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ALASKA SPECIAL ISSUE: Juneau : Frontierland : At the edge of the wild, the Alaskan capital has trendy trappings but a boom-town spirit

March 12, 1995|LEE DYE | Dye, a free-lance writer and former science writer for The Times, lives in Juneau

JUNEAU, Alaska — The front-page story told of a local hunter who'd shot and killed two charging brown bears in less than a minute--only to have his legs crushed when the second 1,000-pound beast fell on him.

I had just arrived in Juneau, a Coast Guard officer starting a yearlong assignment in the Last Frontier. Glancing up from my newspaper at the drizzling skies and bleak little clapboard houses in bare, muddy yards, I couldn't help but wonder: "Why was I here? Why was anybody here?"

That was more than 30 years ago, and Alaska's state capital--the only one in America inaccessible by highway--is a lot different now than it was when I saw it for the first time.

Those drab little houses, many of them clinging to the steep flanks of Mt. Juneau like nests for human swallows, have been painted bright colors and are surrounded with luminescent tulips and vivid rhododendrons. And an annual summer influx of more than 400,000 cruise passengers has helped transform Alaska's third-largest city (pop. 30,000) into an Aspen of the North, complete with coffeehouses, jazz bars and live theater.

But what kept bringing me back to Juneau to visit, and prompted me to build a home here three years ago, is what hasn't changed: its extraordinary setting in the midst of massive glaciers and the world's largest temperate rain forest.

Predicting rain in Juneau is as safe as predicting sunshine in Phoenix. Residents get used to it; the tourists are the ones with the umbrellas.

The town is nestled at the foot of mountains that rise about 4,000 feet straight up from the waters of Gastineau Channel, a narrow arm of southeast Alaska's Inside Passage. Across the channel, the mountains of Douglas Island rise nearly as high, trapping weather systems smack over the top of Juneau and dumping about 80 inches of rain and 100 inches of snow a year on the downtown area.

But the sun shines about half the days in a typical summer, giving downtown Juneau a glow. Its turn-of-the-century buildings have been gussied up, and places where ladies of the night once entertained gold prospectors have been turned into art galleries and shops selling smoked salmon and moose sweat shirts.

One feels a sense of history walking these narrow streets, and sometimes it seems as though a down-on-his-luck prospector is looking over your shoulder, about to ask if you could spare a few coins for a drink at the Red Dog Saloon.

The original Red Dog, built just after the turn of the century, no longer stands. The bar is now housed in a larger building down the street that recreates the vintage atmosphere just a few stumbles away from Marine Park, one of two cruise-ship terminals on the Juneau waterfront. (The two are only about a quarter of a mile apart.) With sawdust on the floor, stuffed animals on the rustic walls and boisterous entertainment, the Red Dog even lures locals into town during the height of the tourist season. Expect to be insulted by the piano player when you walk through the door.

*

My favorite spot in downtown Juneau--and an ideal destination for a rainy day--is the Alaska State Museum, just behind the Prospector Hotel on the waterfront. Narrowly focused on Alaska, this small museum includes an eagle tree where visitors can see up close just how magnificent these creatures are. A spiral walkway circles the tree, allowing you to walk past a nest like those used for generations by eagles in the wild. Several stuffed eagles are almost within arm's reach, and they are much bigger than they seem when seen along the beaches of southeast Alaska.

More than a century has passed since Joe Juneau and sidekick Dick Harris anchored their boat in Gastineau Channel. The two had come here from nearby Sitka, the old Russian capital, in search of gold. The local Auke Indians assured them--correctly, as it turned out--that they would find the colored rocks in a clear stream flowing from a lush valley between Mt. Juneau and an adjacent peak, Mt. Roberts.

If you take a hike back in the mountains, you will find traces of the thousands who followed Juneau and Harris. The best-known walk is the 3.5-mile Perseverance Trail, where old mining carts and other pieces of equipment, abandoned when the gold played out, can be seen from a well-maintained path that leads from the end of Basin Road.

Hiking trails are much of what Juneau is all about, and my favorite begins near the north end of Douglas Highway, the only highway on Douglas Island. Turn right after crossing the Juneau-Douglas Bridge and follow the road 12 miles to False Outer Point trail. The trail offers a mile-long, flat walk through a primitive rain forest, lush with fiddlehead ferns and towering spruce trees, past ponds filled with lilies to a rocky beach.

Bald eagles can usually be seen in the trees along the beach. The forest canopy is so dense that the white head of this once-endangered raptor can be spotted miles away, standing out against foliage so lush it almost appears black.

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