Things to see and do in Juneau, Alaska
It was a cold morning; colder than I’ve ever experienced before. I was standing, waiting in line with a few members of my family (my parents and my brother-in-law) all of us ready, dressed for cold and with special footwear that goes over our boots to help us walk better up where we where headed. Today would be a day for new experiences, new adventures and new memories.
The helicopter lands and we go in; the pilot runs his pre-flight check while telling us the safety instructions and before we know it we are in the air. It’s bumpy, as the helicopter passes by trees and mountains the view is amazing; soon enough we are flying over snowcapped mountains, pure white snow and a few black mountain peaks.
At the distance we spot the dog camp – one of the places where mushers train their dogs for sledding -; as we land, the dogs get excited because they know they’re about to run. The mushers welcome us, talk about the camp, dog sledding and the glacier we are on.
There are two sleds attached together and nine dogs ready to run, tied in their harness. Our guide stands in the drivers position of the first sled, in front of him my dad and brother-in-law take their seats; on the second sled I take the driver’s position and my mother sits in front.
The dogs rear up ready to run and I tighten my grip on the sled. A moment later we are sledding through the snow, the cold wind rushing past my face and I’m in awe; a guy from the warm tropical island of Puerto Rico, dog sledding on a glacier in the cold Alaskan mountains.
This was my experience of Juneau, Alaska; a wonderful place and one of my favorite stops while cruising Alaska last September.
Juneau, the capital city of Alaska, is nestled at the base of Mount Juneau and across the channel from Douglas Island; the city is rather unusual among other U.S. capitals in that there are no roads connecting the city to the rest of Alaska or to the rest of North America. The absence of a road network is due to the extremely rugged terrain surrounding the city. This in turn makes Juneau an island city in terms of transportation, since all goods coming in and out must go by plane or boat, in spite of the city being located on the Alaskan mainland.
Although my day in Juneau started with the dog sledding tour, I will start by talking about the town first. Downtown Juneau is just like any other downtown; a center for activity, commerce, shopping and tourism. There are Gold Rush-era buildings, historical saloons, art galleries, and fresh seafood (halibut, salmon, and king crab are specially good). It was relaxing to sit in one of Marine Park’s waterfront eateries, with a beer in one hand and a fish taco in the other, watching the seaplanes land and take off.
But Downtown Juneau is not the only place to see.
The main attraction for me was the dog sledding tour I mentioned at the start of the article. It takes place at Mendenhall glacier and to get there we had to take a helicopter ride; a first for me. The view from the air is breathtaking and surreal; aside from experiencing it first hand, there are very few words that can truly describe the beautiful scenery.
The dog camp is rather small; there are tents scattered around for the mushers to live in for 6 months at a time while training with their dogs – some of them are world champions in sledding races. The dogs are friendly and energetic, they love to run and love to greet visitors to the camp.
The first part of the tour, after landing, is to meet the dogs and spend some time with them; the second part is sledding. As I said before the dogs are energetic and love to run – so much so, that at one point they took off and our guide had to run after them, making us laugh at their unexpected little “prank”; they’re also fast, just shy of 30mph, so the sledding was exhilarating. The ride around the camp took about 15 minutes with the musher stopping at intervals to talk about the life of mushers, the dogs and the glacier; we took turns driving the second sled – on my turn, I was driving with one hand and taking photos with the other hand. The final part of the tour involved meeting and playing with the cute pups – such an adorable experience, that even the most stern of people couldn’t help to smile and show a tender side.
After that we went back into town and later into the ship for the final attraction of the day.
After a short time in Juneau, we returned to the cruise; the ship sailed earlier than usual because there was one more attraction to see, Sawyer glacier.
To get to Sawyer glacier the ship sails up a fjord named Tracy Arm in the heart of Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness; despite having a name with a word like “terror” in it, the area surrounding the glacier is beautiful. The fjord snakes through mountainsides filled with trees and natural wildlife; whales and seals swim in its waters, bears and mountain goats roam inland, the entire trip up the fjord is filled with amazing scenery. It’s a majestic spectacle of nature culminating in a great view of Sawyer glacier.
Backtracking from the glacier, back out of the fjord; the orange-reddish rays of the sunset paint the white mountaintops with many hues of color that contrast beautifully with the pale-blue darkening skies. It’s a view that takes your breath away and inspires a deep awe; there is no artist that can capture such a beautiful scene, no poet that can accurately describe it and no photo that can truly portray the same feeling as looking at it with your own eyes.
In short, Juneau was my favorite part of this vacation; it was the place I enjoyed the most. That is one of the reasons I took so long writing this article, looking how to best describe what I saw and experienced in this beautiful place. Now I have nothing else to say but “enjoy the photos”.
Thank you for reading.
Photo credits: Jose Ramos.