We caught the fast ferry from Haines yesterday for a day trip down to Juneau. It originates in Skagway (30 minutes to the north) and travels down the Lyn Canal which widens out to form Gastineau Bay. This is a deep fjord, nearly 300 meters deep) and the result of glacial action. The waters near Haines are a solid grey in colour because they carry an enormous load of rock silt from the nearby glaciers. So much, that at the head of the canal (narrow bay), the water is now only 25 metres deep. Eventually it may need to be dredged as the cruise ships that travel up to Skagway draw 11 metres. There is a 7 metre tide here and the walkway down to the floating harbour was quite steep for our departure.
The ferry takes about sixty passengers, leaving Haines at 8.30 am and returning at 7.30 pm. Most people, like us, were doing their organised day trip, but a few people were using it to get from one place to another. It travels at about 25 knots and stops at a few points of interest along the way. One was a haul-out of sea lions who come every year for the salmon, another was Eldred Lighthouse and we also stopped to see some whales that we found close to Juneau.
The scenery changed as we travelled south. At the top of the bay, near Haines, the mountains are rugged and fall into the sea with steep sides. We saw a number of glaciers. Further down Near Juneau, the bay widens. Here, the hills are flatter (less glaciated) and the waters are deeper. The whales live down here where the water is more clear and the fresh water from the glaciers has dissipated.
Juneau has been the capital of Alaska since 1906, and is nestled at the base of Mount Juneau. Its daily population can increase by as much as 6,000 people who come on visiting cruise ships. There were three at the wharf when we arrived but the locals thought that the day was not particularly busy. The city is named after a gold prospector Joe Juneau, Juneau is rather unusual among U.S. capitals in that, because of the rugged mountains that surround it, there are no roads connecting the city to anywhere else. This makes makes Juneau a sort of island city in the sense that alll goods coming in and going out must go by plane or boat. Actually, there is a tourist flying boat base right in the middle of town.
The streets immediately around the waterfront are a real tourist trap. These buildings are quite historic and mostly original, but instead of being filled with useful goods, as in the past, there are now dozens of souvenir shops and jewellery stores. The locals must shop somewhere else other than downtown as the stores in Main Street would be totally useless to therm.
I saw some rather quaint houses up on the hill behind the town centre so I climbed up an alleyway of about 150 steps to reach one of the streets that paralleled Main Street. They were indeed attractive – a bit reminiscent of the interesting architecture of some homes in Wellington, NZ.
As I puffed my way to the top of the stairs, I met an interesting woman named Marlene who was a full blood Tlingit Indian. She told me some stories about growing up in an Indian village and moving to Juneau when she was little. Her group of people are native to the rain forest of SE Alaska. They maintained quite a complex hunter-gatherer culture based on the management of fisheries. A different group, known as the Inland Tlingit, inhabits the far northwestern part of the province of British Columbia and the southern Yukon Territory in Canada.
Tlingit society is divided into two tribes, the Raven and the Eagle. These in turn are divided into numerous clans, which are subdivided into family groups. They have a matrilineal kinship system, with descent and inheritance passed through the mother’s line. These two groups have bold heraldic crests, which are displayed on totem poles, canoes, house posts, weavings, jewelry, and other types of decoration.
Marlene was very happy to talk to me and I enjoyed our conversation. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis but looks a lot younger than her 61 years. She did mention that occasionally, bears come down into her street and scavenge for garbage. That made me feel very unsafe!
After a few hours in Juneau, our tour group were bussed to the nearby Mendenhall Glacier. This glacier, which is visible from the main road, flows down from the Juneau icefield. Like almost all other glaciers, it has been gradually retreating. I took a photo of it about 15 years ago when we visited Juneau on a cruise ship. I’lll have to check it when we get home and compare how different it now looks. I suspect that its front face has declined both in width and height.
As we left Juneau, we could see a large number of fishing boats working he waters of Gastenau Bay. Today was the first day of salmon fishing for the season and the boats were beginning some weeks of long and hard work. These boats work virtually 24 hours per day hauling in the some of the millions of salmon by net that somehow find their way back from the ocean to spawn in the same stream where they originated. The catch is taken off the boats for processing by tenders so the fisherman don’t have to waste time returning to port to unload.. Most of it is sold to Japan, some in other markets and some is canned. We enjoyed some local salmon and halibut with a very nice couple from Belgium who we have met at a couple of places over the last few days.