Planning the first part of our Alaska road trip was hard, because there aren’t roads connecting all the places we wanted to go.
After some indecision, I came up with a plan to see the inside passage on the state-run ferry, the Alaskan Marine Highway System.
- Drive to Skagway
- Take the ferry to Juneau with the truck and trailer
- Take the ferry to Gustavus without the truck and trailer to visit Glacier Bay National Park
- Take the ferry back to Juneau and pick up the truck and trailer
- Take the ferry to Haines and continue driving from there
Haines and Skagway are only about 15 miles from each other over water, but it’s about an 8 hour drive by road. By taking the ferry between them we would be able to do the beautiful drive to each, without repeating anything.
Taking the trailer on the ferry was expensive because the cost is calculated by foot, and the truck and trailer together measure nearly 49 feet! This is a time when having a compact truck camper or camper van would’ve had a real advantage. We had heard that we may need to back on, but on this ferry route they had us drive straight on and off. The only difficulty was making sure we had enough ground clearance to get up and down the ramps. It was close, and they did put boards under our tires to help at times.
It was a gorgeous ride, and even though it was expensive, it was cheaper than taking an inside passage cruise. I was amazed that there were mountains everywhere we looked, dropping right into the sea. It was suddenly clear why there aren’t more roads and developed areas. The ferry from Skagway to Juneau was fast, and being outside was windy and misty, but it was worth it to enjoy the view.
Our stop in Juneau was intended mainly to visit Glacier Bay National Park near Gustavus (since the only ferry to Gustavus is from Juneau), so I only planned a couple full days there, one on each end of our trip to Glacier Bay. This ended up not being enough time in Juneau, and I wish we had longer. Juneau is the capital of Alaska and its second or third most populated city (basically tied with Fairbanks). It’s also a cruise ship port, and at the base of mountains in a beautiful natural area, so there is a lot to do.
Just outside the city, the Mendenhall Glacier is easily accessible and visible from all over town. We walked to the viewing area, across the lake from where the glacier now ends. A hundred years ago the glacier was much bigger. There wasn’t a lake, and the glacier covered the area across the lake where the visitor center was built by the U.S. Forest Service.
While we were appreciating its glacial beauty, we overheard a woman contradicting the park ranger’s explanation of the impact of climate change on glaciers, and I could barely keep my cool. It upsets me to hear people treat science like Santa Claus, especially when they are telling it to their children. Fortunately the ranger was able to keep his cool, and he suddenly had somewhere else he needed to be. I had an interesting conversation in the visitor center with another ranger on the training they get on climate change and how to discuss it. Scientists predict that Mendenhall Glacier will be gone in 50 years. I wonder what the visitor center will be used for then.
We camped in Mendenhall Lake Campground, which is a beautiful mossy forested park. There were signs warning of bears in the area, and we saw a black bear in camp before we even found our site. There aren’t too many campgrounds in Juneau, which makes sense since there aren’t any roads into or out of the city!
Brian went to a fly fishing outfitter and bought a new fly rod for catching bigger fish like salmon. Apparently this is an involved process, so I went to the State Museum while he did his shopping. I only had about an hour to spend there before they closed, which wasn’t enough because there was so much to see here. The museum had artifacts and exhibits on the Native Alaskans, the Russian explorers, the sale of Alaska to the United States, Alaska’s mining history, the development of roads, and its path to statehood.
The state museum is in the same building as the state library, where they keep some historical records. I popped in there to see if I could find anything on my relatives, who lived in Alaska for about twenty years in the early 1900s. They were able to find my great-grandparents in a census record from 1900, which was fun to see, but that was about it. The mystery of what year my grandmother was born lives on, and it sounds like she might not have been saying “they didn’t have birth certificates in Alaska when I was born” just as an excuse to shave a few years off her age.
Across the Gastineau Channel is Douglas Island, where my grandmother was born, in 1911 or 1912, or maybe 1913. We drove across the bridge and stopped at one of the two restaurants in Douglas, The Island, for fish dip and pizza.
Afterwards we walked a bit of the Treadwell Trail, which has ruins and artifacts from the Treadwell Gold Mine. It was the largest hard rock gold mine and employed 2,000 people at its height. It began in 1881, and $70 million in gold was extracted before the mine flooded in 1917. During the mine’s operation there was a lot of mining infrastructure and a busy town. Now, the trail mostly shows where buildings used to be, and remnants of the mining process.
The trail led to a sandy beach (which aren’t common in Alaska), with the ruins of piers, and the saltwater pumping plant.
Brian tested out his new fly rod at Sheep’s Creek on the north end of Juneau. He caught a Chum Salmon. It’s a good thing he did, too, because there were so many salmon in the water that I may have doubted his purchase of a new rod if he hadn’t been able to catch one! The water was shallow in places and we could see the salmon backs as they swam up the river.
He filleted the salmon in the dark at the bear-infested campground while I kept an eye out for bears. We ate the salmon over a couple of days. Chum salmon aren’t really orange/pink like king and sockeye salmon, they have more of a white/grey color and the fish is less fatty, but we liked the flavor and texture. It was really interesting to try a type of salmon that we hadn’t had before.
Since we didn’t see any humpback whales in Alaska yet, I enjoyed seeing the beautiful new fountain that is near the bridge to Douglas.
On our next visit to Alaska we hope to spend more time in Juneau!
Day 666 | Mile 69,418