Alaska Finale—Juneau

Our cruise ends in Juneau, but our exploration of Alaska continues here. From previous visits, I remember this town as friendly, quirky, and teeming with beautiful surroundings. So our plan includes a couple of days here.

My first priority is to return to the amazing, garden-like wilderness trail on Mt. Roberts. This becomes even more urgent when our first shore day appears clear and sunny, a real rarity here. A tram takes visitors directly up to 1300’ elevation [check #], where you can enjoy the unspoiled forest, once you get past the espresso bar, the gift shop, and the “nature center” (essentially another gift shop).

A loop trail with only modest ups and downs takes in spectacular views, a taste of meadows above the tree line, a stroll through the upper range of the hemlock forest. But with easy access from the cruise ships, and this morning’s fine weather, the trail is rather crowded. (When I was here 18 or 19 years ago, it had not yet become the premier destination in Juneau).

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Going off-trail is impossible; among other objections, the ground is very muddy. So I hustle along with the crowds, weighing options. Another trail climbs higher toward the peak, but without my trekking poles, this would put more demand on my legs than I can manage for long. A third choice is the quiet trail through the forest back down to town, about 2.5 miles. But when I ask the rosy-faced youths who have just dashed up, I learn that this trail is very muddy, too. That, too, I judge, would be stressful without poles or even proper boots; so I will postpone that trek for a time when I might be better equipped. I take in the pleasure of at least a brief contact with the forest, and prepare to return on the tram.

2346 Daniel
Daniel with Orca drum

At the ticket-taking counter, the agent is a young native; a drum sits on the counter in front of him. Is that your drum? I ask. He offers it to me to try. It is beautifully crafted, with very unusual (non-traditional) colors, and resonates beautifully. Where did you get it? —I went hunting for the deer skin, he says modestly, my brother hunted for the seal skin. I want to ask him more (seal skin??), but now he is busy checking in other passengers. Finally I ask him where he suggests I shop for a drum, and he tells me, the Trading Post, next to the Post Office.

From the bottom of the tramway, I go looking for the trading post.



The trading post is easy to find. It has 6 or 7 rooms on two floors, with drums on most of the walls—well over 100 displayed, in all. Many Raven designs, many Salmon; a few Eagle, Bear, Wolf, Beaver, Whale, Frog—the usual array of Tlingit totems. I try a few, but realize I need more time to decide. I hope that a dream might bring me a totem animal to tell me, at least, what design to look for when I come back tomorrow.

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From the hotel, the only view is of a great canyon wall with glistening waterfalls high above the town. (I later get this identified as Mt. Juneau, which I viewed across the valley from Mt. Roberts). Nice sight, changing with the weather.

I do not dream that night, but Sunday morning, returning to the store, I am able to narrow my choices anyway. Of the totems available, Bear is the one I feel most connected with. The biggest drums, with moose-hide skins, are costly and cumbersome; the smallest, not resonant enough. That narrows it down to two, and it’s easy to pick the one with the clearest sound—despite the saleslady’s insistence that they all sound the same, when properly warmed with an electric hair dryer

Bear drum

With Sandy, I nose around a few more stores and galleries, including one carefully-curated exhibit of Native ceremonial crafts; but the call of the trees is still tugging at me. Sandy and I part. I wander up back streets, which, with their steep hills and steps, remind me of old San Francisco neighborhoods like Telegraph Hill.

I am looking to get closer to the trees, and soon find myself at the edge of town where the forest begins. I enter by the first footpath I see: narrow and muddy, but a trio of gold finches appear in front of me, egging me on. What a place to be faery-led! A text message from Sandy interrupts the trance; my faery escort disappears, and a few yards later, so does the path. Back to the road.

2365 road pano

It’s a beautiful and easy walk from here, along Basin Road, to the trailhead up to Mt. Roberts. This road runs up the canyon whose wall I have been admiring from the hotel, and it’s just as inviting up close. A little parking lot at the trailhead; here there’s enough space to a take a little byway into the trees. Fully in the forest at last! I take out my new drum. Bear wants to take a look at his forest! I drum for awhile, but with people coming along the nearby trail every few minutes, this is not the place to launch an Otherworld journey, and it’s too wet for me to go deeper into the woods. (I started the day thinking only of shopping, so I don’t really have outdoor gear on me).

Across the road from this trailhead is another, for the Flume Trail. What’s this? It descends briefly to the side of the roaring creek, crosses a little bridge, and doubles back downstream on the other side. I ask a passing stroller, and learn that yes, this goes back to town, and it’s pretty. I’m on my way.

Since the canyon is so steep and wet, most of the trail is built as a boardwalk, over the fragile ground, or a causeway, leaping over avalanche zones. The forest is amazing, with waterfalls every few hundred feet.


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Finally, the boardwalk ends back on solid ground, but only within spitting distance of the houses at the edge of town. I find another sitting place among the hemlocks for a bit more drumming. The Bear drinks in the moist air of the rainforest and lowers her voice. Hmmm. Remember this, my dear drum, and sing well for me.

By the time I have walked back to the hotel, my soul is satisfied, but legs are quite tired. Enough for the day, and enough for Juneau. Tomorrow, homeward.

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