Juneau: Alaska Adventure

| September 3, 2008

Our 36-hour stay in Juneau offered enough excitement to qualify as an Alaska adventure on its own.

Helicopter Flightseeing Tours: Most cruise itineraries go to Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka. Of these three Alaska cities only Juneau and Skagway give you the opportunity to board a helicopter and land atop a glacier. Flightseeing is also available in Sitka, but there are no glaciers nearby. To see a glacier from above, whether by plane or helicopter is an amazing experience, but to land on one and walk on the ice is something only a helicopter can provide to you.

In Juneau and Skagway, Temsco is the company you want to book for helicopter flightseeing and especially for dogsledding tours atop Mendenhall Glacier. The glacier helicopter tours are generally about one hour long, with 15 minutes of flying each way and 30 minutes atop the glacier. Another Juneau helicopter company takes visitors to the Taku, Hole in the Wall, and Norris glaciers.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Flying to Mendenhall Glacier   Mendenhall Glacier   Mendenhall crevices
Temsco Helicopters land on Mendenhall Glacier   Tasting the Glacial Water   Walking on top of a Glacier

For an Iditarod-like mushing experience, Temsco will fly you to a snowfield where huskies are waiting to pull you on a sledding adventure over the snow and ice. Dogsledding tours are 90 minutes with more time interacting with the dogs. The sled rides are 20-25 minutes, while the balance of time is seeing the puppies and hearing stories of famous sledding experiences.

The pilots are very highly qualified. Video cameras and still cameras are both highly recommended since video evokes the feeling of motion while flying but still pictures capture the incredible colors of the ice. Temsco is at Temsco Helicopter Flightseeing Tours.

Sports Fishing: Hundreds of independent fishing boats are available for charter. Full day trips usually include lunch, snacks, water and drinks. The catch includes king salmon, usually 20-70 pounds but as much as 100, or silver salmon ranging from seven to 20 pounds. Halibut can run up to 800 pounds but good luck landing that. The record halibut catch for most boats in just over 220 pounds. Naturally, there are limits on what you can keep.

While we were in Juneau we stayed in a lovely guesthouse overlooking Auke bay called Hillside Haven which is owned by Theresa Abbas. Not only did it have cable TV, free hi-speed Internet, a spacious bedroom with a king-size bed and a full kitchen, it also had the most alluring bathtub ever invented (with steam, whirlpool, side jets and even music). Theresa's husband runs a full-service sport fishing company called Devilfish Charters and a stay in this guesthouse combined with chartering his boat would be the perfect Alaska holiday in our opinion -- DevilFish Charters.

I can't imagine a better fisherman's holiday than staying in this beautiful, private guesthouse and spending my days on this boat. Even if you don't fish, the bay is calm (no seasickness) and the chance that you will see humpback whales or orca is very good. You are responsible for getting your fish home but Devilfish will help you get it processed (smoked or fresh-packed) for delivery.

Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure: This comprehensive botanical garden was created after a massive landslide decimated the path of a natural stream and uprooted everything in its path in 1984. The land was purchased and turned into a nursery, but was so beautiful they couldn't keep people from visiting just to hike. They installed trams and boardwalks, and today you can go 580 feet above sea level to the crest of Thunder Mountain. For flower and nature enthusiasts seeking an experience that is not too physically challenging this is a natural. There is a nest of bald eagles as well. Glacier Gardens.

Macaulay Salmon Hatchery: Commercial fishing is big business in Alaska, and this includes salmon hatcheries. Just to be clear, this is completely different from salmon farming which is done with Atlantic Ocean salmon. Alaskan hatcheries provide facilities for wild indigenous fish to come in from the open sea and reproduce.

There is a gravity flow water intake system, essentially a simulated stream with a series of progressively elevated pools the fish must scale just as they would a wild Alaska river. At the top pool the females drop their roe and the males fertilize it with their milt. As the new fish hatch they are grown to a few inches under supervision and then re-released into the wild. Commercial and sports fishermen, and other wildlife, catch the small percentage that survives to adulthood.

The hatchery not only shows the cycle of life for native salmon, it also contains aquariums with local sea life including surprisingly large starfish and octopus. There are free samples of freshly smoked salmon and packages of fresh seafood available to ship home.

Summing Up Juneau Alaska is a state where some of the world's most fascinating wildlife exists in harmony with human beings, solely because of careful conservation planning and limited development within their native habitats. Some wildlife has adapted to the human population nicely. Bald eagles are commonly seen sitting on traffic light poles along the Glacier Highway. There are so many bears in Juneau the city trash cans have special locks to keep them out.

If your interest is in seeing this wildlife, and the glaciers, then you can't beat an "adventure cruise" on a smaller sailing vessel such as Cruise West or American Safari. Yes, the basic cruise fare is higher, but they spend more time in the Tongass and Glacier Bay National Parks allowing you to get right next to the wildlife without having to book a special shore excursion.

These are the only two cruise lines with itineraries that originate in Juneau, and if you are cruising with them then, if nothing else, we recommend arranging extra time in Juneau for the flightseeing or dogsledding on Mendenhall Glacier. These tours can be done with just a few extra hours in town. The challenge is in finding a flight that arrives in Juneau early enough to do these tours and still meet your cruise. Flying into Alaska, even in summer with the 737s of Alaska Air, often involves delays and missed arrivals due to weather. Your best bet, if flying into Alaska, is to arrive a day early, or even better, arrive two or three days early and see everything Juneau has to offer.

Here is a list of additional places to visit or things to do if you have a day -- recommended to me by the Juneau Convention and Visitor's Bureau: (Most of these require renting a car.)

  • Shrine of St. Therese and the Jensen-Olson Arboretum
  • Ride out to Eagle Beach, then continue on to Echo Cove (the end of the road)
  • Hike the Herbert Glacier trail and/or the Perseverance Trail
  • Rent a skiff or kayak and explore the islands around Auke Bay
  • Rent a fishing pole and fish for salmon at the hatchery dock
  • Drive to the four ends of the roads
  • Picnic at Sandy Beach in Douglas, then walk the mining ruins trail
  • Visit the playground at Twin Lakes
  • Walk up and down all the downtown stairways
  • Enjoy an organ concert on Fridays at the State Office Building

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