Sunday, July 22, 2007


The capital of Alaska is the most isolated state capital on the North American mainland. Like most cities in Alaska, Juneau is accessible only by boat and plane. It's also the only state capital with a glacier on its back doorstep. The Mendenhall Glacier is a mere 13 miles away. I'm rapidly becoming a glacier junkie and the Mendenhall is the first one we've seen up close. Its beauty is alien. It looks far more like rock than ice, and it's hard to understand how it can maintain itself in such a dry and frozen state among green foliage and lush wildflowers and when the surrounding weather is 62 degrees and sunny. Apparently, Juneau gets only 42 sunny days a year and we've been lucky enough to experience one of them. A sunny day, we learn, is a relative thing. In Juneau, it is warm, things do have shadows and you need your sunglasses, but the sky is still blanketed with silvery-white clouds. It's a sky that wouldn't achieve even Partly Cloudy status in the Midwest or the Southwest, but, perhaps because of the sheer size of the coastal mountains, the clouds here seem somehow above the sun. Anyway, it's a beautiful day.

After gazing in wonder at the Mendenhall, realizing that a camera is never going to capture the depth and scale of what fills our eyes, and pondering what it might mean that the glacier's retreat rate has jumped from 60-90 feet per year in the 1990s to 200-500 feet per year now - it's retreated over 500 feet already in 2007 and it's only July - we head to the marina for an evening of small boat whale-watching. This turns out to be an incredible experience, despite the hokiness that inevitably characterizes excursions operated for tourists. We see a cocky threesome of orcas, two females and a male, frolicking in choreographed bursts of flesh and exhalation. Even better, we see an exuberant humpback whale calf who breeches the water - a phenomenon, we're told, that's more commonly seen in the whales' winter home in Hawaii's warmer waters than in the cold Southeast Alaskan waters. Evidently, no one informed this calf because he shoots his entire enormous body up out of the water, flips his fluke, and slams back down once, twice, thrice, four times in all. He keeps up the leaping, albeit more sedately in partial breeches, once he's joined by his mother, who dwarfs him and teaches us yet another Alaskan lesson in perspective.

The whales seem both oblivious of us and as if they may be showing off - or on the payroll of the tour operators. We also see a gang of Steller sea lions packed onto a buoy, yukking it up - 10 or so male teenagers excluded, we learn, from the mating rituals of their elders, but having a high old time on their own. Before the trip is over, we've also seen jumping fish (an amazing sight) and a couple dozen bald eagles
having some sort of avian conference (maybe about the jumping fish?) while standing around on the silty flats exposed by the low tide. There's also a hanging glacier. Unlike valley glaciers, which have made their way down to the valley floor and end on dry land, or tidewater glaciers, which terminate in the sea, hanging glaciers remain on the mountainside. The effect is of a suspended mass of ice, ripply and distinctively blue, apparently impervious to the effects of gravity. I miss a few more bald eagles (weren't these things endangered? They're everywhere) because I can't take my eyes off the glacier.

Back aboard the cruise ship, we collapse into the Adirondack chairs on our balcony to watch our 11:00 pm departure. Juneau gets about 18 hours of daylight this time of year, and the sky isn't quite dark as we set sail.

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