Monday, July 22, 2013



Juneau, Alaska's capital city, is located on the pristine waterfront of Gastineau Channel in
Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage.  With its backdrop of grand mountain peaks, Juneau has  billed itself as "Alaska's Peak Experience".   

The good natured people of Juneau shrug their shoulders at its dampness and joyously welcome you to their Rain Festival which runs from January 1 through December 31 each year.  After a few minutes of grumbling, even the visitors forget about the precipitation and go about the business of exploring the historic streets of the state capital. 


When Old Sol does make one of his brief appearances, as it did (for an entire day) when my cruise ship brought the sun along, the town declares an arbitrary sun-break holiday.            

Juneau, the first city founded after the purchase of Alaska from Imperial Russia in 1867, had its beginnings in gold.  In 1880, Joe Juneau and Richard Harris struck gold and started what came to be known as the Alaska-Juneau Mine.  Rusty remnants of the mine  can still be seen on the hillside.

The city, confined as it was by the sea and Mt. Juneau towering behind it, was destined to grow.  Today clusters of colorful homes ascend the slopes of the mountain.  The only place for Juneau to go is up.

The old and the new are strikingly contrasted in this modern city.  The sleek Federal Office Building rises above turn-of-the-century houses.  The gingerbread Victorian,  onion-domed, octagonal-shaped, blue and white clapboard St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (1894) contains interesting icons and vestments of the past.  This tiny church, located at 5th Street between Franklin and Gold, is one of the oldest places of worship in South-east Alaska.

The history of Alaska comes alive in The House Of Wickersham, one of the first houses built in Alaska under the  U.S. flag.  The former residence of the late James Wickersham, a pioneer federal judge, is perched high atop Seventh Avenue and commands a panoramic view of Gastineau Channel.  The house contains an exciting collection of historic memorabilia including a genuine Chickering Grand piano from the 1800's.  Call to check on its hours. (907) 586-9001.

The Alaska State Museum has an outstanding collection of Eskimo, Tlingit, Athapaskan and Aleut artifacts.  The ramp ascending to the second floor winds around a lifelike exhibit featuring a 2-story spruce tree and six bald eagles.

The Alaskan Hotel and the Red Dog Saloon are also must-sees in Juneau.  

The Alaskan Hotel, opened in 1913, is the oldest operating hotel in Juneau.  Renovated in its original Alaskan Victorian style, the hotel is an excellent architectural example of the transitional change between the 19th and early 20th century.
Bartenders at the hotel's historic bar pour booze behind a turn-of-the-century bar flanked with pseudo-Victorian lampposts and Tiffany Lamps.  The Alaskan Hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Red Dog Saloon, with its swinging doors and sawdust floors, conjures up memories of Wyatt Earp and Juneau Hattie.  In fact, Earp's sixshooter is among the memorabilia mounted on every available inch of wall space in The Red Dog.  Passing through the swinging doors, a honky-tonk piano player pounds out a toe-tapping tune.  Snow shoes, a gun collection, moose, caribou and mountain goat heads adorn the walls.  The upper portion of a 1450-pound grizzly guards this world-renowned bar.


The tin-walled Imperial Bar is the oldest, and longest, bar in Alaska.  Some twenty-two stools line the 63-foot bar which attracts at least forty leaners on a busy night.  Built in 1890 over the tidal flats, the Imperial is the oldest bar in Alaska still remaining in its original spot.  This granddaddy bar, with its authentic frontier atmosphere, has been frequented by members of the same family for nigh on a century.  Called The Louvre, until the 1930's, the ambiance is reminiscent of the days when saloons were really saloons.
At The Imperial, I learned an old Alaskan drinking custom.  To "timber the bell" is to ring the big brass bell in the center of the bar, thereby announcing your intention to buy drinks for the house.  I strongly recommend that you don't ring the bell if you don't mean business.

If you're adventurous, ask the bartender to mix you an iceworm cocktail, inspired by Robert W. Service's "Ballad of the Iceworm Cocktail".  (I gave her my recipe smuggled out of the Baronoff Hotel's Bubble Room some 25 years ago.)  It is a somewhat nauseous looking concoction of vodka, blue Curacao, sour mix, tonic and with or without green spaghetti to simulate the worm.

But don't let those native "sourdoughs" laugh at you when you mention the iceworm.  There really is an iceworm.  However, it doesn't swim in cocktails and it doesn't give glaciers their blue color.  Just mention the scientific name Mesenchytraeus Solifugus  to them and you won't be teased about iceworms again.

Alaska's capital city of Juneau is completely landlocked with no roads of access or egress.  You can drive out of town for 45-miles and that's it.  However, there are two not-to-be-missed places that we visited by car or tour bus.

First, the rustic Log Chapel by the Lake (Auke Bay).  This imposing structure---of 48-foot logs, huge twin beams and hand-split shake roof---suggests stability and firmness of faith.  The large picture window---overlooking a lake, forested slopes, a massive glacier and mountain meadow---emphasizes awareness.  The simplicity of the furnishings suggest the desire for tolerance and strength.


Second, the Mendenhall Glacier, the original drive-up-to glacier and probably the most famous in the world.  This great river of ice, stretching 12-miles long, spills over onto the floor of the Mendenhall Valley.  


The Mendenhall Glacier is not just a gigantic piece of ice.  It is a dynamic, constantly moving force that has carved the landscape around it.  This magnificent river of ice can move several feet a day, carving and changing the geography along its path.  

JANET STEINBERG is an award-winning Travel Writer and a Travel Consultant affiliated with The Travel Authority, Mariemont/Cincinnati, Ohio office.

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