Sunday, August 25, 2013

Day 14 - Juneau

Weather: High 57, low 54, rain again
Steps walked: Shaun - 8,539 steps, 8 floors climbed; Shannon - 8,128 steps, 11 floors climbed
Critter count: lots of red salmon, duckies, and one black bear (see below for more on that)

Today started slow, with a leisurely breakfast at the hotel and checkout before heading to the Glacier Gardens. Once we were there, though, it was one awesome sight after another! The premise of the garden is that there was a landslide that caused a huge amount of mud to end up where the property is now located. The owners, who own a nursery and are landscape designers, were in the process of cleaning the area up and redesigning it so that a landslide does not happen again, and the man had an accident that damaged his brand new, rented backhoe. He was so frustrated that he picked up a dead tree and attempted to smash it into pieces on the ground, but instead, it stuck into the mud upside down with the roots sticking into the air. Seeing this, he had the idea to plant flowers and other plants among the roots, and the Glacier Gardens were born.

The gardens are located next to the Tongass National Forest, a temperate rainforest, so while they get a ton of rain (something like 150 inches a year), they don't often have snow in the winter, and the temperature hovers around 50 degrees in the summer. It was raining while were were there, so we got to see it as it usually appears. There was lots of fog and mist, and everything was very lush and green. 

When we arrived at the gardens, we were able to get on a tour for just four of us. They take the group up a mountain in a golf cart(!), telling us about the plants and animals in the rainforest and about what they did to prevent landslides from occurring again. Going up some of the hills at 45-degree angles, we could totally understand how a landslide could happen. 

We finally reached the top of the trail, and we were able to go out on an overlook that showed Juneau and the surrounding mountains. With the low clouds and mist, it was really beautiful. Then we made our way back down, driving a short distance into the Tongass National Forest on the way. 

Once back on level land, we walked around the main entrance area, which had a bunch (heehee, get it? Bunch? Like bunch of ok, moving on) of the flower towers (their name for the upside down trees) that were all beautifully landscaped. Then we had some hot chocolate with blueberry whipped cream, looked around their gift shop, and then took a taxi back to the hotel.

From the hotel, we took a shuttle to the airport, where we met up with the group of Lindblad/National Geographic cruisers who were flying in together from Seattle today. Once on the bus with them, that was the official start of our cruise, but rather than heading straight for the ship, we went to the Mendenhall Glacier, right in Juneau's backyard.

The Mendenhall Glacier is 15 miles long and extends from the Juneau ice field down to a lake. We were able to see the bits of ice that had calved from the glacier, along with the bright cobalt blue of the ice visible at the glacier face where the pieces had recently broken off. The blue will eventually turn to white as the pressure that caused the air molecules to compress and prevented the rest of the light spectrum from penetrating the ice (so that only the blue end of the spectrum rebounded to return to our eyes) is released. There was also a beautiful waterfall not far from the terminus of the glacier, so the whole thing was very picturesque.

After checking out the visitor's center, where we were able to touch a chunk that had calved from the glacier (perhaps our only chance to actually touch a glacier, *tear*), we headed down to a stream where the red salmon are spawning and bears hang out. And we got to see a bear! It was a little one, only about 2 years old, and he was up in a tree. He was a black bear, the first we've seen, and he was just sort of hanging out, napping, scratching, etc. We saw the remnants of his dinner down below, as well as some scat, so he was probably resting after eating. It was super cool! 

And you should have seen all the mega mondo cameras people had! Our cruise is specifically for people interested in photography, so everyone had these ginormous cameras with all the super long lenses, and they were just snapping away like paparazzi. And I thought my mom was bad! Now I know better (which doesn't mean I still won't make fun of her).  A side comment from Shaun here...thank you again Grandma Dar for the wonderful 42 times zoom camera.  It is awesome!

Anyway, we watched the bear in the tree for awhile (I took a video, which I'll post soon), and then we went to watch the red salmon that were furiously trying to swim upstream. Every once in awhile they would cause a ruckus with another fish, so I took some video of them as well. They were actually very beautiful with their red bodies, though their little snout thing kind of freaks me out.

After an hour at the glacier, we had to leave to go to the Alaska State Museum in downtown Juneau. It was about a 15-minute drive from "the valley", where the glacier is, to the downtown area, so the bus driver told us facts about Juneau, some of the history, and what it's like to live there. It was pretty interesting, especially since he moved here 30 years ago, so he's seen it change quite a bit.  Juneau is inaccessible by land and only has 40 miles of road surrounding it.  Can you imagine living somewhere that you have to either fly into or take a boat to?  Especially since it's the capital of the largest state in the nation!  Incredible!!!

(Isn't this interesting? It's juxtaposing a native Alaskan in traditional dress with Princess Leia from Star Wars and talking about how native culture is being appropriated by white people. Who knew that the Princess Leia buns are actually traditional in native Alaskan dress?)

The Alaska State Museum has a lot on native Alaskan culture and art, as well as exhibits on the Russians in Alaska, the gold rush, and the wildlife, but it's a very small museum. We were able to see everything to our satisfaction in just an hour. Apparently they received a grant to expand the space, so it's going to be closed for the next two years while they triple the size of the building. Right now they are only able to show about 1% of their total collection. They will be able to do a lot more with their new building.

From the museum, we drove five minutes to the port where the ship was docked. The National Geographic Sea Lion is small by cruise ship standards, with just 90 people on board total (60 passengers and 30 crew members). That will allow us to cruise into lots of smaller inlets and coves and hopefully get close to some animals. Fingers crossed, knock on wood, all that! We actually met a group of people who had just finished this cruise going in the opposite direction (they came from Sitka and ended in Juneau), and they said that it was the best cruise they've ever taken. They saw every kind of animal you could think of, including a pod of 100 humpback whales! Yes, please!

Once on the ship, we checked in, got to briefly look around our stateroom, which is tiny but super efficient (so efficient that the toilet is in the shower unit), and then we had to go to the lounge for our shipboard evacuation drill. I wish we could have taken a picture of all of us wearing our life preservers while sitting in the lounge, I'm sure we looked like dweebs, but it was necessary info, so whatevs. After the drill, we finished unpacking in our room, had dinner with a very nice couple from Australia, and then returned to our cabin for some R&R before the start of our exciting cruise. 

We'll travel overnight to Tracy Arm Fjord to the south of Juneau, where we'll get to go by zodiac right up to a glacier and maybe even see it calving! Wish us luck!

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