Where the city ends, Juneau Icefield begins—and keeps going and going. Undoubtedly, its centerpiece is Mendenhall Glacier. Like just about everything else in Southeast Alaska, it sits inside Tongass National Forest. Incredibly, a temperate rainforest no less, which in parts endures more than 16 feet of annual rainfall. No surprise that a fine drizzle falling on the coastal city is often present, wetting the leaves and branches, then gathers into big drops that plop onto your head and arms. Although the rain is such a natural occurrence in Juneau, it almost starts to feel invisible. The incessant murmur on the rooftops wasn’t likely to dampen the euphoria here.
The sky had started off bluffing, convoys of grey clouds scurrying across like sheep to market. The clouds pulled their usual stunt and the rain didn’t let up. I let it beat on my head. I didn’t mind. Rain was familiar. But by afternoon, the raindrops stopped smacking me on the head, giving way to a perfect blue canopy stretched from horizon to horizon.
An undulating 4.5-mile hike on a land route that’s fairly well marked, is steep and slippery in part, bestowed us with intimate views of this gigantic glacier known as Mendenhall Glacier. At more than 12 miles long from start to finish, looking at the glacier from any angle was a jaw-on-the-floor one. In fact, its face alone spanned about half a mile, rising 100-feet from the waterline where the end of the glacier gave way to an iceberg-littered lake called Mendenhall Lake.
The glacier originally had two names, Sitaantaagu (“Glacier Behind the Town”) and Aak’wtaaksit (“Glacier Behind the Little Lake”). It began forming about 3,000 years ago and stopped growing in the mid-1700s. Sadly, it’s rapidly receding, making now a precious time to see one of the most breathtaking visions around. The glacier is partially hollow; melting reveals astonishing ice caves where blue water runs over blue rocks, creating surreal lava-lampish images.
Gloriously, you get to look up to Mendenhall’s face of ice, where sometimes fragments break away with resounding cracks that reverberate through the cool air. Truly, it’s a thing of majestic beauty, with the light glistening on its towering spires, waves playing about its feet and bald eagles saluting it as they speed by. Coupled with when she occasionally dispenses a mass of icebergs, is nothing short of incredible.
Lurking beneath was a vision of aquamarine blue colliding with emerald green in an endless supply of ruggedness. An ice cave. It was radically different, like a new colour in the rainbow. We arrived with the clamour and excitement of the circus coming to town. The first thing I noticed was a glint in Jason’s eye and the grin that went with it. I shrieked in excitement and leaped onto the ice.
The ice caves are among the world’s most stunning, with their eerie, swelling blue domes that resemble the underside of a rapid river, flash-frozen. The one we found was approximately 100-feet long, 30-feet wide and 12-feet at its highest point, situated in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest temperate rainforest.
Like hidden treasure, these caves take some skill to find, and professional guides are strongly recommended. Although we went self-guided, told a reliable friend where we were headed and equipped ourselves with a day’s worth of provisions, a good trail map and glacier-travel equipment such as crampons, a hard hat and an ice axe.
Adult brown bears, also known as “coastal grizzlies” can grow to mammoth proportions, are powerfully built and dangerous when threatened. But despite their names, brown bears can be black and black bears can be brown, cinnamon, or even blue (the rare Southeast Alaska “glacier bear”).
So with fur from caramel macchiatos, café au lait to coal, how do you discern the difference? Their keen wet noses and soulful eyes also mark the brownies and the black bears alike, but with a flatter face and pronounced shoulder hump of the former, and smaller claws of the latter. Having heard stories firsthand that the black bears are everywhere in Juneau, one even relayed when a bear had walked into the city and strolled into a downtown bar once (no joke!). I had high hopes.
Having bumped into Dirk (with his partner Dara), a naturalist who happened to be visiting Mendenhall Glacier, it took no more than a lick of sense to recognise he knew the habits of one particular black bear. Late afternoon sunlight burned along the edges of the creek and shimmered in the bristly fur of a lone black bear. After a few moments, he snorted and trotted off up the hill to take refuge. As his hunger crystallized as rock salt, I preoccupied myself with bubbling elation.
Under Dirk’s brisk and cheerful tutelage, off we trailed alongside the bear, deeper into the darkening forest. Now and again, the bear would take a salmon and then leisurely take another. At this point it was only stubbornness (or stupidity) that kept me following, but sometimes that’s all you need. The trail cut through the forest where the dense canopy of the spruce made it feel like in the wee, dark hours. No urban sounds or voices were to be heard here. In fact, no one knew where we were. I stood on the low bridge above the creek, looking out for her. Only the stillness of a forest and the quiet of trees rustling and water flowing down the creek.
Out of nowhere, he appeared at my feet. Poked his snout through and sniffed keenly at my feet. The bear breathed, my heart leaped. I was experiencing my own private survival. Strange to say, if you do not stamp yourself with the words exhilarated or terrified, those two things feel exactly the same in a body. Curious, he inched his face forward.
He keenly cocked its head and twisted one ear, wondering at the new sight on its familiar trail. His eyes were expressive dark pearls but there was no exchange that traded how-are-yous and I-am-wells. No. The hungry eyes beneath the low brow stared out at me; in that moment told me he wanted something and wondered if I was prepared to supply it. It felt as though the bear could read the progression of my every thought.
Of all the qualities I knew about the bears, I never thought I’d personally experience perhaps their most important one, their acquiescence, an availability to grab whatever they seek. It was close, probably a bit too close. And not in my wildest daydreams did I imagine we’d strike it big in Juneau. Giving the memories a chance to breathe over a coastal city whose mist is often inches off the ground. There was a quality to the city’s pellucid first light and the vivid colours that made it impossible to imagine trouble.
Clambering over Mendenhall glacier; penetrating its ice caves beneath; basking in bald eagle heaven; babbling over the bubble net feeding frenzy; having a black bear sniffing me out; even glimpsing the orcas; the harbour seals, a beaver and a porcupine going about their business at dusk; it left me light-headed, giddy even.
What more now I ask you? Juneau had somehow plugged a hole in my appetite that I didn’t know I had until now. The part of me that saw and registered the world, chronicled Juneau in an inner ledger for posterity, which was well seated inside my body. Gradually, the coastal city, the vivid green colours, the gleaming topaz blue crystal, the gentle rain, the way the light fell on the glaciated mountains, the waterfalls and flowing creeks, and above all this the sweep of sky with clouds guarding the forest, it had an effect on me.
I felt a sense of peace, a sense of certainty where there had been none in Haines, or Skagway. I felt certain this was the spot for me. This was a pure and noble side of the world, uncorrupted by mass urbanization and mountains of people.
We’d won the lottery without buying a ticket, I thought. And all because of those we’d fortuitously met—both wild and civilized—who were receptive to making people’s brains roar with excitement, life and colour. It permitted me to experience an Alaskan’s Alaska.
I’ve said this before but I hope you experience it for yourself, I really do.