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ROAD & TRAVEL Destination Review: Alaska Adventures of Grand Scale

Moments of pure thrill in America’s Last Frontier

by Jessica Howell

Tea slid down my throat lazily as I sipped from a steaming paper cup around which my fingers curled. The heat from the deep amber liquid warmed my hands slowly and I could feel them become nimble again, despite the static August chill and drizzling rain that found its way through the canopy of trees and onto zip line station number three – located 82 feet up a hefty Alaskan Spruce tree.

ROAD & TRAVEL Destination Review: Alaska - Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier

I’d never dealt particularly well with heights, and as I peered over the ledge of the suspended tree stand that afternoon, the God-granted solid ground never seemed so welcoming. Had a ladder been available, I would have scrambled down it after the first zip, but the only escape route was that of another lengthy zip line. I eyed a fellow traveler warily and we held up our cups of tea in silent wonder, smirking slightly at the idea of tasting tea and nibbling salmon pate while harnessed to the top of a towering tree with helmets strapped tightly.

Only in Alaska.

"Mendenhall Glacier is deceptive in its icy beauty, realms of brilliant Neptune blue fading into the murky lake like a dream dissolved."

The Last Frontier, or so it’s called, is a land where nature is uncontested king and fragile humans take a far second. It’s an adolescent state – the second youngest in the U.S. and relatively undiscovered even today. Unlike most adolescents, however, there is no doubting the solid and unchanging character of this place, from the stoic mountains that once observed thousands of gold-hungry pioneers, to the sullen valleys where natives endured the whip of winter winds, to the endless streams, straights and channels that make today’s Alaska Marine Highway. Its character speaks of strong will, simplicity and a hearty appetite for adventure.

It is for the latter trait that I found myself 80 feet high on a Thursday afternoon. Zip lining one of Juneau’s six-legged courses was the day’s primary adventure, and although my bones were rigid from the cold, a fiery feeling in the pit of my stomach had dampened my brow.

One after the other I made my way through Tongass National Forest – a temperate rain forest - spruce to hemlock, spruce to hemlock, hands gripped on the wheeled contraption that sped me over gushing streams and underneath a blur of dense foliage. By station five my nerves had worn and a gleeful glow of excitement had spread across my face. Another daring obstacle conquered, I was one step closer to going home an Alaska adventurer.

My travels in the capital city of Juneau focused on the idea of grand exploration and the philosophy that every limit should be pushed, so wide eyes, dropped jaw and sweaty palms were a constant. Alaska, after all, is not for the faint of heart. My days wouldn’t be wasted trolling the cruise ship infested downtown streets, cloistered like an ant farm with gimmicky tanzanite jewels and Russian leather shops. Instead, I chose an array of experiences yet to be attempted in my book, imagining that there was no better time to culture my weak nerves and hesitant step. My disposition could be classified as mostly sunny.

The weather, on the other hand, in the low fifties and heavily saturated, showed a dreary skyscape that offered more drafty cloud cover than gleaming rays.

“The sun?” gawffed our local tour operator, “You mean that yellow thing that supposedly hangs in the sky?”

Point taken. It was on to another excursion – a sky to sea bike ride – in the rain. Donning the outfitter’s rain gear, we were given mountain bikes and a few moments to familiarize ourselves at the top of Eagle Crest, Juneau’s popular ski slope before we headed downhill for our ten-mile tour.

ROAD & TRAVEL Destination Review: Alaska - Biking Tour in Juneau
Biking along Alaskan Highway

Along vacant highways we peddled, admiring the green flatlands and rushing rivers - the distinct smell of spawning salmon mingling in the breeze. Our guides picked berries for us during rest stops and pointed out the different types of edible vegetation – one to induce labor, one believed to possess cancer-healing properties and one whose leaves made an addictive tea.

Our bikes rolled on, past sprawling mountain scenes and tiny, cascading water falls that cut crevices through ancient rocky walls. With a mere 45 miles of road, Juneau’s pavement doesn’t even touch the tip of the city’s wild landscape – 1,352 square miles of which are pure rainforest and 1,500 square miles that comprise the Juneau Ice Field, making the city the nation’s largest capital by land size.

At our last stop on the bike tour, we looked out over Mendenhall Lake, a vast expanse of water that would have provided crystalline views of the famed Mendenhall Glacier had the weather permitted.

Shunning the atmospheric sarcasm, we drove to Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center – offering pristine views of the breath-taking ice mass through an observatory and integrated exhibit hall. Sliding at snail’s pace into its namesake lake, Mendenhall Glacier is deceptive in its icy beauty, realms of brilliant Neptune blue fading into the murky lake like a dream dissolved.

What thrives in the milky green waters of Mendenhall Lake – and mama Pacific – are millions of running salmon.

Unable to resist the chance of shipping home a self-caught trophy, we charter a six-passenger boat and captain on another hopeful journey. We’re anxious to whale spot on our voyage too, and so with the local know-how of Captain Harv, we head toward the sighting hot spots and are told that Harv’s yet to disappoint a group that wanted an eye full of humpback.

Sure enough, a humpback emerges, letting loose a cloud of breathy vapor and a vibrating exhale. The trunk of its mammoth body skims the surface slowly, dipping out of view and then returning momentarily – teasing us with glimpses of an occasional dorsal fin before dunking completely into the water’s warmth once again.

We watch patiently, cameras posed on the ledge of the shifting boat. One eye scans the water for signs of a fluke – the one time we’ll catch sight of his awe-inducing, fingerprint tail before he dives to the depths of the sea – and one eye gazes through a viewfinder, ready to snap the front-of-album shot that will woo friend and foe upon return home.

The boat is quiet, each of us waiting, waiting, until a quick order comes out: “Eleven o’clock, look to your left… he’s diving down!” Harv points a finger and we follow it with our eyes, catching the moment of splendor where the humpback maneuvers its mighty body into a graceful dive, fluke flicked elegantly toward the sky before being silently swallowed by the endless blue.

ROAD & TRAVEL Destination Review: Alaska - Whale Watching in Juneau
Whale Watching

Computerized clicks and involuntary gasps mingle among us. The feeling of fresh phenomenon stays with us as excited chatter fills the air of our tiny deck. Across the way another boat, a large tour boat, is full of elated guests as well. Like us, they’re gripping binoculars and digital cameras, but our small boat is closer than the tourist-crammed contraption can get and our line of vision is right at the water’s choppy surface.

We bob for a while longer, watching more whales come into view, allowing us the opportunity to watch their watery dance before starting the engine up and propelling ourselves toward salmon-dense currents.

Fishing lines cast, we wait for salmon to bite. King, Coho, Sockeye, Pink or Chum – we’ll take whatever grabs the bait – and we don’t have to wait long. Fifteen minutes in and one line pulls taut, a persistent presence at its end. Ten more minutes and we’ve got bite two. The luck continues and after a solid hour with lines in the water we’ve all nabbed a catch to send the family – one Pink salmon and three delectable Cohos – one of which I have filleted, fresh-packed and sent back to Michigan, as much for my fisherman pride as the grilling opportunity.

I’ll ask around for a good salmon recipe before I fly out. A good recipe, I’ve found, is all one needs to trigger a sense of place in exquisite detail. Whether a simple wafting aroma, a melody that lived hidden in the recesses of your mind, a sudden pang of deja-vu or the excited urge to share a memory untouched by others, Alaska leaves in you the awe of the unknown and uncombed frontier. It is a land of great scale, of great history, and of great nature – those aspects that lead like a narrow, rickety bridge to the heart of true adventure.


Plan: Visit to organize your getaway.

Eat: A classic on any Alaskan escape is the famed salmon bake and you’ll find none better than Juneau’s Gold Creek Salmon Bake, which operates May through September, on Glacier Highway. Dine under the stars at this campy buffet where barbecued ribs, baked chicken, and blueberry cake make a prized appearance. Music is live nightly. 800.791.2673 for pricing.

Drink: When Alaska’s often cruel weather has you down, head over to the Alaskan Brewing Company, where you’re free to sample brews of all sorts – from the popular Alaskan Amber to the signature Smoked Porter. Free tours and samples are aplenty. 907.780.5866 ( 5429 Shaune Dr.)

Sleep: Open year-round and located near the city’s heart, The Prospector Hotel in Juneau is a convenient accommodation to make your own during stays. Oversized, comfortable rooms, views of the Gastineau Channel and Douglas Island, helpful staff and free WiFi make it a good pick for travelers.

See: Full of trails, picnic areas, and an interesting observatory, Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center provides tourists with the best views and background you’ll find of this famed Juneau attraction. Best yet, it’s totally free of charge. 907.789.0097 (8465 Old Dairy Road – or click here.)

Do: Zip line the Tongass Forest at Eaglecrest, with Alaska Zipline Adventures’ rainforest eco-tours. Roughly a three hour experience, you’re provided with rain coat and safety gear while touring you over meandering streams and under leafy canopies. 907.790.2547 (or click here.)

Hop onto two wheels for prime viewing of Juneau’s countryside with Cycle Alaska. Custom tours are available, but we chose to bike sky to sea – beginning at mountain top and ending ten miles later at the base of town. A full sized van is always nearby, and it tows a trailer for loading bikes at the end of the jaunt. The guides are helpful and knowledgeable and the pace is leisurely. 907.321.BIKE ( 3172 Pioneer Avenue or click here.)

Whale watching and sea fishing are an obvious must. Choose Harv & Marv’s Outback Alaska for competitively priced, custom tours. 866.909.7288 (or click here.)