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Place: Juneau Alaska

A Jaunt Through Juneau
Alaska's Capital City

By Margaret Deefholts

A fine drizzle envelops Juneau as I walk along the dock. Across the gray waters of the Gastineau Channel the mountains are humpbacked shadows with thin skeins of cloud drifting across their summits. The Norwegian Wind is the only cruise ship on the wharf today, and despite the weather passengers continue to flock down the ramp. They wear yellow rain-slickers over thick jackets or hooded parkas as a defense against the rapier-sharp Alaskan wind.

Two fellow cruisers catch up with me. They are my dining table companions and, with the easy camaraderie that develops on a cruise ship, we've become friends, exchanging notes from scrapbooks of the past: memories of other travels, childhood haunts, and anecdotes about our respective families. Darlene is a vivacious 58 year old brunette, and her husband Jack, two years older, is a rangy Gary Cooper like figure. "C'mon," Darlene says, linking arms with me. "Let's go hit the fleshpots of Juneau!"

Juneau's nearest approximation to a 'fleshpot' is the "Red Dog Saloon", a crowded honky-tonk tavern reminiscent of the days of Alaska's gold rush boom in the early 1900s. Slatted swing doors lead into a room where the walls are crowded with mounted bearskins, moose heads, stuffed beavers, black-and-white photos of miners, prospectors and fishermen-the last group wearing smug grins as they hold aloft their salmon trophies. Wooden posts, thickly covered with business cards of visitors from all over the world, punctuate the room-and for the sake of convenience a staple gun is within easy reach on the counter should a visitor wish to add to the collection. The floor is inches deep in sawdust. Their liquor menu lists only two items: "Expensive Shit" ($5.56) and "Cheap Shit" ($3.24). I forego both varieties of shit, and decide to gorge on a little horseflesh instead. "Dead horse Gulch" turns out to be less bloody than the name implies. It consists of smoked beef brisket served with barbecue dipping sauce, and an accompanying coleslaw salad. Not bad at all

Lunch over, we saunter along Franklin Street which appears to be the main drag. My guide book indicates that most of the buildings flanking the street still retain their original facades as, unlike many other Alaskan towns, Juneau has never experienced a major fire. The street curves and climbs up a steep hill, and we turn off onto a tributary road leading towards the waterfront.

Somewhere along the way, Darlene, Jack and I lose one other. It doesn't really matter. I shelter from the drizzle under sidewalk awnings and peer at window displays. Although some of the shops still stock the usual kitsch of key chains, totem poles and mass produced Eskimo dolls, most of the boutiques and art galleries are filled with expensive merchandise. The windows glitter with jewelry (amethysts, diamonds and sapphires set in filigreed gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets) as well as furs, Lladro porcelain figurines, oil paintings, West Coast native carvings of wood, antler horn and walrus ivory, tooled leather knife sheathes, bead ornaments, and an interesting variety of Russian Matreshka dolls, cloisonné trinkets and pretty miniature boxes of woven bark. The gold-rush days are over, but Juneau's wealth still pours in, mined today from the pockets of tourists who gladly invest in the town's abundance of superbly crafted objets d'art. With an average 450,000 summer visitors to the town each year, this translates to the equivalent of several pounds of shiny gold nuggets.

For all its veneer of sophistication, Juneau also has a folksy charm. I sit on a park bench munching on an apple and a local resident joins me for a chat. She is an elderly woman with black boot-button eyes, high Indian cheekbones and an infectious gurgling laugh. Her family roots in Juneau go back many generations, and she tells me that her great-grandfather was a seal trapper who traded with the Russians when this area was still a forested wilderness. "I remember when Front Street was just a dirt road," she says. "That was back in the late '20s when I was six years old. Then in the '30s it became one of the first paved streets in Alaska."

Juneau boasts other distinctions too. Prior to being designated as Alaska's capital city in 1906, it was the first Alaskan town founded by America in 1880 following the territorial acquisition of the State from Russia. The borough boundaries cover 3,108 sq. miles so it is, geographically speaking, one of the largest cities in the world. Towering to a height of 3,800 feet, Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts seal the city off from the interior which means that Juneau is accessible only by boat or plane. Today it is home to 30,000 people, comprising approximately half the population of South East Alaska.

My companion stands up to leave. "Be sure to take a look at our State Museum," she advises. "It's real interesting. Lots of old photos of the miners and loggers. There's even a group picture with my dad in it. He was a fisherman back then."

But I have to forego the pleasure of seeing the Alaska State Museum this time around. The S.S. Universe Explorer is due to leave Juneau in less than an hour so I reluctantly retrace my steps back to the wharf. I glance at my guidebook again, wishing I'd had the time to visit several other attractions including St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, the Capitol building, and the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. "Oh well," says Darlene as I whine about this at the dining table, "all the more reason for us to come back again next year!" I respond with an emphatic thumbs up "Right on lady!" .

IF YOU GO:

The Norwegian Wind and several other cruise ships ply the Alaska coast from Vancouver, B.C. Contact your local travel agent.

Margaret Deefholts Website