When we stopped to look for whales, she got right in Mike’s personal space, reaching out around him, pressing against and in front of him, ignoring his glares and “excuse me.” When we got back into the cabin and our designated bench for another run to another pod of whales, he turned to me in an aside.
“Come stand next to me. Keep her out of my space. I’m tempted to drop her overboard.”
“She looks like a Chihuahua taking on a Great Dane,” I said. But I feel his pain, so when we found the spot where the whales were feeding, I wedged in next to Mike in a good visibility corner and, using our elbows, we were able to keep her back—but lo and behold, she inserted her arm and aimed that camera off the railing between us. We both looked down at her, wedged between us like a tenacious garden gnome, and there was simply nothing to do but look at each other and grin.
We whizzed back after the whale feeding frenzy, and found a library in town where I worked on my blog post and Mike did some posting and editing, and then we went to the airport where a seaplane was taking us to the Glacier Bay Lodge, one of the most remote national parks in the whole United States.
The seaplane turned out to be a regular plane, but the smallest one either Mike or I had ever ridden in. Technically, I suppose five people could have wedged in, but it felt crowded as the three of us climbed in via one of the wings. I was so close to the pilot his long hair blew in my face. It was a thirty minute stretch of glorious islands, verdant green forests, mysterious waterways wreathed in scarves of filmy cloud. Mike kept looking over at me to see if I was anxious, but I loved every minute of that magical dragonfly flight, and I was sad when it was over. (I’m having internet issues, so I can’t post any of the photos! Tomorrow maybe.)
We were picked up by a very chatty woman in a huge, empty school bus for the ride out to the Glacier Bay Lodge. We waited in the school bus, and waited. “That Alaska Air flight has up to twenty passengers coming in,” she told us.
I could see the tops of Mike’s ears getting red as she nattered on, and the bus got warm, and ten minutes turned into twenty, then thirty.
“I’ll go in and see what the holdup is,” Mike said, and off he went as I heard about the lady’s grandkids. A few minutes later he came back. “The plane is delayed. Hasn’t even taken off yet. Can you run us to the lodge?”
“Oh, let me call and ask,” she said, and repeatedly her phone got a fax tone as she tried to call. Mike said, “Let me try on my cell,” and called the lodge, handed her the phone, and we both listened eagerly to the front desk tell her to bring us in.
As we trundled down a board-straight road to nowhere bordered by endless trees at a precise 25 miles per hour, I reached into the seat ahead of me (the seats were kid-sized so we each took our own, and heck, it was no problem since there were about fifty of them behind us) and squeezed Mike’s shoulder. He’d got us moving, and maintained his cool and good manners. I was proud as we pulled over at a tiny knot of stores and picked up several employees on their way in to work at the Lodge. It appears we are at the @ss end of nowhere, officially, in Gustavus (pronounced Goose-TAV-us).
We’re not in Kansas, anymore. Again.