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July 9th 2015
Published: November 3rd 2015
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Returning to Juneau, the state capital, our most common hub and sometime overnight camping location for the last time was nostalgic and bittersweet. It was an overnight voyage and the glow of other ship lights and moonlit glaciers were dreamlike in their beauty.

During the trip, we shared crowded seating with a family from our Haines campground. The Taylors, a dad, two sons and an adorable Australian Shepherd pup named Kelly were hauling a truck and boat for a month’s family vacation in Sitka from their home in Portland Oregon. The rest of their family would fly into Sitka to meet them.

When we arrived at the terminal and had trouble getting a taxi to our Mendenhall Lake Campground, the Taylors swung by and offered us a ride. Their gesture turned out to be mutually beneficial because they immediately changed their Juneau plans and reserved a lakeside site at the same campground because of the spectacular views there of the Mendenhall Glacier.

Bus rides and cell service

From literature and word-of-mouth, the bus stop was right next to the campground. It was actually more like a mile from the entrance and that became a problem. For the first time on our trip, the forecast was non-stop rain. It didn’t seem to bother Alaskans. They walked, jogged and rode bikes in it without any umbrella, raingear or fenders. Fisherman went out on boats for hours in heavy cotton sweatshirts. But for us campers, we hated getting wet because there was little prospect of getting dry in the near future.

We used our first bus trip to get to the Verizon Wireless store. There are only two Verizon locations in the Inside Passage, Ketchikan and Juneau, and this was my first opportunity to convert from pre-pay to a service plan that would allow me to have cell service in Alaska. It had to be done in person and during business hours. We had gone 2 ½ weeks on foot and ferry unable to make a phone call or use GPS. Without internet at libraries, we would have been lost!

On our bus ride back to camp, we met the lovely dining room manager of the Timberline Bar & Grill, the restaurant at the top of the Mount Roberts Tram in downtown Juneau. She told us a fascinating story about how she fended off a black bear that came to her window at home by batting it in the nose. We also learned from her that black bears that become a nuisance are flown to one of the A-B-C (Admiralty/Baranoff (Sitka)/Chichagof) Islands, habitat of the brown bear. Brown bears are known as grizzlies elsewhere and are threatening to black bears so this is the way “bad bear” problems are resolved. As she disembarked, she invited us to come up to her restaurant as her guests sometime during our stay.

Camping in the rain

Back in our 2 person tent that night, we lay there with the constant sound of rain pinging rhythmically off the nylon wall next to our ears. If you’ve ever experienced this, you’ll identify with the phenomenon that even a light rainfall sounds like a steady drizzle and normal rain sounds like a downpour. For whatever reason, you must recognize that it’s not as bad as it sounds and force yourself to climb outside once the deluge slows to a regular pattern.

Facing being wet hostages to the weather for nearly a week, we used the cell phone to find a local Rent-a-Wreck, Juneau Car Rental, and called them up. At half the price of national brands, they were fully reserved for the weekend but could give us a car on Monday for the last 3 days of our stay. We could also call each day to see if anything had freed up. The prospect of a car, even days away, buoyed our spirits so we planned a hike for the next day that could be reached from our campground.

West Mendenhall Glacier

The Mendenhall Glacier feeds into the large somewhat circular Lake Mendenhall. The campground is situated on the west side, and is roughly a mile from the trailhead that leads to either the Ice Caves or the west side of the glacier itself. Multiple signs were posted about the dangers of the terrain, poorly improved trails and the instability of the ice caves.

The rain was relatively intermittent so we weren’t drenched. Surprisingly, there was no official sign once on the hike to where the West Glacier hike splits off to the left and above the Ice Caves trail so we, like most people, ended up on top of a big moraine, the pile of rock and dirt debris created by the glacier. This was the official terminus of the Ice Caves hike and ended at the edge of a glacial field that separated us from the ice caves. It was very tempting to continue on to the dirt-covered surface and walk to explore the caves. However, there were many crevasses on that expanse and the depth of the ice was suspect as water flowed beneath it to the lake. The ice caves themselves could collapse at any time without warning.

We decided to complete the West Glacier trail instead. Backtracking, we found a handcrafted sign that pointed the way and began the climb. It was wet and treacherous at points. Mossy surfaces looked deceptively safe but frequently slid out from underfoot and left only wet granite. At many points in the hike, we had to scale slippery rock ledges with tiny finger and footholds. The payoff was a magnificent vantage point above the glacier. From our fantastic bird’s eye view, we also enjoyed watching helicopters fly tourists in and land on the heart of the glacier.

Snoopy and East Mendenhall Glacier

The next day, we called the car rental and were told they did have an older station wagon that had become available one day early. We agreed to give it a try and they picked us up at the campground entrance. When we arrived at the lot, we were introduced to “Snoopy”, an old white Ford Escort they maintained was a reliable veteran of their fleet. We were ecstatic to have any vehicle and despite the engine light coming on frequently (we called and they said that happened all the time and could be ignored if the engine wasn’t hot), Snoopy was our solid companion for the rest of our stay in Juneau.

We drove our new ride to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center run by the US Forest Service on the east side of the lake. There are many easy trails from the center and this is where most cruise ship visitors see the glacier. There is one moderate hike that may have provided great views at one time but sadly, with the amount that the glacier has receded, we could no longer even see the glacier from the lookouts. Visitors do get adequate views of the glacier from the east side but these do not compare with those on the west.

Exploring Juneau by car and Eagle Glacier

With the advantage of a car, we drove all the way to Juneau, explored its streets and shops. The quality of the merchandise, artwork and restaurant menus was overall the highest we saw in any of the towns in the Inside Passage. It was also one of the few towns with movie theaters including a small indie arts cinema.

After driving as far east possible in Juneau to the end of Thane Road, then crossing the bridge to Douglas Island and the housing developments with views of the city, we drove as far west as possible (on Glacier Hwy, Rt 7), stopping at the peaceful Shrine of St. Therese (http://www.shrineofsainttherese.org/ ) and ending at Point Bridget State Park.

Returning, we stopped to hike to Eagle Glacier, which we had admired from the ferry. This trail was not well marked and apparently washed out by a wide and occasionally deep glacial river. We were able to cross the river by placing rocks as stepping stones in narrower portions. Following some pink surveyor’s tape and cairns (little rock piles that indicate trail routes) left by other hikers, we did find an alternate path to reconnect with the official route but ultimately we reached a point we could go no further. The best view of the glacier was early in the hike so all the scrambling and trailblazing, although an interesting challenge, was not productive.

On our last day in Juneau, we took the tram from downtown Juneau up to the restaurant and found our friend from the bus. We were treated with a family rate to an excellent meal but the tram ride was a budget buster for us at $33.00 each. She had tipped us off to ask for the local rate but that was only available to those with Alaskan IDs. A better approach is to hike up (steep mile) to the top and request a one-way return trip ($10.00). There is a lot of hiking in addition to short overlook walks from where the tram lets you off on Mt. Roberts. As a caution though, the hiking can be dangerous because of terrain even for experienced hikers (http://juneauempire.com/local/2015-07-06/searchers-find-body-missing-man).

After dropping off Snoopy, we were given a ride by the rental car owner to the airport to catch a flight to Anchorage. Our 3 ½ week exploration of the Inside Passage by foot and ferry was now complete and our adventure would now continue in the interior.

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