Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Great Northern Tour, Part I: The Last Frontier

M and I are back in New York now, still sorting through the many great photos and memories from our Great Northern Tour. We gave it that name out of an eagerness to inject a little dramatic narrative into our trip, and it turned out our journey more than lived up to the implied drama of its title.

The trip began in Juneau, moved on to Whitehorse, and ended in Banff, with pit stops in Seattle on either end. Each step of the way it was like God was hitting us over the head with the beauty of nature until we city people cried out in awe-struck submission.

I'm going to divide the tour into three parts, one for each of the three cities we visited, starting with...


From the moment we landed, Juneau blew us away with its wild beauty.

Actually, the magic began even before we'd touched down. See that big, shiny, blue-white, waterfall-like thing behind us? That's Mendenhall Glacier, and you can see it from way up in the air, like a gorgeous mirror inviting you to land and have a look.

Here's a closer shot of the glacier. That bright blue spot that looks like it was crayoned by a child wasn't photo-enhanced by me--that's really how blue the fresh ice is. You're looking at an area where ice has recently calved off.

All of Juneau is located within a national state park, and you can feel that wildness without straying far from the paved roads. For example, all the street lights have a T-shaped bar on top that turned out to be eagle rests.

As soon as we landed, Jeff, gracious host and managing director from the theater who was presenting us, took us to the glacier. He said we wouldn't actually stop, but that since it was so close to the airport he always likes to bring folks by there before heading into town.

Now, some of you may already know this about M and me, but it's important I make this clear before we proceed. The husband and I are wild about bears. And never having seen one in the wild before, only in zoos, and never having set foot in Alaska before, it was my deepest wish that I might be granted even the slightest glimpse of a bear during our time in the Great North.

But given that we'd arrived in late September, I wasn't sure if the bears would already be off getting their winter dens ready. I was shyly asking Jeff about our chances of an ursine encounter as we were pulling into the parking lot for the glacier's visitor center, and lo and behold--what do we see but a beautiful black bear with two little cubs right on her heel, one black, one cinnamon?

These particular bears were very used to the presence of humans. A harried park ranger stood by the side, warning us and the rest of the gawking, paparazzi-like tourists to STAND BACK! SHE'S BEEN IN A BAD MOOD ALL WEEK AND YOU DO NOT WANT TO STEP CLOSER, SIR!

But what a stirring sight! And what a spectacular omen of good things to come, that we saw three bears within fifteen minutes of landing.

A few days later we'd see a convocation of bald eagles--which, it turns out, is the name for a grouping of eagles, much more dignified than a murder or a gaggle, and befitting of a national emblem. There were at least twenty-five of them, young and old, feasting on salmon that were trying to make their way through a channel to the river. (The ones with darker heads in the photo above are still young; as they mature their heads and tails turn to that distinctive white.)

Growing up in Seattle, I'd seen bald eagles before--but never so many of them all together, and never so close. They are big. Like, imagine my pug dog, but with wings.

Did you know that eagles mate for life? Did you also know that the leading cause of death for young eagles is having a jealous sibling push you out of the nest to your death so that he or she can keep all of your parents' attention for themselves?

Juneau is full of landscapes ideal for contemplating the harsh mysteries of nature.

And for feasting on it. One of the theater's board members had us to her home and served us two types of smoked salmon that she and her husband had caught and smoked themselves. I'd had smoked salmon before, but never smoked salmon belly. Wow. It's good stuff.

Locals sometimes apologized for the weather, which was unrelentingly rainy while we were there. "You should see this place in May," they said, when the views of the encircling mountains are clear.

But I loved the clouds. They weave among the trees in rapid, graceful swirls. They are unlike clouds or fog I've seen anywhere else, and for me are the most breathtaking and dynamic aspect of Juneau's beauty.

Our final night in Juneau, after our performance, we were heading back to our hotel around midnight. The hotel was downtown, in the most populated part of the city.

And what do we see, about a block away from our hotel, in front of the Subway sandwich shop? A huge grizzly bear. We stopped the car and watched him through our rear view mirror. We could hear the laughter of a large group of humans who had just exited a nearby bar.

The bear appeared unfazed. And then another car approached and strafed him with their headlights. At this, the bear began to ran. He dashed across the street and into a nearby construction site.

It is really something, to see so huge and lumbering a creature suddenly break into a run. He must have been going 35 mph, and he went from zero to gone, just like that. Having seen it with our own eyes, Mike and I finally understand why everyone tells you you can't outrun a bear.

Next up: Our ferry from Juneau to Skagway, and our drive to Whitehorse through the scenic Canadian Rockies. Highlights will include . . . another bear! We'll get even closer. And survive to tell the tale.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff! I'm a bear bum myself - most of the slides I took in our early years don't have Karen or John in them, but an amazing number of bears in zoos from here to Chicago and points east. One of my to-do projects after we move to Seattle will be scanning all our slides and deciding which to keep. Ahem...

SM said...

God, what gorgeous pictures. I'm ashamed that I've never visited, living so close to Alaska! Can't wait for the next installment.

JM said...

Don't be ashamed--just go! It's perfect for a long weekend from Seattle. 1.5 hours in the air, and you're there, and the ride is gorgeous--all those snow-covered mountains in between.

John Scott Tynes said...

This is beautifully written, JM.