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It's Cozy, Don't Juneau

October 18, 1987|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

JUNEAU, Alaska — I walked into the Red Dog Saloon the other evening to get out of the cold. In Alaska you're always trying to escape from the cold or the wet, although Alaskans are defensive about their weather and insist it really isn't as tough as everyone says.

The Red Dog is a warm and snug place where Robert Service would have felt right at home, whooping it up with a bunch of the boys. There's sawdust on the floor, the stuffed head of a Kodiak bear on the wall and a congenial mix of tourists and locals huddled around little tables discussing the great issues of the day--salmon and the weather.

I settled onto a bar stool and ordered a bag of peanuts and a sarsaparilla, having decided I'd try the Yukon Jack whiskey later. The bartender told me the Red Dog had been built before the turn of the century, although it had been just across the street until it was moved to its present location intact in 1942.

With its walls of wooden planks and its cluttered collection of guns, old photographs, flags, beer mugs and bugles, the saloon feels as if it is still part of Juneau's 19th-Century gold rush days.

Most Beautiful Capital

What I like about the Red Dog is what I like about Juneau, which, my guidebook tells me, is "the most beautiful capital in America." Both the saloon and the city exude the ambiance of Alaska itself, part frontier, part cosmopolitan, a land that just doesn't remind you of anywhere else you've ever been.

Juneau, one of the state's most popular ports for cruise liners, is squeezed onto the mainland between snowcapped Mt. Juneau and Gastineau Channel.

Its narrow, twisting streets, Victorian homes and Old West storefronts, its "Lady Lou Revue" at the Perseverance Theater and its nearby Mendenhall Glacier that is bigger than Rhode Island have endowed this pint-size capital (population 28,000) with a charm that has long since faded from Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Only a few years ago Juneau was wetting pretty seedy, despite the beauty of its natural setting. The downtown area was neglected and ramshackle. Stores were closing and heading for the suburbs. South Franklin Street, where the Red Dog is, was a collection of sleazy saloons and tacky souvenir shops, and no one seemed to care much. It was, in the words of one state legislator: "A crummy, little town."

Things had gone downhill since 1974, when Alaskans voted to move the capital out of isolated Juneau, a town you can only reach by air or water, but not road. They chose Willow, a bend in the road north of Anchorage. Transferring the capital would have cost $2.8 billion.

In 1982, with the end of the oil boom in sight, Alaskans wisely decided to keep the capital right where it was.

A Fine Old Town

Since then, $10 million in private and public money has gone into fixing up Juneau, and this fine old town, named after miner Don Juneau, who staked his claim here 107 years ago, has started to shine again like a nugget of gold.

The historic downtown has been spruced up with paint, buckets of flowers, old-fashioned street lamps and a distinct gold rush atmosphere. Even McDonald's got into the spirit when it took over an abandoned grocery store and agreed to maintain a turn-of-the-century look--and to keep its golden arches small.

You can walk from one end of the town to the other in about the time it takes to eat an ice cream cone, but don't let that fool you.

Juneau covers 3,108 square miles, considerably larger than Delaware, and is, therefore, the United States' largest city. I would have sworn Juneau was also the country's least-populated state capital. Wrong, I was told; four are smaller--Dover, Del.; Augusta, Me.; Pierre, S.D., and Montpelier, Vt.

No mention of Juneau would be complete without a word about the weather, and that word is wet.

Only 44 days a year--mostly in spring and summer--are likely to be sunny, according to the National Weather Service, and only on a single day all year--July 8--is there a greater than 50% chance of it not raining.

Downtown Juneau receives an average of 92 inches of rain and eight feet of snow a year.

But no matter. Just bring a rain coat or a fur parka.

And when the cold starts to sting, drop into Red Dog Saloon for a pick-me-up, then wander around the corner to the Viking restaurant for a $2 cup of halibut chowder. It's a guaranteed panacea for the bad-weather blues.

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