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Skagway, AK to Juneau, AK
Today was Juneau-riffic and full of ferryage. Well, yesterday, I guess—but since we're on the long ferry leg now and on our way to Prince Rupert, I figured I could leave the writing till the morning.
Woke up at 6:50 or thereabouts so we could be packed up and ready for the boats at the 8:00 checkin time; we were out of the room at the Skagway Westmark so fast we had a half hour or more to kill. (We're getting good at this pick-up-the-room routine.) There were two old guys complaining at the front desk about their collapsing beds, and insisting to the lady that the Westmarks they've been staying at have consistently been the worst hotels they've seen in their entire vacation. I didn't have the heart to add that our shower (and, apparently, every other shower in the hotel's secondary buildings) was unusable—it wouldn't stay at a set temperature, and would jump from glacial to scalding on a whim. Pity, because it's probably the last shower we'll see for several days. Skagway is definitely set up for visitors on package tours cruising in on ships, rather than driving in in cars; there was hardly any parking at the hotel for dozens of rooms in several buildings. Downtown was cute enough, but something made us cast out a few blocks until we found a little coffee shop (the Haven) that serves locals and is too far off the beaten path for tourists without cars. The bathroom had a ring attached to the toilet paper roll with postcards that people had sent to the shop from all over the world, including places like Austria and Antarctica. We got some bagels and ate them outside in the pleasant morning sun. Paul picked up a pair of old binoculars that had apparently been left there by a customer; one of the lenses won't focus, but otherwise it works pretty well.
After breakfast we went back to the dock and got in line for the ferry, the M/V Fairweather, which got there in a hurry, loaded us in a hurry, and booked out of there at over 40 mph! It's one of their new "fast ferry" catamarans, along with the Chenega, which was supposed to take us across Prince William Sound, but it needed more shakedown time and we'd been rescheduled onto the Aurora a few months ago. But good thing we still experienced the Fairweather, because it's awesome. Flat-screen GPS readouts all over the cabin, airplane-style seating with tons of legroom, a spacious and airy café area in the middle—no outdoor passenger area, but that's just as well, the speed this thing goes. It got us past Haines and into Juneau (actually the harbor is at Auke Bay, about 12 miles out of town—the channel is too shallow to get to Juneau itself, and all taken up by cruise ships coming up from the south) in about 2.5 hours. Not bad—the Aurora took six hours to cover the same distance!
We drove into downtown Juneau and parked in the public garage (free on weekends), then set out to explore downtown on foot. Like Skagway, Juneau is set up to cater to foot-borne visitors off the cruise ships that dock right at the downtown plaza like seven-story hotels rolling right up to the square; but in this case, it's even more so: lots of jewelry stores and t-shirt shops, aimed at well-to-do retirees. But it was plenty fun for us too. We ate at a Greek/Italian place (got "Verona Burgers", burgers topped with pepperoni and Canadian bacon), then walked up and down the hilly downtown area that reminded me of a tiny little San Francisco. We had 13 hours to kill until our next ferry leg, so we were in no hurry. Stopped in at many cute shops, including a new/used bookstore where I got a book of photos of Juneau by a local photographer. Since the sky was still smoky today (apparently there was another fire near Haines making matters worse), I wanted to see what I was missing now that I knew the geography. Then we hopped in the car and drove across the bridge to Douglas Island, where there are lots of beautiful, expensive-looking houses, all up and down the southern and northern extensions of the road for as far as we drove—we went north until we could see Mendenhall Glacier across the way, then headed back. Next we went (after stopping at an electronics store that carried iPods and was a certified Apple reseller—closed today, though) to the glacier itself, just northwest of town along a short road from the highway. It calves right into a lake that you can drive up to on the opposite side; there are always flightseeing helicopters flying out over it, even on a hazy evening like this. We parked and decided on a whim to take the East Glacier Loop Trail, which led 1.8 miles up some fairly steep terrain around the east side of the lake to a torrential river cascading down into it over some impressive falls. Funnily enough, we were following a pair of tricolor collies who were following their owner up the path off-leash—they do that route all the time for exercise, the owner told us when we caught up to him, and they know the way up. Very cute, though—he was well ahead of the dogs, and they looked like they were walking themselves, or possibly leading lost hikers to safety. All were reunited, though, we and the owner talked tricolor collies briefly, and they headed back. We pressed on until we got to a good photo overlook, then turned back as well (we may have been at the apex of the loop trail and could have just pushed on all the way around, but better—and easier—the devil known). Got back to the car just as the sun was sinking slowly into the mountains, though it would remain light a little while longer.
We stopped at the local Safeway between Juneau and Auke Bay, got some premade sandwiches and snack-packed hard-boiled eggs (great idea!), and drove back towards the ferry, still with about three hours to chew up. So instead of stopping and eating, we just kept on driving, all the way out to the end of the road, 24 miles north of Auke Bay. The road ends with some dire warning signs about getting lost and stranded in the bitter cold (obviously not this time of year—it's been t-shirt-and-shorts weather everywhere except Barrow so far) and some marginal pavement; we snapped some photos and turned around. We saw at least five porcupines along the road in the dusky gloom as daylight faded out—but it was too dark to get good pictures, unfortunately. Shame, because they were very close and very cute, sitting up to stare inquisitively at us. One even had a baby with her. We figured out too late that we'd need to switch to manual focus in low-light conditions like this, in order to use the flash properly, but too late—the subjects had already waddled off.
We got back to the ferry at about 9:30, parked, and mooched up to the locked terminal building—only to find ourselves swept into a lively conversation with Ted, a 68-year-old Juneau resident who was also getting on our boat to Prince Rupert. He had lots of great stories, both about living in Juneau and about traveling all over the world, hitchhiking (in his youth) and RV'ing (today). He also has cabins in the woods, and lots of great bear stories; there must be nothing in the world like walking back to your cabin near a river and finding that there are seven or eight grizzlies fishing in the river between you and the door. The time really flew by—before we knew it they were opening up the terminal building and checking us all in. We got in line and waited—the Matanuska was late into port by half an hour or so—and after the big trucks were unloaded and reloaded (the old guy was affiliated with the trucking company, although retired), they shoved the rest of us on board in double-quick time. They only looked briefly at my passport before waving us on—didn't even glance at Paul's ID. If that's all the customs checking they plan to do, it's the easiest border crossing we've had to date by far. (I guess they'll do real customs at Prince Rupert, though.) So we got on board, took out what items we thought we might need for the next 29 hours, and went upstairs (they don't let you go back to your car while the ship is underway). The car deck looked absurdly empty; maybe those early reservations that I made in February weren't so crucial after all.
Anyway, we didn't have state rooms (I know I'd ordered one, but they had no record of it—ah well), so we brought our sleeping bags up to the solarium, which we discovered was totally set up for ad-hoc camping, with lots of deck chairs and even heaters hanging from the awning covering the front half of the deck. We set up our sleeping bags at a whisper (about a dozen people were already there sleeping), and I stayed up for a little while to take some futile photos of the lights of Auke Bay and Juneau as we pulled out. I set up the GPS next to my deck chair and we slept.
Now it's the following morning; I slept very well, but Paul's been short on sleep ever since Dawson and is still dozing. Fog-shrouded hills are slipping past on both sides. It's looking more and more like Washington every minute. —Oh, and my mosquito bites from Teslin are still there. They're almost gone, but they still itch. Dang!
© 2005 Brian Tiemann