People were everywhere, bumping into us, whacking our heads with an oversized souvenir they had purchased to prove they had been in Alaska. Juneau has always been one of my favorite cities, the old Russian flavor of the small buildings and shops. The wharf lined with fishing boats and sundry divides designed to get to the islands that dotted the inside passage. The cruise business had brought changes to Jueanu that even the most cautious person could never have imagined.
The once sleepy capital of the state had become a bustling tourist town. When I first visited Juneau the population was about the size of the Ozark town I live in. Around 19,000 people. On this trip, with Jan it had ballooned to nearly 32,000 without counting the cruise ship visitors that numbered around 20,000 per day. The small shops and art galleries that dotted the wharf area were now the kinds of places that sell T-shirts and generic Alaskan souvenirs.
Still, it was Juneau. I had a concert to do and Jan was finally with me “so how bad can it be,” I said to myself. There were places and things I wanted to show her. In the early afternoon on that first day was The Red Dog Saloon. It had always been the funky bar where I would have a beer or two every time I was in town. It sat about a block up from the wharf and I was anxious to show it to Jan. It was like so many taverns in the lower 48. Two or three working guys at the bar having a beer. While it looked the same from the outside there was now a long line of people waiting to get in. It had obviously become popular with the cruise people. Still, in we went for a burger and a beer.
We had rented a car so our next stop would be Mendenhall Glacier. While a lot of cities have a park, Juneau has one that sits at the end of a glacier. Once again, time had changed things. This had nothing to do with the crowds that now visited Juneau in summer. This had to do with the problems that all the glaciers on the planet seem to be enduring. Shrinking. The park at Mendenhall is beautiful. At the tip of the glacier is a small lake formed by the melting of the glacial ice. My first time to Mendenhall the glacier tip was right in front of me. It had calved, leaving a beautiful piece of “blue ice” in the center of the lake. Now the glacier had retreated to the point where I doubted any of the blue calves could be seen. There was a small stream leading from the lake through a lowland full of plants and flowers I had never seen.
After a few hours exploring the park at Mendenhall, it was time to head to the wharf. Our Red Dog burgers were wearing off and it was time for some real Alaska food. Crab. While I will always love the wharf area, it is much better when the cruise ships leave and for a while it once again becomes Juneau. There was a crab shack on the wharf that sold Dungeness crab cakes. This crab lover will take Dungeness crabs over all the others save for the soft shells that come out of the Chesapeake which come in a somewhat close second. The crab shack was easy to find given the cook and server who was forced to wear a silly crab hat all day. She was a happy sort and I pitied her for all the crud jokes that probably came her way. I’m sure she had gotten used to that and delivered us a bit of heaven on a piece of buttered and slightly toasted white bread. They were great! In fact better than I remembered. And, as I write this, the aftertaste of those Dungeness crabs still seems to linger on my taste buds saying “Tom, it’s time to go back to Alaska.
We were on the wharf so it was time to take a stroll around the area. While I had been up and down these streets many times, this would be Jan’s first and I wanted her to see all those things and places I would rave about every time I came back from Alaska. While trinket shops had replaced some of my favorites, a lot of them still existed and now was the time to visit them again. As usual, I expected Jan to spend a small fortune on some of the beautiful indigenous art to be seen in so many shops and galleries. And as usual, she didn’t even come close to the amount I had saved for shopping. A few do-dads for the boys, friends, and relatives, and another ULU.
For those not familiar with an ulu, it is an indigenous “knife” shaped like a half-moon with a handle on top. It comes with a small cutting board with a depression in the center that matches the curve of the blade. The original people of Alaska used it for scraping whale skin from the blubber. At our house, it is the perfect device for cutting vegetables we don’t want flying around the kitchen.
While skinning humpback whales probably doesn’t fit into anyone’s kitchen routine, I can’t recommend an ulu enough. We got one for Jan’s mom and she loves it. And, with everything available online, one doesn’t have to travel to Juneau to pick one up.
So the show was great. It always is in Alaska. Michael and I have played there enough that we actually have a pretty significant following in this wild state. And everyone loves The Bellamy Brothers so we always played to a full house. And the hosts usually treat us to a real Alaskan meal. Salmon, Halibut, Crab, Salmonberry Jam, and all the other things a foodie dreams about but can never find down here in the lower 48…at least not with that fresh Alaska flavor.
On a final note and before I do a story on Ketchikan, I should explain Jan’s wardrobe. If you haven’t noticed by now she can usually be seen in a yellow slicker, often with matching yellow boots. Jan really hates being cold. That is probably the reason we spend so much time in Yucatan. When she realized we actually were going to Alaska, her first move was to find a raincoat with a warm,zip-out liner. And a pair of matching yellow boots to keep her feet dry. So if you find yourself wondering about that yellow coat in future Alaska stories, now you know.