Alaska Adventure, Days 5 & 6:  Juneau, AK

On Friday morning, we returned to Wrangell's one-room airport, marveling at the architect's ability to fit ticketing, gate, baggage claim, and security screening into a single room.  Oddly, the diminutive security station was staffed by five TSA agents.  Our tax dollars at play work.

With nowhere to go past the screening area but out to the tarmac, passengers were not allowed to undergo screening until the aircraft arrived from Ketchikan.  Having no separate TSA Pre✓ checkpoint, these smaller airports provide us with a laminated blue card that is our license to keep shoes, belts, light jacket and headwear on, although liquids and laptops must be scanned separately.
Efficiency at the Wrangell Airport
After stopping in Petersburg (80 miles away) just long enough to drop off and pick up passengers, we continued to Juneau (another 124 miles), arriving just before 1 p.m.  We picked up a dark blue almost new Ford Explorer from the Hertz airport desk.  Though it was a major improvement over the Wrangell beater, the daily rate was about the same.

America's only state capital inaccessible by road, Juneau (pop. 32,660) is located on Alaska's Inside Passage.  Though it is on the mainland rather than an island, Juneau is surrounded by rugged terrain, effectively preventing the construction of a road network leading to it.  To reach their capital city, Alaskans must fly or take a ferry.  Periodic efforts to move the capital closer to the center of population near Anchorage have failed.  Since statehood, the legislature has officially rejected the proposal 13 times, the voters, eight times.

Though Juneau is one of the smaller capitals by population, its land area, covering more than 2,700 square miles, makes it the most expansive state capital and one of the largest municipalities in the U.S.  It's slightly bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island.  Since we love visiting state capitol buildings, we were disappointed to learn that Alaska's is in the middle of a massive renovation project and completely closed.
Happy shoppers, rain or shine
Juneau's airport is about 14 miles from the city in a town called Mendenhall, where our hotel was as well.  After checking in there, we set out to find lunch in Juneau proper.  Yelp helped us find Rockwell on S. Franklin Street.  On our way there, we noticed that two Holland America cruise ships were in port, and even in light rain, passengers were strolling the city streets and, from the bags they were carrying, fruitfully shopping.
Rockwell's playlist included "Sweet Home Alabama"
Located in the old Elk's Lodge, which had earlier housed Alaska's first territorial legislature, Rockwell has an industrial vibe, a warm and welcoming staff, and classic rock music playing.  After our less than nutritious meals in Wrangell, Rockwell's menu offerings were a very welcome change.  A beet and blue cheese salad with halibut for Ken and a magical grilled cheese with tomato, artichoke, mushrooms and pesto for me made us both feel healthier.

Leaving clean plates behind, we walked down Franklin to the base of the Mount Roberts tramway and found a letterbox hidden there.  Clue Tracker, our go-to letterboxing app, promised two other boxes at the top, but we were loath to spend $33 each to visit the summit on a cloudy, foggy day.  Walking back to the car as light rain fell, we stopped at the Alaskan Crepe Escape food stand for a bit of dessert.  We came up empty handed on our foray to Evergreen Cemetery in search of a letterbox but had better luck with a box at one of the cruise docks which was not in use today.
Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
Returning to Mendenhall, we visited the Mendenhall Glacier, one of a handful of ice sheets promoted as "Alaska's most accessible glacier."  Located in the massive Tongass National Forest, the glacier is home to the first Forest Service visitor center in the nation, opened in 1962.
Mendenhall Glacier & Mendenhall Lake
One of 38 glaciers flowing from the 1,500 square mile Juneau Icefield, the Mendenhall ends at the shore of the aptly named Mendenhall Lake.  As snowfall adds to the glacial ice each year, gravity pulls the ice down valleys on its 13-mile path to the lake.  At the end of its route, the glacier feeds fresh water into the lake.
Juvenile bald eagle at Mendenhall
Wildlife watching was quite productive near the visitor center as we saw a juvenile bald eagle in a tall spruce and an adorable baby porcupine in a fenced-off area near the parking lot.  Though the ranger reported that a mother black bear and three cubs had been seen from the Steep Creek Trail earlier in the day, they were gone by the time we arrived.  Taking advantage of some of the short trails around the visitor center, we enjoyed a bit of hiking but darkness was approaching, preventing us from searching for a letterbox on a longer trail.

At a nearby Fred Meyer supermarket, we found ample supplies for a healthy evening meal in our well-stocked suite.  Fatigue set in after dinner, and we were soon in bed.

Saturday dawned damp and cloudy.  Another day in southeast Alaska, another day of rain.  When we left the hotel just after 9:30, liquid sunshine, as locals refer to it, was streaming down at a steady pace.  As they have since we arrived, temperatures hovered in the mid 50s.

Holding out hope for seeing the bears we heard about yesterday, our first stop was the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center.  The young eagle we had observed on Friday was still there, this time in another tree, but no bears were in sight on the trail.

Driving toward Juneau, we spied numerous bald eagles sitting on top of various light poles, feathers fluffed to insulate their bodies from the rain.  Soon after, we saw a couple dozen more fishing from mudflats uncovered by the very low tide on Gastineau Channel.  By the time we were able to turn around and go back for a closer look, they had flown.
Streets were deserted mid-day Saturday with no cruise ships in port.
So we went on into Juneau, finding it much quieter today with no cruise ships in town.  We couldn't resist returning to Rockwell for lunch, and they did not disappoint.  After lunch, we checked out the newly opened Alaska State Museum.
Alaska State Museum 
Wide ranging exhibits tell the Alaska story, both Native and non-Native.
Large artifacts add to the museum's effectiveness.
After 12 years of work and $140 million in spending, the building celebrated its grand opening in June of this year.  Meant to serve Alaska for 100 years,  the state archives, library and museum (known affectionately as SLAM) sprawls over 118,000 square feet in three stories.  That's seven times the size of its predecessor, so the imposing edifice affords plenty of room for its collections to grow.  Alaska's SLAM was the last significant project funded with revenues from the state's 2008 oil boom.
Eagle tree reaches from the floor to the ceiling of the third floor.
Our visit on a Saturday afternoon was limited to the museum, whose exhibits and artifacts detail the history of Alaska from ancient times to the present.  Entering the building, visitors are dwarfed by a life-size replica of an eagle nesting tree.  Flights of stairs wind up and around the tree taking visitors alongside a typical nest for a close-up view.

With the state's reputation as America's "last frontier," the exhibit on 21st century Alaska—"Past Frontier?"—was particularly thought-provoking.  Though our stereotype of Alaskans, perpetrated by reality TV programs set in the state, still has most citizens living the pioneer lifestyle isolated in the bush, most Alaskans today don't live off the land or even close to it.  They are urban.

The 20th century transformed the state's economy.  Its strategic location at Asia's back door compelled the construction of military facilities and spending during both World World War II and the Cold War.  Then the bonanza from oil in the North Slope injected more wealth into the state.  Beginning in the 1980s, military employment and brawny manual labor occupations yielded to a new economic reality based on tourism and other service sector occupations.
Today exportation of raw natural resources is still critical.  In fact, the oil and gas industry supplies almost 85% of the state's tax revenues.  But tourism—the state's second largest source of employment—plays an increasingly important role.  As we have seen with cruise ship ports along the Inside Passage, some of Alaska's towns have successfully re-packaged their main streets with a Disney version of themselves that seems to appeal strongly to tourists.

From the museum, we took the bridge across Gastineau Channel to the residential community of Douglas, hoping to find a high spot for an overview of Juneau, but none was to be found.
Nugget Falls and Mendenhall Glacier
A return to the Mendenhall Glacier trails still turned up no bears, but a hike out the Nugget Falls trail offered excellent views.  With lots of planning to do for the next few days, we picked up dinner supplies, fueled up the car and returned to our cozy hotel.  Tomorrow we'll take an early flight to Anchorage to begin a seven-day road trip.


More Photos from Today
Shiny objects for the cruisers
In the State Museum, a mask made by Nathan Jackson, who carved the statue in Wrangell's Eagle Park. 
Snapper Charm by artist Fran Reed
Some of the Yup'ik masks on exhibit at the museum
Many shops are conveniently located near the cruise ship berths.
Camouflaged porcupine baby, officially called a porcupette

Alaska Adventure, Days 3 & 4:  Wrangell, AK 

When we were planning our Alaska itinerary, we had to be a bit less flexible than we typically like to be, especially in the southeast, because of the modes of transportation available.  Towns in this area are located on islands, and there are no bridges between them.  The only means for getting from one to another—unless you're on a cruise—is by air or the inter-island ferry.  Since the ferry wasn't offering daily service and our schedule didn't mesh with its route plan, we were left with Alaska Airlines.  Of necessity, each of the small towns in the southeast area has several daily flights in and out.
Wrangell's cozy airport
We wavered between Sitka and Wrangell for our next stop after Ketchikan when plotting our trip.  What finally put Wrangell over the top was the Anan Wildlife Observatory.  Anan Creek is home to the largest run of pink salmon in the area, and this abundance of fish attracts hordes of black and brown bears who come seeking an easy meal.  Bald eagles, sea lions, otters and other wildlife have also been spotted there.  Though their primary "season" is July and August, we were assured by Forest Service personnel in the three times we called while planning our trip that we would be able to visit during the second week in September.
Wrangell's main street
Except for this natural wonder, Wrangell (pop. 2,448) really didn't have much to recommend it in mid-September, so when we arrived on Wednesday and learned that the observatory was closed, we experienced a major case of traveler's remorse.   It all began when we landed at Wrangell's compact little airport about 10:30 and walked across the parking lot to Practical Car Rental, the only automotive leaser in town.  Since we had called from Ketchikan (there's no web site), the agent was ready for us with a red 2009 Toyota Corolla beater, complete with multiple dents and stained fabric seats lavishly decorated with cigarette burns.

Upon our inquiry, the agent informed us kindly that no, we were not permitted to drive this pristine vehicle on forest service roads, leaving us a total of about 15 miles on the island where we could explore.  Our temptation to tour the unpaved roads anyway was restrained by the agent's story of sending a tow truck on multiple occasions to rescue cars with not one but two tires flattened by the extreme conditions on the forest roads.

By the time we loaded our bags into what we were assured was the only car available, we were both hungry but decided to make the tourist information center our first stop before seeking lunch.  Now that Anan was off the table, we had questions about what else we could see and do, and the TI was the place to find answers.  Or so we thought.
Wrangell Museum in the Nolan Center
Housed in the surprisingly upscale Nolan Center—along with the local town museum and the civic center—the brightly lit and well-stocked visitor center appeared open for business.  We browsed through the ample selection of brochures and chose some printed materials, expecting someone to show up any minute.  But they never did.
Nobody home at the museum
Eventually we wandered across the hall to the museum, which was similarly unstaffed.  We heard a voice from a distant office in back, but never saw a soul.  After 15 minutes of wandering and seeking in vain for assistance, we took off, following the information on one of our brochures to Java Junkies to hook up with a local outfitter for wildlife viewing somewhere other than Anan Creek.  "Closed," said the sign on the Java Junkies door.  And on the door of another outfitter next door, the same.

Frustrated and hungrier yet, we consulted Yelp to find a local place for lunch.  After Yelp basically shrugged, we settled on Diamond C and soon wished we hadn't.  The vast majority of the offerings were fried, but there was a veggie burger on the menu.  When I learned upon inquiry that the "special sauce" which made the burger so appealing (according to the server) was made in house with mayo, catsup and pickle relish, I asked for the burger plain.  Apparently the person preparing this gourmet concoction considered my request the height of bad judgment and generously slathered on the sauce anyway.

From lunch, we drove to the Alaska Sourdough Inn and checked in before going to City Market, one of two local grocers.  As the only guests on site at the inn, we were treated to the oversized Harding River Suite with its gigantic bathroom complete with a four-person jacuzzi tub.  To ensure we didn't accidentally take our room keys with us or lose them in the Clarence Strait, each key was equipped with a fishing bobber.  Bobbers bulging in our pockets, we sought out the grocery store and stocked up on enough food to keep us out of Diamond C and its compatriots for another four meals.
Up the Mount Dewey Trail
Knowing that rain was in the next day's forecast, we set out to explore what there was to see in Wrangell.  Our first stop was the Mount Dewey Trail. Beginning on rock steps, the 0.4-mile trail quickly transitioned to a raised boardwalk interspersed with sections of wooden steps winding up and around Mount Dewey through the lush vegetation and towering trees of a temperate rain forest. The lung-testing 400-feet climb to the summit rewarded us with a scenic vista overlooking the town and port.
Warning:  Letterbox hidden under top step
At the top, we planted the final installment of our Carmen Sandiego series of letterboxes begun in 2012. With Alaska in place, we now had planted at least one box of the series in each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia (not to mention the UK, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, France, Switzerland and Belgium). The alliterative clues were both challenging and fun to write, but we were content to close the door on the project.
View from top of Mount Dewey
When we returned to the car an hour later, we drove to the ferry terminal and were thrilled to locate a never-before-found letterbox hidden nearby in 2010.  From the ferry, our next stop was Petroglyph Beach, widely promoted as a signature Wrangell attraction. In fact, the small beach area is a protected state historic site which is said to boast as many as 40 of “the best surviving examples of Native artistic expression” in southeast Alaska. Though we visited at the recommended low tide, we were unable to locate a single design or symbol pecked into the rocks on shore…except the replicas put in place for those who insist on taking rubbings.
Petroglyph Beach
After coming up empty at the beach, we headed over to Shakes Island, a small grassy islet in the city’s inner harbor, which is home to a reconstruction of a Tlingit tribal house and several totems. From 1840 to 1940, the island served as the home of a line of local leaders bearing various numerical titles of Chief Shakes. A sign indicated we needed to pay to cross the pedestrian bridge to the island, but seeing no toll collection container or official, we walked across to find, as we expected, that the clan house was locked tight. Perhaps summer visitors receive a warmer welcome.
Clan house on Shakes Island
Finally we returned to the lodge, cobbled together a meal from our grocery store finds, and began planning for the next day. Before long, the rain that had been threatening most of the day began to patter on the skylight above our heads, and we were soon lulled into bed and sleep.
Shoemaker Bay Harbor
Thursday’s forecast called for 100% chance of rain, 100% of the day, but we sallied forth from our room about 9:30 anyway. The main item left on our list of Wrangell places to visit was hiking up to Rainbow Falls on a steep trail—a no-go in the rain, but we still had not seen the museum and, of course, there was the ever popular “driving to the end of the road” tour—only 14 miles this time.
Heading south on the Zimovia Highway
With the town located at the northern end of Wrangell Island, our road trip took us only south. After a stop at the Shoemaker Bay Harbor, we continued down the road. Near the end, we found a duck sitting in the middle of the right lane of the road. As we approached his location, he would fly forward a few yards and land again in our lane ahead. After we reached the terminus and turned back north, there he was again. Always, he would be in the lane we were driving in. Finally he seemed to grow tired of the game of tag and flew away. Our silly fascination with this odd anatine behavior reflected the dearth of things to do in and around Wrangell on a mid-September day.
Our persistent little guide
Back in town, we found a staff member at the Wrangell Museum and paid our $5 senior admission fees to enter. Exhibits were quite well designed and related a very thorough record of Wrangell history with an admirable collection of authentic artifacts.
Wrangell Museum
After lunch in our room at the lodge, Ken returned to the museum. Having learned as much as I wanted of local history and having my fill of dodging raindrops, I remained to work on plans for Juneau.

Regretting that we missed Sitka, we will depart from Wrangell tomorrow on an Alaska Airlines flight through Petersburg to Juneau.


More Photos from Wrangell 
Float planes at the downtown harbor looked like toys.
Got potholes?  At the parking lot for the Shoemaker Bay Harbor...yes!
View from the ferry terminal where we found the long lost letterbox

Alaska Adventure, Days 1 & 2:  Atlanta to Ketchikan

Since 2012, we have had a return to Alaska on our to-do list.  That was the year we found and planted letterboxes in all the 48 contiguous states.  In 2014, on the way back from New Zealand, we added Hawaii to our list of F and P states.  Wrapping up this goal with a visit to Alaska was several years overdue.
Our plans call for overnight stops in nine cities from Ketchikan in the far south to Barrow on the northern coast.  During the course of 18 days, we'll definitely plant and find some letterboxes and explore some of the natural wonders and cultural history of this gargantuan state.
image from Wikipedia
How big is Alaska?  Its total area is equivalent to one-fifth the territory of the lower 48 states.  When all its islands are included, it's actually wider than the lower 48.  If Alaska were a country, it would rank 33rd in size out of the world's 239.  Nearly two-thirds of all National Park lands in the U.S. are in Alaska.  The westernmost town in the U.S. is not in Hawaii, as one might expect.  It's on an Alaskan island.  The Alaska tourism web site has a fun page called How Big Is Alaska which allows one to compare it to any of the other 49 states.
Ketchikan is famous for its historic Creek Street but today most streets are asphalt.
Our exploration of this vast land began in the south with Ketchikan (pop. 8,214), the first gem on the string of islands that make up the very popular Inside Passage cruise ship route.  Our arrival, however, was not by sea but by Alaska Airlines from Seattle, where Delta had ferried us from Atlanta.  Ketchikan's airport is located on Gravina Island, across a 1,000-ft span of the Tongass Narrows.
Airport ferry crossing Tongass Narrows to Ketchikan
Back in 2005, Ketchikan became the poster child for profligate pork barrel spending when the Alaska Congressional delegation pushed through earmarked funding for a bridge to connect the city to Gravina Island, the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere."  A total of $400 million was allocated.  For a simple bridge across a narrow strait?  Well, yes; it's complicated.  The bridge had to permit the passage of massive cruise ships more than 200 feet tall.  So to span a 1,000-foot distance at a practical grade, the bridge would need to be almost two miles long.  Surely by the time a vehicle accessed the distant ends to go from one shoreline to the other a fifth of a mile away, it could have been there several times on the five-minute ferry that conveniently transports vehicles across throughout the day.
Ketchikan's colorful shops and restaurants shutter their doors when the cruise ships sail away.
Ketchikan has all the hallmarks of a successful cruise ship port of call, with five berths along its main street, Tongass Highway.  At the height of the summer cruise season, as many as 10,000 passengers per day alight to visit the quirky Creek Street historic section and the dozens of gift and souvenir shops that line the streets.  Like Skagway, Ketchikan hosts a plethora of gem and jewelry shops.  Perhaps cruise passengers are instinctively attracted to shiny objects.  At any rate, the partnership between the town and the cruise lines seems to be a successful one.

But what we found most appealing about Ketchikan were its natural gems, not the flashy ones.  With its mild, maritime climate, Ketchikan has moderate temperatures year round.  Its signature climate feature is rain—and lots of it, explaining why the local tourist bureau promotes the town as "America's Rainiest City."  Cue the story of a tourist asking a local child, "How long has it been raining, son?"  "I don't know, sir," came the reply.  "I'm only five years old."

As in Washington state, the steady flow of rain has created a lush temperate rain forest along the southeast Alaska coast.  And on Ketchikan's compact island home, the state has carved out some particularly spectacular natural areas to preserve for public use and enjoyment.  Catch a natural star and put it in a pocket...park.  Three such small parks around Ketchikan definitely rise to the stellar level, and only one was promoted in tourist brochures.

1.  Refuge Cove State Recreation Site

Stretching a half mile along the beach, this remarkable little 13-acre shoreline park is given barely a passing mention on the Alaska DNR web site and no promotion elsewhere.  Not a single word on the town's list of "can't miss attractions."  Yet this diminutive jewel is a treasure trove of massive tree specimens.  Interpretive signs educate visitors about the trees.  A cooperative effort of the Alaska State Parks Advisory Board and the Tongass School of Arts and Sciences, a local charter school, the signage was researched and written competently by 5th and 6th graders, who also raised funds to pay for the project.
Part of the amazing grove in Refuge Cove   
Fluted western hemlock, a genetic predisposition in southeast Alaska
A stilted tree that began life growing on a rotted "nurse log."  Roots are exposed when log decays.
2.  Totem Bight State Historical Park

Continuing north on our drive up Tongass Highway, we reached Totem Bight State Park, an Alaska DNR facility which is heavily promoted and for good reason.  Totem poles tell stories which are handed down from one generation to the next.  However, in this area in the early 1900s, this chain began to be broken.  The growth of non-Native settlements and decline of the barter economy led to a migration of Native Alaskans to communities near the white settlements where work was available.  Forests soon grew over the villages they had abandoned, and weather deteriorated the totems left behind.
The type of small totems on the right and left were used as grave markers.
In the late 1930s, a CCC project was implemented to hire skilled carvers to repair or duplicate the totems which had languished.  A model Native village was built to display and preserve the newly carved totems.  A community house, or clan house, of the type built in the early 19th century was included in the village.  Clan houses served as living quarters for members of an extended family.
Recreated clan house at Totem Bight State Park
 3.  Settlers Cove State Recreation Site

Leaving the totem village, we continued on our quest to drive to the end of the road.  The distance from the extreme points on the south and north ends of the road is only 27 miles, and we needed to justify our car rental somehow.  At the northern terminus of the coastal Tongass Highway, we found Settlers Cove State Recreation Site, another temperate rainforest nestled in a cove.  Like the grove in Refuge Cove, this stand of forest boasted sizable specimens of Red Cedar, Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock, many draped in cattail moss.
Trail system at Settlers Cove
Following a sign leading to an overlook over Lunch Falls, we heard a raucous racket from an area along the shore.  Tracking the noise, we came to a rocky beach along Clover Passage where a shallow inlet was thronging with seagulls excited about the teeming waters choked with spawning pink salmon.  The gulls dipped their heads under intermittently to feast on salmon eggs.  If you're not familiar with how this remarkable reproduction occurs, as we were not, a Santa Barbara marine science professor has an excellent explanation on her web site.
At the bottom of the photo, what looks like rocks in the very shallow water is actually salmon.
Marveling at our good fortune to stumble upon such a sight, we backtracked to the Lunch Falls trail and checked out the chilly cascade, where salmon were also present, though in smaller numbers.  The well developed trail system winds through the rainforest along a gravel path leading to boardwalks overlooking the creek.
Lunch Falls
We spent two nights in Ketchikan and actually enjoyed some rare blue skies the evening we arrived and the morning we departed.  In addition to the outstanding small parks described above, we also found several letterboxes planted by some of the many tourists who sail into the town, and we left one of our own.  A couple of boxes that we didn't find still took us on trails so enchanting our failure to locate the hidden treasure seem all but irrelevant.
Connell Lake Trail through yet another rainforest
Pipeline Trail runs along an old wooden pipeline.
After two nights in this interesting town, it's time for us to move on.  Tomorrow we'll take the ferry back to the airport, turn in our rental car and hop a 10 a.m. Alaska Airlines flight to Wrangell, 82 miles away.


More Photos from Ketchikan
Houses hanging on the hillside 
Creek Street, quaint but atypical
Sparkly things for the cruise passengers
"Thundering Wings" by master carver Nathan Jackson in Eagle Park
Back side of "Thundering Wings" in park next to cruise ship berths
Interior of clan house at Totem Bight State Park
Ketchikan's airport gift shop capitalizes on the Bridge to Nowhere notoriety.