Juneau

More staggering beauty. More snow-capped mountains, seemingly endless conifer forests, shimmering water, seaplanes, helicopters (together known as flightseeing) and magical little wooden towns, isolated and cut off from the world (other than the three cruise ships visiting today).

We went ashore into the capital city of Alaska at about 10am and found a shuttle service which drove us out to the Mendenhall Glacier. There were a lot of people pressure selling and nagging, but they were confined behind booth desks, so it didn’t feel as uncomfortable as other places, where we have been literally chased down the street.

The Mendenhall Glacier moves (surprise, surprise) through the Mendenhall Valley and a viewing centre has been built which affords an impressive view of the pale blue ice. When I walked down to the edge of the lake, a fellow visitor said how sad she felt at how far down the water level now was. When she had come ten years ago, the water level was about half a metre higher, much nearer the road. She blamed global warming, although the glacier itself looked no different to the pictures from the past on show in the visitor’s centre. It’s not moving very fast, that’s for sure. They built the visitor’s centre in 1962, and the glacier looks no closer! In fact it has “retreated” 2.5 miles since 1765, but that includes from the sides as well as the ends. The glacier is 12 miles long, about half a mile across and averages 100 feet high, above the water. It reaches up to 2000 feet deep in places. It is one of over 150 glaciers in the Juneau Ice Field. The reason glacier ice is blue is because of its unique crystalline structure. The blueness is revealed when pieces calve off and fall into the lake. The blue fades as the ice is exposed to the air and the structure alters.

But the statistics tell you nothing about the scale or the beauty or the (tourists permitting) quiet, and I’m not sure even photos do it justice. There is simply no way of communicating the sheer immensity or beauty of a glacier in either words or pictures. It really has to be seen to be believed. Everyone should try to get to a glacier at some point in their lifetime. You don’t HAVE To come all the way to Alaska, although it is wonderful, obviously – there are glaciers in Scandinavia, Iceland and other northerly climes. See a glacier. Put it on The List. You know, The List. We all have one…

We returned to town on the same shuttle bus, and went to lunch at the Red Dog Saloon. The Red Dog Saloon is an icon of Alaska. Dating back to the Gold Rush, and burnt to the ground twice in the intervening years, it has sawdust on the floor (now fire retardant!) and dead animals on the walls (very Alaskan) and guns in cabinets (including one left behind by a Mr W. Earp), a man playing the piano live (proper saloon style!), and some very nice food indeed. Signs suggest that “If our food, drinks and service aren’t up to your standards, please lower your standards”. Can’t fault the logic there… So we paid up, signed the wall and left.

We wandered through town and visited some more non-touristy bits, which were ugly but interesting. Think generic 1970s city centre, but without the concrete brutalism, and you’ll get the drift. Then we flagged down the glacier shuttle as it passed by again and grabbed a lift back to the waterfront. Mum and dad wandered off in search of coffee, while I went up in the cable car (called a tram, here) to the top of Mount Roberts. [Cable cars are trams, funiculars are also trams, but trams are cable cars. It’s ludicrous. And don’t ask me what a streetcar or a trolley bus is.] My friend, Marge, and I took the necessary photos and then wandered around the shop. I had a drink of lemonade and Marge had a coffee and a Juneau Seven Layer Cake. This turned out to contain an astonishing array of ingredients, including various fruits, coconut and icing. I am reliably informed it was delicious. It was certainly crumbly!

Then, on the way back down, we spotted a bald eagle circling, and some people spotted a bear and her cubs, although I didn’t get to see them myself. Back on terra firma, I found mum and dad outside a jewellery shop which was advertising a free whale tail pendant, no purchase required, so we wandered in and relieved them of a couple, with attendant chains for five dollars. Steel, not silver, but, hey, free is free! We then took a leisurely stroll back to the ship, via a few more shops, in time for dinner. After which, I watched the news, to make sure there were no injuries in the Costa Rica earthquake, and then crashed. A more leisurely day tomorrow, thank heavens.

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