Juneau to Glacier Bay

Jul 07, 2007| 0 Comment

We are on our own with a few days leisure before our permit to enter Glacier Bay National Park begins on July 8th. We decide to stay in Auke Bay, 15 miles north of Juneau, for 2 or 3 days to catch up on things and then head up Lynn Canal to Skagway and Haines. Because this marina is well out of town, we rent a car to provision and tour around. Mendenhall Glacier is not far away. The glacier is impressive, but our real surprise is how attractively planned and built the tourist center and walking paths are. Definitely a lot of forethought had gone into planning this setting. Even though the usual crowd of cruise ship tourists are out and about, it is still pleasant walking around the area.


This photo gives a good idea of how much the glacier has receded. It was taken from the tourist center. Fifty years ago when the tourist center was built, it was constructed at the base of the glacier. Now the glacier is a mile away. The plants in the foreground have established themselves in the interim, and the mud flats below the glacier will gradually do the same.


We drive into Juneau to look around and have dinner. The “look around” consists of a drive-by. When we see the crowds of cruise ship tourists milling around the few short blocks of downtown and the “come hither” stores, we figure we have seen enough of downtown Juneau. We head up into the residential area which is quite interesting with its zigzag streets winding every which way and steep staircases connecting things. Up here, on a clear day, the views across the channel must be phenomenal. Today is not a clear day! We slowly wind our way back down marveling at the guardrails strategically anchored in to keep cars from careening around curves into the living rooms of the houses built below the grade of the street. How do they drive up here in the winter?

We park the car and head out looking for a restaurant which, to our surprise, proves to be difficult. This is Juneau, one of Alaska’s major cities. It is their government seat, for goodness sake! There are plenty of bars, but no restaurants. I wonder out loud where people eat around here. A security guard interrupts my wonderings and gives us the name of 3 places. Two are in hotels and one is a fish and chips place down by the harbor where the cruise boats are. He is stumped for another place, but we thank him. As has been mentioned, Alaskans are friendly and talkative. Most seem to like or at least tolerate their befuddled tourists.

While on our restaurant search, The First Mate recalls friends saying that fur coats are good items to buy in Alaska. So she asks The Captain if we could find a fur store and take a look. She likes vests and thinks a mink one would be useful in Telluride. To her utter surprise, he says to go ahead if that’s what she wants. “Whatever my Suzie wants,” are his actual words! Off we go in search of a fur store which proves much easier to find than a restaurant. We walk in and are immediately assaulted by this saleswoman with a southern accent. Sure, a real local! When The First Mate tells her that she is looking for a mink vest, the saleswoman promptly pulls out a bright pink one. No, that is not quite what she has in mind. She is then directed to a rack where everything looks like Filene’s Basement with markdown prices. “Get me out of here!” she thinks, and looking around for The Captain, she finds that he has already bolted. She now realizes that the reason he had agreed so easily to her request was that he foresaw no threat of success. So much for her mink vest. She learns later that our friends go to a furrier in Anchorage where they chose their pelts and work with the shop to design their coats. That’s what she needs. The tourist shops of Juneau, like tourist shops everywhere. are mostly full of touristy junk. Since we are not heading to Anchorage anytime soon, a mink vest is put on the back burner of “wouldn’t it be nice to have”.

We end up at the Zen Restaurant in the Goldbelt Hotel. For all the tourists we saw in town, this place is almost empty. We are one of three occupied tables in the restaurant, but we do have a decent dinner served by a totally inattentive waitress. A nice side benefit to our occasional dinner on land up here in Alaska is that it reminds The Captain of the appreciation that should be accorded his First Mate’s galley skills.

We return to the marina at Auke Bay glad now that Avante’s mast could not fit under the bridge on the way to Juneau’s harbor. All those mega cruise ships and the crowds would have driven us crazy. Auke Bay is a quiet marina, more of a local’s and fishermen’s marina. They do have a few tourist excursion boats around, but the crowds, never numbering more than 40 at a time, are whisked away quickly. They do not have any tourist shops, and, though of marginal quality, they do have the minimum necessities we need (ie: showers, laundry, propane, convenience store and free Wi Fi at The Waffle House). 


They also have Bald Eagles flying around the harbor and landing on boat masts. The Captain takes a picture of one on Avante’s mast, and then promptly shoos it away with a halyard. In horror, The First Mate tells him that doing so is bad luck. It has to be. That’s our National Bird. You don’t just shoo it away. You let it be. “Not to poop all over my deck”, says the irritated Captain. “Well, don’t do it again,” she responds and is immediately ignored. This isn’t The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, and we are not dealing with an albatross, but still bad luck (made up or not) is bad luck.


Auke Bay also has salmon swimming around in it, and you can fish for them right off the dock or off your boat. The rod we have on our boat is a heavy-duty deep-sea fishing rod with minimal flexibility. It is all The First Mate can do to hold it, and the only way she can crank the handle while holding it is to have its end secure in the bracket on the boat. On the docks, the rods being used are light and flexible spinning rods. He will not buy her such a rod. Fortunately for him, she is busy cleaning the boat, provisioning the boat, organizing stuff again which is a constant activity on a boat and doing other sundry things. She really does not have time to fish, but if she had that rod, she would. He knows that she is not pleased with his pig-headed decision, so one afternoon he “bags” her a salmon. Bought it right off the dock he did! Gave it to her in a white plastic garbage bag he did! A local fisherman was selling his day’s catch.

So now she has a salmon, a decent sized one, too, and what has not been mentioned is that she really does not know what to do with a whole salmon or a halibut or any kind of fish. A nice fillet she can handle, but the only whole fish she has ever prepared are trout which are much smaller than this fish. Measuring almost 30 inches, it is a bit much to handle! It will not fit in the oven or any frying pan she has. It is going to have to be cut up. She pulls out her two cruising cuisine cookbooks and reads their descriptions on cutting up your catch which turn out to be pretty much the same technique she uses on trout. We prefer fillets to steaks, and the books say that you use one long stroke to cut the fillet from the bones. Short strokes tend to mess up the flesh.

She tries long strokes, but it must be a technique that improves with practice, because, for her, bones get in the way or her fingers do. She ends up using those short strokes that make a mess of the flesh. Her fillets are jagged pieces that do not look like any kind of fillet she has ever seen in a fish store. She cleans up areas near the bones that she missed. All that will go into a fish stew, and no one will know the difference. She consoles herself with the thought that the not very pretty fillets will look just fine when poached, baked or sautéed. Her fish will give us four meals plus a stew. Not bad for a day’s “bagging”!

We are ready to leave Auke Bay and Juneau, but our enthusiasm for Haines and Skagway has dimmed. Having had enough of tourists, crowded harbors and marginal facilities, what we are reading about Haines and Skagway doesn’t give us much hope for improvement. We learn that we may be able to get into Glacier Bay National Park a day or so earlier. One must call at 0700 in the morning to find out if any slots are available, since only 24 boats are allowed into the park at any one time. Our permit to enter Glacier Bay is for July 8th. The Captain calls on July 3rd, but the line is continuously busy. When he finally gets through, any available slots for that day have been filled by earlier lucky callers. The Captain tries again on the 4th. Same thing. There is only so much patience this guy has. Enough for now!

Wednesday, July 4th – We depart Auke Bay and head north. The weather, which the day before had been tee-shirt and shorts warm, has turned cold and dismal. The First Mate says that it’s the Bald Eagle getting back at The Captain for his intolerance. Intermittent showers become constant rain. The scenery, what we can see of it through rain and fog, is uninspiring. It’s a long way up the Lynn Canal to Haines and Skagway, and we are not very enthusiastic about them. We decide to anchor early in the afternoon in St James Bay. Even with the rain and chill, it’s nice to be out of a marina and anchoring in quiet, lonely coves again. We will not see any fireworks this year!

Thursday, July 5th – Using the expensive, pay-by-the-second satellite phone this time, The Captain calls Glacier Bay, and a Park Ranger answers on the first ring. Wow! It is amazing what $$ cajinking across the airwaves will do. We are told that we can get in on the 7th. Only one day earlier, but that is good. We will have a relaxed two days to cover the 60nm over to Glacier Bay. Rain continues, and it is getting colder. We are hoping for good weather when we get to Glacier Bay. If not, we will see what we can see through fog and rain and perhaps leave a day early giving ourselves more time to get to Sitka, the next stop on our itinerary.

Last night we dropped our crab trap in the midst of a lot of traps. The head of that salmon, the one that The Captain had “bagged” on the docks in Auke Bay, was securely tucked in the bait box. We knew for sure we were going to have crab for dinner tonight, but no such luck. (She’d blame that on the Bald Eagle again except that we’ve had this kind of luck since Day One.) The trap was disgustingly empty!


Tonight, anchored in Swanson Harbor, The Captain baits the trap in what he calls the “old-fashioned way”. Instead of putting the bait inside the bait box, a small container with holes in its sides, he runs a cord thru the mouth and gills of the salmon head and leaves it tied and floating in the trap. For good measure, The First Mate chops up some herring for the bait box itself. Again, there are a lot of other traps in this bay. Tomorrow will be the day! We go to sleep with rain pattering on the roof.


Friday, July 6th – We wake up to silence. No rain! But the low, heavy, grey cloud cover tells us more rain is on the way, and, sure enough, it soon is raining again. The Captain comments that there is no way he could live in Alaska with this weather, and The First Mate readily agrees. She reasons that if it were not for the downside of the weather, all this natural beauty would have people flocking to its shores, and they might then as well change its name to Alaskafornia.


The Captain motors out to pick up the trap and returns jubilant. Five! Today’s crab catch is 5! Three, unfortunately, are small and female, but 2 are of good-sized and male.


Maybe, just maybe, we have found a secret. A bait box with perforated holes allowing good smells to waft out is not enough. These guys want to gnaw on the real thing – a fresh salmon head. The head, of course, is gone. To her surprise, as soon as we motor out into open water, The Captain announces that we need another fish head, and he’s rigging up the fishing rod with determination. She knew that he really likes crab, and if the procuring of fish heads in order to catch crabs is what it takes to make an enthusiastic fisher person out of him, so be it.

The rain has stopped, giving us a fine overcast day, and, in very light wind, we motor up Icy Strait to our next anchorage. The First Mate knows the water is cold up here, but she really does not need a name like “Icy Strait” to remind her of what’s just a short distance below her feet.

We see a pod of humpback whales coming up for air. Pow, Pow, Pow – the plumes of spray follow one after another like the finale of a fireworks display. It’s thrilling. Then we see the arch of their backs and the flip of their tails as they go down again. They put on a show like this 3 more times as they swim up the coast. One more final graceful arch of their tails, and they’re gone. What an amazing sight!

Our first choice of anchorage in a bite off Pleasant Island will not work with the anticipated wind direction. Instead, we anchor across from Gustavus in what really is a fairway anchorage. It is over 100 feet deep here, and we put out all our anchor chain. The land around Gustavus surprises us with its gentleness. We had expected a rugged, tortured-looking mountainous area at the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park. Instead, it is verdantly green and mellow with sandy beaches leading to the water. There are snow-capped mountains in the distance, but nothing that bespeaks of a glacier area not too many miles away.

After anchoring, we have time to fish for Halibut. At first, neither of us has any success, though The Captain does bring up an octopus which we let go on its merry way. Having had one unforgettable experience of cooking an octopus about 20 years ago, she is still not ready for a second attempt and may never be.


Next, The Captain sets up a double hook arrangement with a herring cut in half. This is The First Mate’s idea, for she figures a cut up herring would have more blood and gore smell appeal to any passing fish. It works. Within seconds, The Captain snags a small Halibut. Well, more a flounder, but it’s a fish!


He baits the hook again and hands it to The First Mate. In the middle of his lecture that she is not using the right technique, a fish bites despite her egregious technique. Worried that she will lose it, counsel is given the whole time she reels it in. Fish and hook stay connected. She has landed her first fish ever! It is not trophy size, but it is a fish and an edible one, too. What a day! Two crabs in the morning, two Halibut this evening and two fish heads for the crab trap. We are learning what works, and we are almost living off the sea. She loves it!

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