Cruising Alaska, day seven: Juneau, Alaska on Star Princess

Heather and I booked different shore excursions in Juneau today, but both discovered the epic, bucket list Alaska we’d been waiting for. The Alaska we explored today is the Alaska you can’t believe is actually real. Nothing can be that huge, that remote, that green, that wild. But it is…and even after today it still feels unreal, dreamlike. Don’t get me wrong, to even casually sail up the coast is to experience nature of near ridiculous proportions. If you never step foot off the Star Princess, you’ll still go home changed by this landscape. Heather and I chose to not only step foot off the ship, but to also step into a whale watching boat, into a tiny seaplane, and out to a giant glacier.

Before we get into the details of our shore excursions, there are a few things you should know about Juneau, Alaska’s capital city. The population of Juneau is 32,290 and 50% of residents work for the government in one way or another. The town spans 3,081 miles and is the only capital city in the United States accessible only by air or water. Take that in for a moment: Juneau, the capital of our 49th state, is not accessible by a road. Living in Salt Lake City, I’m accustomed to the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains (peaks as high as 11,000 feet) butting up against the city. I easily travel from my downtown front door to a ski resort in 20 minutes tops. Even I was shocked as I stood out on my Star Princess balcony this morning to see what is essentially water, then five city blocks, then a steep, spruce-covered, uninhabited mountain face (complete with a waterfall, of course). Now when they tell me there are no roads into or out of Juneau, I believe them. We are still in the coastal rain forrest and it dumps 86 inches of rain per year on this small town. This specific area is known for a high concentration of wildlife. There are entire islands full of brown bears (Admiralty Island), 300 species of birds, all five species of salmon, 60 humpback whales, a handful of orcas, and 10,000 bald eagles who call Alaska’s capital home.

Juneau, Alaska's capital city, as seen from our Star Princess balcony this morning.

Something unique to know about the Princess berth in Juneau, you’re not on a dock and you cannot walk ashore. To reach the downtown waterfront you need to hitch a ride in an orange tender boat. The ride is short and comfortable, so is the boarding process. As with every potentially chaotic moment, Princess has it completely under control. The Princess Patter newsletter let passengers know the night before to make their way to the Capri Dining Room, Deck 5 Midship, to pick up a tender ticket anytime after 8:00am. With that ticket your complimentary tender is secure. You can stay on shore until the last tender leaves at 8:00pm. If you’re booked on a shore excursion, your tender is handled separately from your meeting point in the Princess Theatre. You also have priority boarding on specifically designated tender boats. It could not be easier and we were about 30 minutes early for our excursion. Fun Tip: Sit on the top of the tender boat, outside in the fresh air, and snag unique photos of the Star Princess surrounded by Juneau’s mountains.

Tender boats shuttle passengers to and from Juneau.

Quick and efficient, you're in Juneau or back on the ship in no time at all.

Logistics out of the way, let’s get back to the wanderlust fantasy of remote landscapes. I chose to access my wild Alaska in a seaplane. I came to Alaska with the goal to experience our planet as she exists untouched by human hands. In my wanderlust fantasies as of late, I’ve been captivated by empty spaces; the idea of sheer isolation and of the earth being allowed to take care of herself without us mucking it all up. I came close to this years ago when I took helicopter tours over volcanoes, rain forests, and pristine Pacific beaches in Hawai’i and Kauai’i, but today’s adventure was something else entirely. Over 89% of Alaska cannot be developed. The landscape I saw today can only be seen from the air. I now respect that statistic on a whole new level. As poet Mike Burwell writes about this land, “Mountains only half-known to the eye / drag across the sky’s rough palm / their slopes distinct / with green jewels. Man is masterless / swallowing his own sound.” Those mountains that are only half-known to the eye were fully exposed to my eyes today. The photos will not begin to do Alaska justice, but nonetheless…

The spruce blanketing the Tongass National Forrest is an image that will stay with me for years to come.

Princess contracts with Wings Airways and their 5-Glacier Seaplane Exploration itinerary. I’m the furthest thing away from a gear head you could ask for, but a veteran in line with me was thrilled we were flying in classic DeHavilland Otter Floatplanes. He served as a pilot in a former life and the goal of his excursion was part Alaskan wilderness and part nostalgia for our mode of transport. Wings Airways has a fleet of five DeHavilland Otters. The planes were manufactured between 1951-1967. Then, between 2004-2008 the Wings Airways fleet underwent conversions from the original Pratt & Whitney R-1340 piston engine to the Garret TPE331-10 turboprop engine (900 horsepower). The US Army is the largest operator of Otters, with a fleet of 190. All of that totally came from their brochure…I have no idea what I’m typing right now. Mechanics aside, it was the opportunity for quality photography that was important to me. I was thrilled to learn that every passenger has a window seat, the flight path is in and out the same way so every person saw the view from each side of the plane, and portions of the 40-minute flight are narrated.

The classic DeHavilland Otter Floatplane.

Alaska's wilderness is the very definition of epic.

Our bush pilot flew the Otter through 75 miles of the Tongass National forrest before we swooped out over five glaciers: The Norris, Taku, Hole-In-The-Wall, West Twin, and East Twin. The Taku glacier is the largest in Juneau, and the deepest and thickest in the world. It’s the only glacier in the Juneau Icefield that is advancing, while all others are retreating. In total the Juneau Icefield has 40 large glaciers and 100 small glaciers. The five glaciers I saw create one outer edge of the 1,500 square mile field. Interesting aside: I’ve quickly learned that Alaskans measure rain in feet and they measure distance in Rhode Islands. Poor little Rhode Island, but I swear to you I’ve heard no less than five times each day how big something is based on how many Rhode Islands can fit inside of it. It’s one of those quirky cultural ticks you pick up only by traveling to a place and interacting with locals. In this case, the pilot told me the Juneau Icefield is bigger than Rhode Island. Of course it is.

The Juneau Icefield covers 1,500 square miles.

There is simply no way to capture the depth and size of the canyons on the glaciers.

Heather decided to access her wild Alaska on a whale watching tour and a hike near the famous Mendenhall Glacier, which is also part of the larger Juneau Icefield. She chose it because the variety of the tour appealed to her. She would’ve been less inclined to select it if it was just the whale watching or just the glacier. Gastineu Guiding Company took 14 passengers by bus to Auke Bay to begin the adventure. The boat is small and the passenger area enclosed, but large glass windows open fully to allow for clear photos of the whales. These humpback whales travel 3,000 miles from Hawai’i to reach Auke Bay with their baby calves in tow. They make this trek in April and teach the babies how to feed in the bountiful Alaskan waters until they return to Hawai’i in November. Throughout the journey the mother is nursing the calf with 100 gallons of milk per day and she is not eating any meals herself. She loses 1/3 of her body weight by the time the calves are weaned, a process that actually takes 2-3 roundtrips over 2-3 years. The whale watching was a success, as was a sea lion spotting. It was noted that the native tribes call these animals sea bears (which makes perfect sense when you consider the fact they’d never seen lions). These creatures, unlike the California variety that bark, growl like the bears found throughout the Juneau hills. Adult makes can reach 1,500 lbs.

On the lookout for humpback whales.

Alaskan Natives refer to these animals as "sea bears."

Whale sightings are so common that most tour companies offer a 50% return on your money if you do not see a whale.

After spending time in Auke Bay, the group drove a quick 15 miles to the other side of town to visit the Mendenhall Glacier. The Mendenhall is 12 miles long, half a mile wide, 300-1,800 feet deep at various points, and stretches back to Mendenhall Lake. It formed during the “Little Ice Age” approximately 3,000 years ago. It’s iconic face is 100 feet thick and a striking electric blue. The Mendenhall is called the “drive up glacier” because it’s only 14 miles from Juneau’s city center. Naturalist John Muir wrote that it is “one of the most beautiful of all the coastal glaciers.” After a short, but brisk hike involving multiple grades and series of stairs (in case that’s a concern for some), Heather viewed the glacier’s face through her binoculars. She was astounded at the details of the texture. With the naked eye, and even through a camera lens, the glacier face looks deceptively white. With her binoculars, the crevasses revealed a variety of bright, beautiful colors.

The Mendenhall Glacier from afar.

The Mendenhall Glacier is melting at a rate of five inches per day; but it’s also sliding from an elevation of 4,500 feet down to the ocean by a few feet each day. Along the trail that Heather hiked to the glacier’s face there were signs marking the retreat since it began in 1765. The tour coach parking lot now sits where the glacier did in 1900, for example. Even the postcard she purchased in town shows a larger glacier than the one she saw today. There is at least one local company profiting directly from the glacier’s migration. Glacier Smoothie makes soap out of the glacier silt left behind in the Mendenhall’s retreat. Clay-based soap is good for purifying pores and now, remembering an amazing day spent in Alaska’s capital. As Heather and I enjoyed a casual room service meal and reflected on the day’s adventures, she said she felt humbled. She felt humbled by her proximity to wild animals. She felt humbled by the sheer mass of the glacier. She felt herself catching her breath all day long and exclaiming to fellow travelers that she was having an unbelievable experience. That, in a nutshell, is epic Alaska.

A camera will never be able to capture the full intensity of that classic glacial turquoise color.

I hope you’re enjoying your virtual vacation. You can follow along on each day of the adventure through my Live Voyage Report landing page. If you're interested in following other Live Voyage Reports, visit The Avid Cruiser website to see where the team is exploring now!

Bon voyage…and love,

This article was originally published on the Avid Cruiser Live Voyage Report website. 

Cruising Alaska, day eight: Skagway, Alaska on Star Princess

Cruising Alaska, day six: Ketchikan, Alaska on Star Princess