Juneau, part 1

            July 11 – There was only one ship in town today and there was something we wanted to do that was only available on Fridays, so we went into town.  The weather was once again excellent  - sunny and warm.  We started out at the visitor’s center to get updated information and some suggestions on other things to do.  The volunteer gave us some trail maps and a great tip on the Mt. Roberts Tramway, a suspended cable car that goes to a great viewing point on Mt. Roberts.  We had been planning on riding the tramway and shelling out $21.95 each for the privilege since there were movie presentations and hiking trails up there, but she told us that we could hike up the city maintained trail (“it’s like 20 minutes or so”) and see all the exhibits for free and then ride the tram down for $5.00 – such a deal!  With an armload of maps we left the visitor’s center and headed to our first destination, the State office building, 8th floor.  On display in the atrium was a 1920’s Kimball theater pipe organ.  It was given to the State and fully restored so that all could enjoy it.  The organ was originally built for and used in a movie theater in Juneau.  It is reported to be the oldest working organ still in the city it was built for.  Every Friday at noon there was a concert and Dave can never pass up a pipe organ concert.  In true, laid back, Alaska fashion the organist arrived at 12:15 and after arranging his sheet music brought the beast to life.  The 45 minute concert was a delightful mix of songs ranging from organ classics such as Bach’s toccata and fugue in D Minor to the theme from the Muppet Show.  Other songs included the Entertainer, Morning Has Broken (a hymn), the Mickey Mouse Theme, It’s a Small World, and Both Sides Now (Judy Collins).  While walking around before the concert we had noticed a hole in the wall (literally) Mexican restaurant and after the concert we went there to eat (actually, it was a hole in the floor as it was in a basement).  Our Mexican restaurant rule proved itself again as the food was very good.  After lunch we went found an internet place and transmitted a bunch of eagerly awaited web pages.

            Our final event of the day was to climb Mt. Roberts and then enjoy the amenities.  As we navigated Juneau’s narrow and hilly streets on foot to get to the trailhead we noticed on the hiking map that Mt. Roberts was over 5,000 feet high and that the trail was over 5 miles long.  This would not be a simple 20 minute hike.  When we reached the trailhead a sign eased our fears, indicating that the tramway station was a mere 2 miles away.  With this knowledge in hand we started on the trail, which led north, not south towards the tramway.  The trail map indicated that the trail was “more difficult” with the steepness eased by a series of switchbacks.  We should have remembered that the “mountain goat trail” on Sitka was a ‘more difficult’.  This trail was like that trail, except that it went on for 2 miles.  After about an hour and twenty minutes we heard civilization and reached the tramway.  We had climbed 1,700 feet.  The Indian movie was excellent, definitely presenting an Indian view on things.  We also saw a very informative documentary on brown bears at the nature center.  We were also delighted to see signs which said that hikers who made more than $5 worth of purchases could ride down for free, so we headed for the restaurant and ordered up a pitcher of our favorite Alaskan Amber.  Since we there and we didn’t feel like grocery shopping we stayed for dinner.  Stacie had an exotic Salmon club sandwich.  Dave had an exotic hamburger.  After enjoying the view, we ambled over to the tram station and caught a free ride down.  From the station we trekked through downtown and to the truck for the 15 minute drive to the campsite.  We were going to sit by the campfire and complain about sore legs, but we were too tired and went to bed.  At least we had managed to stay up until 9:30 this time.


            July 12 – We awoke to another clear, sunny day.  Most locals have been amazed at the weather and are having to water their lawns.  In fact, there have been reports of small forest fires starting from people carelessly burning garbage.  Our information indicated that there were two cruise ships in town, but the folks at the tram had told us that they were expecting at least six (but not all big ones).  We expected the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery to be packed with bus loads of cruisers so we decided to save it for another day and to start the day in town at the Last Chance Mining Museum since it was small and the roads that led to it could not handle busses.  On our way into to town we passed the hatchery and saw that there were no buses and only 2 cars in the parking lot so we pulled in.  As it turns out, we had arrived only a few minutes after they opened.  We started touring the facility on our own when a guide came by and asked us if we wanted a tour.  We said yes and then he took us outside and lumped us in with a load of people from a bus that had just arrived.  Fortunately, the guide had a microphone and we were able to hear everything.  After the tour group invaded the gift shop, we went back and did the tour on our own and saw young seal trying in vain to catch a salmon.  Salmon are unique in that they have a way of memorizing the “smell” of the freshwater stream that they hatched in and when it comes time in their life to spawn (and then die afterwards) they will leave the ocean and find that stream again (most of the time).  The hatchery sits on the shore, but is about 25 feet above sea level (at low tide) so they have a fish ladder so the salmon can get back up into the hatchery.  Once in the hatchery they will have their eggs and sperm extracted (to start the next generation) instead of being allowed to spawn naturally.  This process results in a 90+% success rate as opposed to the 3 to 5% seen in the wild.  The fish ladder was absolutely jam packed with salmon!  In an effort to get even farther they would jump out of the water, hoping to land in an area suitable for spawning (salmon need slow moving water with a gravel bottom).  All of the fish waiting in the ladder were not yet sexually mature, so the hatchery was not yet taking them in (they expected to start in about 10 days).  The hatchery also had a collection of aquariums with most of the local sea life inside and pictures with info on each critter.  It was nice to place names with what we had been seeing while kayaking.  After the tour group departed we stopped in the gift shop.  Stacie sampled some exotic smoked salmon dip and Dave asked if there were exotic hamburger samples (no luck).  While there Stacie purchased a souvenir pin for her backpack – she’s been getting at least one in each city we visit and is developing quite a collection.  As we walked down the ramp towards the parking lot Dave suddenly stopped and turned his head.  Then, in a salmon like manner, he vaulted all obstacles in his way to find the freshly popped popcorn he detected.

            We took our popcorn to go and headed for the mining museum.  When we arrived we remembered that they had eclectic hours – open from 9:30 to 12:30 and then again from 3:30 to 6:30.  It was noon and we realized that half an hour would not be enough.  Luckily we had a back up plan – our friends from the Alaskan Brewing Company who make the Alaskan Amber we cherish.  The brewery was nearby (by Alaskan standards) so we headed out there.  Much to our dismay there was a tour bus in the parking lot and the little brewery was overflowing with cruisers.  We waited in a back corner until they had been rounded up and herded back onto their bus.  We then asked about a tour and were invited to join some other folks waiting at the tasting bar.  As we were enjoying sample number three of their six brews a tour was announced (actually the bartender topped off everyone’s drink and said, “Let’s take a tour!”).  The amount of information conveyed to us in that half hour was amazing.  We learned about everything from the founding of the company in 1986 to where their beer recipe came from to a crash course in hops and barley (including tasting malted barley).  It took us the last three samples to digest it all and follow up with questions.  The bartender/guide was incredibly knowledgeable and even talked at length about non-beer related things like life in Juneau.  They didn’t have any souvenir pins, but we did get a few things from the gift shop.  While our host would have gladly poured us sample after sample (you didn’t get seconds but you could “revisit” a brew you had already tasted), we had a mining museum to explore so we headed back into town. 

            The museum is located on the grounds of the old Jualpa mine camp, one of several operated by the Alaska Juneau Gold Mining Company (the picture is from 1916).  While the mine is in a valley along Gold Creek (which feeds Juneau’s reservoir) you have to drive up thru a hilly residential area on some really narrow streets and then on a wooden one lane bridge which puts you on a dirt road that runs up the valley.  We arrived at the parking area at a little after 3pm and since the museum didn’t reopen until 3:30, we pulled out the cookstove and heated up some soup for lunch.  With our bellies full we headed down the path and crossed the footbridge over Gold Creek to the museum grounds.  There was a mini-bus load of tourists panning for gold in the creek.  We hope they were having fun because they weren’t finding any gold.  The museum was inside the old air compressor building for the mine (perhaps the last gold rush era mining building still standing) and featured the original Ingersoll-Rand air compressor.  Said to be the world’s largest Ingersoll-Rand air compressor, this brute produced 3,400 cubic feet of air a minute at 100 psi of pressure.  In layman’s terms that’s roughly a school bus full of compressed air every minute.  The museum was run by the local historical society and while they had a great wealth of objects, there were few labels or descriptions so the only way you could really grasp everything that was there was to ask the caretaker (who lives in the building to thwart vandals) to go around with you.  After touring the building we walked the grounds which used to have several maintenance buildings for the trams (trains) as well as a bunkhouse and cookhouse.  Over time most of these buildings have burned down (the work vandals) or collapsed.  A hoary marmot poked its head out of a window in a fallen wall to greet us.  We followed what was left of the original mine tram track to a collapsed shaft entrance on one end and to a sealed tunnel entrance on the other.  The mining company operated several mines in the area and had blasted tunnels into the surrounding hills to allow them to transport the ore from each mine to a large processing plant on the shore (on the hillside under where the Mt. Roberts tramway operates today). There were pieces and parts of old mine trams rusting away in the remains of the switchyard.  We hope that in time they will find the resources to push back the forest and protect or restore the trams so that visitors can truly understand the whole mining process.  We left the museum as it closed and then headed to the grocery store to refill our empty cooler.