JUNEAU, Alaska — A sunny day in Juneau is cause for a celebration. In fact, there was a time that whenever the sun ruled over a cloudless sky, the governor pronounced a "sun holiday" for southeast Alaska. Boaters have been known to cut short a salmon-fishing trip in order to haul out and paint their vessels in the sunshine. "Juneau sneakers" (rubber boots) are put aside, flannel shirts are shed and pale skin turns sunward in the pink.
"For me, a day like this makes it all worthwhile," said a smiling taxi driver. "You don't really know how good the sunshine feels until you've spent a winter in Juneau."
Maybe the fish bite better in the rain ("If you don't believe that, you couldn't live here," said a fishing boat captain), but I wouldn't have missed this sunny day in Juneau for the world.
Flying Over the Glacier
A small plane took me from Skagway to Juneau early in the morning, southward along the Taiya Inlet and then over Montana Creek to glide along the glacier. On all sides were brilliant blues: rocky cliff faces, distant mountains, the cloudless sky, cold waters that plunge to depths of 400 feet, and now below us the unending ice fields.
First a quick tour of the town, a sparkling wash of sun-drenched brightness, painters painting, photographers immortalizing Juneau at its prettiest, strollers on every hand. We passed the picturesque Russian Orthodox Church, the shiny new Native American Building (which locals call "the Spam can" for its rounded corners and aluminum look), and took a quick stroll past the houses hanging from the hillsides like a northern version of San Francisco.
The next stop was the Temsco Heliport. Temsco Glacier Tours offers, for $99, a "Step Into Another World," that is, a helicopter tour of Mendenhall Glacier.
Leaving our shoes behind, we pulled on lightweight spongy boots that seemed suitable for walking in space and took our seats in a four-person helicopter.
A Frozen Ocean
Within minutes we were hovering over the face of the glacier, a wide swath of ice extending 12 miles from its origin in the Juneau Ice Field. The glacier spread from one rock face to the other, like a frozen ocean, forbidding and barren.
We touched down for a walk around on the snow-covered glacier. When the rotors came to a stop, an indescribable silence enveloped us, and with no points of reference we lost all sense of the proportion of things. That avalanche-about-to-be, hanging from that cliff over there--how big is it? How far away? We heard a sound like distant thunder, all too loud, and from somewhere the invisible thud and roll of massive weight. Danger? In the silent stillness of this blue-white world?
As far as one could see was the undulating white spread of snow, with occasional rock outcroppings, pools of opalescent water, crevices that glinted with sharp edges of bright turquoise. At the edge of a cliff, some distance away, the avalanche cascaded in slow motion, like white taffy.
We reached down and grabbed handfuls of snow to throw at each other, an act of manageable proportions. And we talked about how much fun it would be to have a picnic here in the snow, with champagne, of course. We took steps, sinking into the mushy snow up to the tops of our boots, and posed for pictures that will glare with too much white.
Renewed Juneau Prosperity
Back in town, Juneau is reveling in a renewed lease on prosperity, with new shops and houses, restaurants and businesses swelling the local coffers. Things were on hold for years, waiting for Alaskans to make up their minds whether to move the state capital from Juneau to the Anchorage area. When the dollar signs were attached to the measure, Alaska voters turned down the move. With a sigh of relief, Juneau got back in business again.
But time enough to check out the galleries and boutiques another day. We grabbed a burrito from one of the food carts that dot the downtown streets at lunchtime. Its sign said: "Under a million sold."
A half-day fishing boat was waiting for us at the dock. We'd test the proposition that fish bite better in the rain.
Luckily for us, the skipper believes in Alaska time: "You leave when you leave, and you get there when you get there."
Fishing With Electric Freddy
Capt. Bill Nix (retired Alaska superintendent of public safety) steered the Har V Go past Auke Bay to an area called the Bread Line, and there we sat, bobbing in the afternoon sun, swapping stories about fishing: Electric Freddy, who'd once been hit by lightning and who went into total-body spasms whenever a fish bit; the Italian mama who arm-wrestled her adolescent son for jurisdiction of a particular fishing pole; the Booze Brothers, who toasted from a private flask every catch, strike, nibble, possibility of a nibble.
Just as everyone was about to call it a day (knowing that fish don't bite in the sun), Karen Perrier of Anchorage pulled in a 17-pound salmon. So at least the outing wasn't a total loss.