The Frozen Myth of Alaska
Published: June 2009
By Elizabeth Garnsey
No hibernating allowed in Alaska's inside passage.
One imagines Alaska in winter as dark, icy, and—unless you're a bear—too cold. Maybe that's true in Nome, where dogsledders mush across ice and snow at temperatures of 40 below. But farther south, in the Inside Passage (or the southeastern archipelago), winter means milder temperatures, eight hours of daylight, and some of the best skiing in North America. "We have a tough job dispelling the myth that we all live in igloos in winter," says the owner of one nature tour company. A land of long distances and vast resources, Alaska teems with life, from microscopic ice worms to moose the size of minivans. Indians living here a century ago didn't even have a word in their vocabulary for starvation. So cancel that trip to the tropics and treat yourself to a winter wonderland.
where to stay
Juneau has been Alaska's capital since 1906 and lodgings can fill up in winter, what with the legislature in session. Try the Silverbow Guest Inn (120 Second St.; 907/586-4146, fax 907/586-4242; doubles from $85), where rooms are furnished with antiques. At Juneau's oldest hotel, the Alaskan Hotel & Bar (167 S. Franklin St.; 800/327-9347 or 907/586-1000, fax 907/463-3775; doubles from $67), try to stay on the top floor; downstairs in the Alaskan Bar, bands play into the wee hours. Closer to nature is the Glacier Trail Bed & Breakfast (1081 Arctic Circle; 907/789-5646, fax 907/789-5697; doubles from $85), where rooms look onto the Mendenhall Glacier.
In Haines, the Summer Inn Bed & Breakfast (117 Second Ave.; phone and fax 907/766-2970; doubles $70) is in a house built by a member of the Soapy Smith gang, notorious gold rush bandits. The Captain's Choice Motel (108 Second Ave.; 907/766-3111, fax 907/766-3332; doubles from $74) has cedar-paneled walls and room service.
Tiny Gustavus (population 300) on Glacier Bay is a half-hour by air from Juneau. From the Annie Mae Lodge (2 Grandpa's Farm Rd.; 907/697-2346, fax 907/697-2211; doubles from $245, including meals), explore nearby Glacier Bay National Park. The rustically elegant Bear Track Inn (255 Rink Creek Rd.; 888/697-2284 or 907/697-3017, fax 907/697-2284; $393 per person for one night, including all meals and the flight from Juneau) offers winter scuba diving and heli-skiing packages.
To move about the Inside Passage, keep the following handy: Alaska Marine Highway System Auke Bay Ferry Terminal, Juneau; 800/642-0066 or 907/465-3941. • Taku Taxi 102 N. Franklin St., Juneau; 907/586-2121. At its headquarters, you can get a card good for 15 percent off rides. • Alaska Airlines 8745 Glacier Hwy., Juneau; 907/789-5538. • Haines Airways 108 Main St., Haines; 907/766-2646. • LAB Flying Service 390 Main St., Haines; 800/426-0543 or 907/766-2222.
Planes are to Alaska what cars are to Los Angeles: I can't not take a "flight-seeing" trip to the glaciers. So I ask some locals in Juneau's Alaskan Bar to recommend a pilot. Their friend Ed Laity is at the next table.
The following day, I loiter on the tarmac. I'm nervous that we won't be able to fly in the drizzle, but since 27-year-old Ed keeps puttering with his Piper Super Cub, I guess we're going for it. I experience doubt as he sticks duct tape over the oil cooler on the plane's nose. "More efficient than aluminum," he says. At last we pile in, strap on cross-your-heart seat belts, and duck into headsets. We're Woodstock and the Flying Ace.
Like a butterfly, the plane is in the air in five seconds. Beneath us, mountains and sea alternate black, blue, green, white. I see big treeless patches left from strip-mining; Ed says the trees may take decades to grow back. It's discouraging, but there are so many miles of trees, I admit that I feel less despair now than when I first read about the bare land.
We head toward Glacier Bay, where we fly over several glaciers, including the McBride, famous for its turquoise crevasses. Ed swoops down and throws open the window. I lean out with my camera, and all that comes between me and the ice is 50 feet of cold air.
Returning to Juneau, Ed talks about his years as a herring-spotter pilot, his winters diving for sea urchin and abalone, and his current project— building a lodge on nearby Baranof Island. Only in response to my questions does Ed reveal these things. Like many people here, he is friendly but mysterious.
Since Ed may not be in the Alaskan Bar during your visit, book ahead with Temsco Helicopters (877/789-9501 or 907/789-9501), Era Helicopters (800/843-1947 or 907/586-2030), or Ward Air (907/789-9150). Rates range from $155 to $575 per person. For a customized experience, call Sky Trekking Alaska (800/770-4966 or 907/373-4966; day trips from $1,370 for two).
Alaska Nature Tours, in Haines, offers daylong trips along the Haines Highway that can include stops in the 48,000-acre Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and at Three Guardsmen Pass for cross-country skiing. The drive demands a good guide: without one, you may go right past the ramshackle buildings that are Klukwan Village, a Tlingit settlement that has supposedly been there since the last ice age (local lore says the scalps of the first Russians who came ashore in the 18th century still hang in a clan house). You also might not know to look for moose among willows and alders, where they're most likely to linger.
Alaska Nature Tours 907/766-2876, fax 907/766-2844; day trips from $180 per person per day. For information on the Haines Highway and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, call Alaska State Parks at 907/465-4563.
Before setting out, heli-skiers learn the risks; most important, they learn not to head down the slope before the guides have assessed the odds of an avalanche. (Your mother will be happy to hear that you carry a Peep—an electronic tracking device—and a backpack with a snow shovel in it.) The precautions are daunting, but my first heli-skiing adventure spoiled me forever. Imagine virgin pistes on every run—no lifts, no lines, no traffic. Scan the range and choose any mountain you want.
The initial ride was only 10 minutes from Juneau to the 4,000-foot peak of Mount McGinnis, where our group (two guides, three plebes) hopped out and stepped into our skis. Asserting my Colorado upbringing, I declared that I was perfectly capable of skiing black-diamond runs but wouldn't mind starting easy, just to get the kinks out. So our guides, Bruce Griggs and Scott Sundberg, chose a mellow one.
And that, evidently, was enough of that. I soon faced a steep chute, the kind where you peek down at what looks like certain death. Normally, you have the choice of taking a blue hill instead—this time there was no turning back. But I made it down, thighs burning, hugely satisfied that I'd conquered the slope. The length of the runs was amazing: we sometimes skied 30 minutes before radioing the "bird."
I'd always felt that staying upright and not letting the snow touch above my boots was a point of pride. Not in heli-skiing. When the chopper would come to pick us up, we had to lie facedown to avoid being blown off the mountain or getting chopped to bits by the rotor. The result was a thorough coating of snow. But at the end of the day, every icy flake was worth it.
Out of Bounds Adventures 800/435-5932 or 907/789-7008; full-day trip from $425 per person.
be a sport
For a so-called off-season, there are a surprising number of ways to work up some heat. You can ski downhill and cross-country at Eaglecrest ski area (907/790-2001); hike Juneau's 100-plus miles of trails (the Forest Service has maps: 907/586-8751); ice-skate Mendenhall Lake and snowshoe nearby trails (rent snowshoes at Juneau's Foggy Mountain Shop, 907/586-6780); go dogsledding with Chilkoot Sled Dog Adventures in Haines (907/767-5667); and kayak to a sea lion rookery with Out of Bounds Adventures (800/435-5932 or 907/789-7008). Still haven't had enough?Some of the world's best diving takes place in Juneau's clear winter waters—the Channel Dive Center (907/790-4665) can take you down.
Two centuries of Russian and American explorers, missionaries, and traders; a rich natural habitat; a thriving culture among Alaska's indigenous groups—all have provided enormous stock for the region's museums and galleries.
Alaska State Museum 395 Whittier St., Juneau; 907/465-2901. The century-old museum's 25,000 art pieces and artifacts include an exhibit that takes visitors from a forest floor, up a winding ramp, past bear and wolf dioramas, to an eagle's nesting site at treetop level. There's also a quirky 1905 totem pole in the image of Abraham Lincoln that commemorates a Tlingit's momentous first sighting of a white man (who, of course, was not Abraham Lincoln). And check out the early kayak— which got its name from the legend of the magical canoe that Kayak, a mythic hero, used in conquering a sea monster.
Sheldon Museum & Cultural Center 11 Main St., Haines; 907/766-2366. In 1893, at the age of eight, Steve Sheldon started his collection of papers and objects with a piece of the original transatlantic cable. In 1911 he moved to Haines and set up the Sheldon Museum, an impressive repository of items from Haines's early pioneer days and Tlingit history. Look for one of his more interesting documents, an order for medicinal opium that Sheldon (a U.S. deputy marshal, and the town druggist) placed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. There are ivory carvings by Eskimos and ceremonial Chilkat blankets by the late Jennie Thlunaut, a Tlingit and one of the last master weavers, as well as examples of Alaska's finest Indian crafts, beadwork, and baskets, amassed by Sheldon's wife.
Alaska Indian Arts Historic Building No. 13, Fort Seward Dr., Haines; 907/766-2160. Watch some of Alaska's greatest carvers turn cedar, birch, and alder trees into massive totem poles. Historically, totems were used to display ownership, mark graves, honor tribal chiefs, or ridicule an offending neighbor. Today they are made-to-order at the AIA; they can take 750 hours and cost $2,000 a foot. (A Hollywood producer commissioned one for his wife, but never claimed it because the couple divorced in the three years it took to complete.)
American Bald Eagle Foundation Second Ave. at Haines Hwy., Haines; 907/766-3094. Bone up on the local environment before heading out into nature. Taxidermic specimens of more than 150 birds, fish, and mammals illustrate the Chilkat Valley's diverse wildlife. Guides are on hand to explain everything from the breeding habits of each animal to the region's food chain, not to mention the latest efforts to protect endangered species.
alaska's art darling
Rie Muñoz—Alaska's most famous living artist—has been documenting local life for over 30 years. With Chagall-like whimsy, 77-year-old Muñoz sketches the children, fishermen, and cannery workers she encounters during travels to remote islands and villages. She paints at her home on Juneau's Star Hill, which has also inspired many of her works. "It's a wonderful hill," she says. "Kids ski on the streets and play in clubhouses. There's also the Chicken Yard, a playground that used to be a real chicken yard belonging to some nuns who lived there. I can hear the bells ringing from St. Nicholas Church." Lithographs and serigraphs of her work ($45 and up) are on sale at the Rie Muñoz Gallery (2101 Jordan Ave., Juneau; 907/789-7411); originals are reserved for exhibitions.
where to eat
This is the frontier, so don't expect to eat as you would in Paris.
Hangar Pub & Grill 2 Marine Way, Juneau; 907/586-5018; dinner for two $40. Sourdough bread straight from the oven becomes a meal when paired with the chunky salmon chowder.
The Fiddlehead 429 W. Willoughby Ave., Juneau; 907/586-3150; dinner for two $75. Almost everything is local, from the art on the walls to the oysters on the menu. The casual lower level offers burgers and halibut tacos; upstairs there's live music and a fancier menu.
Valentine's Coffee House & Bakery 111 Seward St., Juneau; 907/463-5144; lunch for two $12. Where everyone goes at lunchtime. Have a mountainous sandwich (hummus with tomatoes and carrots on focaccia) or salad (Greek, Caesar, Thai). Come evening, pizza and concerts bring everybody back.
Silverbow Bagel Bakery 120 Second St., Juneau; 907/586-4146. Muffins, massive cookies, and bagels the New York way— hand-rolled and boiled.
Grizzly Greg's 126 Main St., Haines; 907/766-3622; lunch for two $12. To warm up after the four-hour ferry ride from Juneau, try one of Greg's calzones. As at most self-respecting pizza joints, there are red-and-white tablecloths and video games.
Mountain Market Third Ave. and Haines Hwy., Haines; 907/766-3340. The last stop before the Eagle Preserve. Fill your own thermos with coffee, or grab a cappuccino and a cinnamon roll. The fresh soups—tomato and rosemary, white bean and basil—are divine.
33 Mile Roadhouse Mile 33, Haines Hwy. (near Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve); 907/767-5510; lunch for two $15. Regulars say the burgers are Alaska's best.
shop to it
In winter, most of the touristy shops close. But at these worthy holdouts you might even spot locals. In Juneau, check out the new, the used, and the rare at Rainy Day Books (113 Seward St.; 907/463-2665); just around the block is the Observatory, a rare-book shop (235 Second St.; 907/586-9676). Most of the state's top artists are represented at Raven's Journey (175 S. Franklin St.; 907/463-4686). Pick up a pair of old-fashioned snowshoes or a turn-of-the-century basket from the Mount Juneau Trading Post (151 S. Franklin St.; 800/722-1909 or 907/586-3426). In Haines, Form & Function (209 Willard St.; 907/766-2539) has terrific beadwork and baskets. You can find contemporary jewelry and prints at the Wild Iris Shop (22 Soapsuds Alley; 907/766-2300), owned by former mayor Fred Shields and his wife, Madeleine.