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The Glacier at Juneau Is Vista to Melt the Ice

August 07, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

JUNEAU, Alaska — Our helicopter moved slowly toward the shimmering pinnacles and frozen mountain peaks of the massive Juneau Ice Field.

We seemed to be at the same altitude as the sculptured crests of snow and ice as our chopper drew closer to them.

Then we drifted over and between the icy spires. The grand vistas in all directions made it easy to believe that the Juneau Ice Field is larger than the state of Rhode Island, though we were scarcely 10 miles from downtown Juneau, capital city of Alaska.

Suddenly the glistening, blue-white ice of the Mendenhall Glacier appeared below us. The deep pools and crevasses reflected a range and depth of blues, from turquoise to aquamarine and sapphire.

My wife Elfriede and I took this helicopter trip with novelist James Michener and his wife Mari. Michener's years of intensive research in the state are behind him, what with the release of his latest novel, "Alaska."

Little Ice Age

A light rope stretched across one area of the icy surface was a reminder to us not to step too close to a mild-looking crevasse that could be 200 feet deep. The compressed ice under our boots had fallen as snow at least 100 years ago.

The Mendenhall Glacier was formed during the Little Ice Age from 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. It's about 12 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide at the face. It has been in retreat since around 1750, moving back into the valley at about 30 feet a year.

By no means the largest or the oldest of the glaciers in this part of the state, the Mendenhall has become the most-viewed in southeast Alaska either by helicopter, self-drives or tours to the visitor center, hiking trails and nature walks, rafting and kayaking. Nearly 200,000 visitors viewed the Mendenhall in one way or another during the past year.

For a contrasting adventure available to all Juneau visitors, the four of us followed the chopper experience by rafting Mendenhall River beneath the spectacular face of the glacier and around the nearby icebergs. We wore rubber boots, pants and hooded rain-parkas to keep dry as well as warm.

The white-water rapids are not wild compared to many in the West and Pacific Northwest, but the chill of the water makes it prudent to keep as dry as possible.

From the river raft we could look up, sometimes through spray, at a helicopter drifting like a small bird over and between the ice pinnacles above the Mendenhall Glacier. A shoreline snack during the trip refuels rafters with smoked salmon, reindeer sausage, cheese, crackers and a back-country toddy locally described as "Mendenhall Madness."

The rafting ended beneath Brotherhood Bridge, where a waiting motor coach quickly brought us back to downtown Juneau.

As another indication of all that this vibrant capital city, with a population of only 25,000, can mean to a visitor, our day had started by being picked up from the Sitmar Fairsky cruise ship for a horse-and-buggy tour of historic and contemporary Juneau.

There can be no more leisurely way to introduce attractions that range from the state's marble-pillared Capitol, the turn-of-the-century Governor's Mansion, the historic landmark of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, the House of Wickersham and its treasures of Alaskan history, the Alaska State Museum and the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. The latter traces the story of this area from its rich Tlingit Indian and totem pole heritage to the lusty gold-mining era and the arts and culture of today.

Historic Buildings

City walks later took us closer to all of this. Unlike many Alaskan cities, Juneau has never been ravaged by fire, flood or earthquake. Small hotels, restaurants, gift shops and saloons are in restored historic buildings.

The Capitol was built in 1930 as the Territorial & Federal Building. Since statehood in 1959 it has housed the governor's office and the state Senate and House of Representatives, whose sessions are open to residents and visitors. Alaskan marble was carved for the entry pillars. A replica of the Liberty Bell is rung on the Fourth of July.

The dramatic glass and concrete architecture of the State Office Building is counterpointed by the old Memorial Library and the Tlingit Totem Pole, carved for the 1967 Alaska Centennial.

Wickersham House is a museum being restored to the home it was for Judge James Wickersham, who came to Alaska in 1900 to found the first court. During guided tours of the house a cup of Russian tea is served on the sun porch.

As delegate to the U.S. Congress, Judge Wickersham introduced the first statehood bill and legislation establishing Mt. McKinley National Park, the Alaska Railroad and the University of Alaska.

Walks and Trails

Local writer Mary Lou King, on behalf of the Juneau Audubon Society and the Taku Conservation Society, has published a 93-page book on "90 Short Walks Around Juneau," each spanning from one to three hours. It's available at visitor centers and bookstores for $4.95.

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