Today’s agenda is leaving Gustavus, spending the afternoon in Juneau, and camping before taking the ferry to Haines, Alaska, notable for being the road out.
We both wake up at 4:30 a.m. and go over to the deck outside the Lodge to upload my blog and Mike’s photos, literally the only time we can get enough bandwidth to post—so everyone who’s following, yeah. That’s the sacrifice we’ve been making to keep up with things. On the other hand, we’re such internet addicts that it’s our only time to feel connected to the outside world, and we wouldn’t miss that if it’s possible.
Back at our room, we pack up and then take off for a hike before we have to go to the airport for the flight back to Juneau. The hike along Bartlett Bay is just as amazing the second time. Great blue herons are everywhere in the very low tidal waters this morning, stalking along in the water, graceful as Egyptian carvings.
Mike and I split up because he’s still hoping to spot a bear and I’m not, so he goes back through the forest and I continue along the beach, the chill gray stones and broken clamshells crunching beneath my boots. It’s lonely and magnificent. I climb a barnacle-covered boulder to look around, and ahead of me, a whale suddenly leaps up out of the water, mouth agape in what we’ve decided to call a “feeding breech.” It’s so close I gasp and almost topple off the rock.
Before coming to Alaska, I’d never seen a humpback with its mouth open before. They are doing completely different behaviors in Hawaii—competing to mate, calving, caring for newborns. Feeding is a weird sight. Rising from the depths, water streams out of the buff-colored lining of baleen lining the enormous cave of the whale’s mouth, contrasting with the long, narrow pale pink tongue. The action reminds me of the giant worms emerging from the desert sand in the 1990s cult sci-fi movie, Dune.
A few minutes later, feeling the solitude and still scanning for bears, I break into song. The eagle pair from yesterday come to check me out, flying around close, dogfighting in midair just above me, lighting on trees ahead. My voice carries across the still water and it sounds almost as good as singing in the shower. Hymns and choruses bubble up from the memory banks—Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Amazing Grace, Majesty, All Hail King Jesus, You Are Mighty—all rich oldies. I sing all the way back to the Lodge. Going up the now-familiar trail, I remember its Sunday. I’ve just been to church, and I’m spiritually filled.
The plane back to Juneau is an eight seater this time and having been on the tiny Piper before, it looks giant. There are two pilots and they take a different course, this time through the mountains, so close it seems the wings will brush the tumble of green grass and trees, gray stone, and dazzling white snow as the sun finally comes out. Mike and I look at each other, grinning, and our cameras are going as we totally enjoy twenty-five minutes flying very close to heaven as the plane exits the mountains into jaw-dropping views of the fingers of turquoise ocean and lake, boats running like zippers across the blue-green surface.
The sun makes so much difference.
Juneau is shiny and warm. We drive around looking for a laundromat (Mike’s suitcase is bulging with all of our dirty clothes) but alas, it’s Sunday and the two we find are closed. Giving up, we take the tram to the Timberline Restaurant above the town and have an unexpectedly delicious lunch—Mike has the all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab special, and I have a bison steak salad. The steak is pungently flavored and the greens crisp, but its nothing to Mike’s festival of eating cracked crab, dipping it in butter and washing it down with dark ale. (I get a leg or two and can vouch for the freshness. These crabs were never frozen.)
After that, bulging a bit at the seams, we do the mellow loop hike around the top of the mountain with all the overweight families from the cruise ships. More vistas, snow-capped peaks, sinuous waterways.
And finally, after buying food and necessities at Walmart—but wait. I have to say something about the Juneau, Alaska Walmart. First of all, it has a flock of giant ravens that hang out in the parking lot and mob you if you’re eating, and they’re huge and spooky and make Hitchcock’s The Birds a new reality.
Second of all, the red Mustang parked next to us had a full-sized wolf-dog in it that about took Mike’s head off when he tried to open the van. The windows were left way too far down and that beast’s jaws were way close.
Third of all, chubby ladies with yoga pants and knee-high rubber boots are a fashion trend here in Alaska, along with dudes whose beards begin at their eyebrows. The Walmart is where I’m seeing Juneau’s real population, and it’s classic and interesting.
Fourth of all, Juneau’s Walmart is the most totally equipped store I’ve ever been in across these whole United States. It has a full food section, with organic produce! And self-checkout. Also the biggest, most comprehensive sporting goods/camping/fishing/survival section I’ve ever seen anywhere. Ten kinds of knives, all sorts of ammo and weapons, special whistles and water purifiers and first aid kits you can carry in your shoe.
The woman working there, Tlingit I’m guessing from her short stature, long black hair and stocky build, and the exotic name on her badge, something beginning with a Y, was very helpful, personally walking us around the store to find all the obscure items we needed.
“We’re out of bear spray,” she told me regretfully, scanning the bar code of the empty shelf into her handheld gadget. “But I can direct you to the bear bells and air horns.” So that’s what we ended up buying, along with a pack of hot dogs, lettuce, yogurt, firestarter chunks and lighter fluid, and a supply of junk food for when we’re driving again. I was still full from the bison salad and objected when Mike picked up the hot dogs.
“Seriously, honey. You just ate three pounds of crab.”
“Yeah, but I love a good fire-roasted hot dog,” he said. We debated about s’mores but there were only giant bags of supplies and we didn’t want to haul all that, so we skipped them.
We were camping at the same site beneath Mendenhall Glacier that we’d been at before, and picked up some firewood alongside the road from a kid and his family that were chopping seasoned pine and selling it in bundles to pay for his soccer team trip. We pulled into the park with panache, having been there before, but were taken aback to find our campside roped off with yellow caution tape and a big sign posted: “WARNING: THIS CAMPSITE SUBJECT TO FLOODING. Be prepared to evacuate when alerted.”
Indeed, the formerly-low lake in front of blue-white Mendenhall Glacier was filled to the brim.
We were tired by then, and kind of cranky, and had to track down the camp host (gone fishing) and his nice wife tried to help us but couldn’t assign a new campsite without making sure it wasn’t reserved, and her husband had the phone app that could check the computer, yada yada. Mike was able to get some phone reception and go to the website where he’d made reservations, and find a different campsite on high ground and reserve it, so we were installed, with a fire going, when the camp host finally got back and verified that all was well.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” he said. “We can’t just reassign you, we don’t really manage this place. This flooding happens every year. Melt begins deep inside the glacier and it fills up in a big pocket of water. Then suddenly the front that kept it in melts, and the water gushes out and fills the lake, overflows it. Last year your first campsite ended up four feet under water.”
We are very glad to be on high ground in our dry new site with its own bear bin. By 8 p.m. when Mike cracked out the hot dogs, nothing in the world smelled or tasted better than that plain, crispy dog, cooked over the fire on a pine branch.
Yesterday, five course, five-star chef prepared, locally sourced gourmet meal.
Today, five star plain dog on a stick, seasoned by hunger and the chill outdoors.