Alaska Trip Part 3 – Day trippin’ for Glaciers!

Back when we planned this trip, the main goals had been to go somewhere neither of us had ever been, test my ability to fly and travel, and to see whales. Because one of the things Juneau is known for is the Mendenhall Glacier, we had also talked about taking one of the tours out to see it and it’s visitor center. Then Scott stumbled across a company called Adventure Bound Alaska  and their daylong trip through the fjords to see glaciers, waterfalls, and icebergs. It sounded amazing and like one of those things you kinda need to do once in a lifetime, so we signed up.



We were booked on the 56′ foot boot The Adventure Bound with Captain Steve. The trip was only about 3/4 full with 32 passengers so we had a little room to stretch out. They’d told us we could get sandwiches and the like on board or bring our own. Having hit up the local organic grocery, we brought our own which worked out very well.


The outbound trip was about 45 miles south from Juneau through the Gastineau Channel to Stephens Passage, along Admiralty Island.  

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Along the way we came across a Humpback Cow and Calf feeding near the shore and got to watch them for a little bit (I didn’t manage any photos of them) before heading on to Holkham Bay, which opens on to Tracy Arm on one side and Endicott Arm on the other.


At the mouth of Holkham Bay Captain Steve did a quick visual survey of the entrance to Tracy Arm and determined that there was too much ice clogging the passage to safely pass through to Sawyer glacier and that he would take us up Endicott Arm to see Dawes glacier instead.

On the way to Dawes we got to icebergs! How have I lived my life without actually seeing icebergs in person? They are so freaking cool, yes, literally, but in all the other ways as well.


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One of the firsts ones we saw rose maybe three feet up from the waters surface, and at least six feet wide just under the water line. Given that the rule of thumb is that when you see an iceberg on the surface of the water, you’re only seeing the top 10% of its mass, they had to be 30+ feet deep below the surface. And the color! It was that almost unreal shade glowing white/blue that means the ice is so densely packed there aren’t a lot of air bubbles within. I’d seen pictures, but seeing it in person is sort of mind boggling. And they were peaceful. Not doing anything, just hanging out, bumping along the fjord. Just ice. All compacted in one, potentially dangerous for boats, but useful for mammals, form. And gorgeous. I’m pretty sure I was grinning from the first iceberg and didn’t stop until sometime on the way back to Juneau.


A little further on brought us to the base of Dawes glacier.

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Watching Dawes come closer, revealing and distilling itself out of the mix of light and shadow, rock walls and milk glass green water, was mesmerizing. It was hard to comprehend what I was seeing. It was a little surreal. I have seen photos of glaciers and they looked exactly like the one I was staring at, but this one was real. It was freezing cold, because duh, glacier and hard packed ice, and not empty exactly, but so differently embodied that it felt barren in a way that places with an abundance of green don’t. There was a whole lot of “holy shit wow” running in my head as we approached, kind of this hum of amazement at being there, seeing this raw and enormous part of our world and an oddly mellow part of my head that needed to be reminded that I was actually there, not watching it all on a screen somewhere cold.


One of the things I hadn’t understood about fjords is that to qualify as a fjord the waterway must terminate in a glacier. If they don’t, they are just boring waterways. It took me a bit to process the fact that to be the termination point, Dawes had to be not just a mass of ice surfing on the water, but in fact go all the way down through the water to the rock bottom of the carved out passage that made up the fjord. What we were seeing was the end portion of the glacier that was damming up Endicott Arm with ice and rock.

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In front of us was ice and water and around us was rock and much of that rock showed the signs of the glacier’s passage as it grew and receded over time. It looks almost as if someone or something had dragged claws along the walls, gouging out tracks and lines as they went. Being there, seeing rock and ice formations that seemed almost unreal, I could understand why my ancestors once believed the Jötnar, the Ice Giants, were real, and why we called on the gods to tame them, to protect us from their nearly unfathomable power. With out the gas powered metal beast I had come in, I would have been much more afraid of what I was seeing and hearing. Run into that at night or in a storm, and he’ll yes I’d be terrified and calling on all the gods for help.

EndicottArmVideo Traveling up Endicott Arm toward Dawes Glacier, video by K. Pennington

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IMG_2043  Dawes Glacier Video by S. Pennington

Far above where we were, near to and within the Juneau ice fields where Dawes and most of the other local glaciers originate, the weight of new ice presses down and forces the glaciers towards the warmer zones. It’s down here that the Dawes and its relatives shed bits of themselves through Calving . And while, yes, Dawes, like most of the worlds glaciers is receding because of the assortment of environmental changes we humans have wrought, calving is also part of the natural life cycle of a glacier to expand, recede, expand, and recede over the eons.

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Calving is a pretty amazing thing to see and hear. Scott got video of one of the larger events we saw while I snapped away with my deli and telephoto lens. Between the two of us we got some very cool images.

CalvingGlacier video by S. Pennington

Watching for calvings is a big waiting game. You listen for this sound that’s sort of like a growl and sort of like a crack or shot and hunt the face of the glacier for pieces shifting. Sometimes that sound didn’t tie to anything we could see from our vantage point. I’m fairly certain that we heard some calving that was actually happening inside of gullies or breaks in the facade that we couldn’t see into. Enough of the calving happened on the putter surface that we got to watch many blocks break off and drop into the water forming icebergs. After one of the bigger events we e able to watch the wave formed by the mass of ice falling, move out and away from the glacier towards us. It wasn’t enough to do more than rock our boat a little, but in watching that I could begin to understand what havoc large pieces of land falling into the sea could cause. We also saw the fallen blocks vanish into the water and after a moment or two, rise up as newly born icebergs that bobbed and sorted themselves out.



There were so many different shapes and forms within the face of the glacier, it was hard not to take pictures, not to come back time and again to the glow of blue slanted blocked along one ridge the arch that looked carved by tools, the doorway that promised a trip somewhere else, fingers and columns and a giant blue spot like the glaciers on spot of Jupiter.

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I also found myself fascinated by the edges where rock and ice met. On one side of the canyon the rock was light tan, on the other it was dark charcoal gray, each overlapped / challenged and touched by vertical creeping seams of white and pale gray.

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Eventually we made our way back down Endicott Arm and then turned into Fords Terror, which is a branch of waterway that is guarded by a section of rock and shore that is treacherous to pass through at low tide, but seems easy at high tide with a good captain. Past the entrance were treated to an array of incredibly beautiful waterfalls, one that ran from the top of the cliff face, down to a break in one, really smooth, thought rowdy cascade and then rumbling over rocks in a wide swath down the rest of the way to the water. Another between two steep juts of cliff, a blink and you miss it opening that opened to this spectacular tumble of rocks sloping out and down from a point at the back where water fell across the rocks like an enormous reclining water nymph. The fact that captain steve brought the boat nearly to the edge of the waterfall and then backed out of the narrow space was its own form of amazing.

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At one point several of the passengers spotted a brown bear on shore, I missed it, but it was still an exciting moment for everyone. We also saw a bunch more waterfalls, including this amazing and massive sort of double fall.

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As we worked our way back toward Juneau, along Stephens Passage, Captain Steve took us past a collection of narrow islands populated with bald eagles and sea lions.

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Back in the Gastineau Channel we passed a humpback cow who’s tail had become ensnared in the lines for a crab pot, and her calf. There was a coast guard ship following them, waiting for word from noaa as to what everyone wanted to do about getting her free.


The ride home was long but well worth it for everything we’d seen. After ten hours on the water, Scott and I were both very happy to be back on land and very very happy with our adventurers.





Alaska Trip Part 2 – Friday June 3rd, rest and a little bit of sight seeing

Not knowing how my body would react to the Day of Travel, Scott and I planned for a very mellow first few days in Juneau. On Friday we did breakfast at the hotel, then walked down to the cruise ship docks to catch the Mount Roberts Tram. There were only two ships in port in the morning and they were only just starting to off load passengers for day tripping, so it was pretty mellow.

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Cruise ships at their docks and one seen from above.

The hardest part for me actually was the fact that all the boats and their attendant vans and buses meant that there was a lot of vehicle exhaust which I am allergic to. With my mask on it wasn’t too bad, but Scott got several lungs full of the stuff plus a burst of fake scents when we passed one of the perfume heavy gift shops.


The Mount Roberts tram takes visitors up the side of Mt. Roberts and over the trees of the temperate rain forest. It took me a moment to digest the idea of this chilly damp city having a rain forest, but that combination is part of why they do. Mt. Roberts is part of the Tongass National Forest and is rich in plant and animal life including Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock trees, many of whom were dripping with pale green lichen, and an array of sub-alpine meadow flowers, grasses and ferns. We didn’t see any of the animal life, but we did hear a whole lot of birds.

thumb_IMG_4885_1024Mount Roberts as seen from the base / Tram statio  thumb_IMG_4883_1024   thumb_IMG_4887_1024

the Gastineau Channel as seen from Mount Roberts / Trees and lichen

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 Snow Crooked Pine trees  / Narcissus Anemone

The two trams that carry visitors up the mountain are decorated in traditional Tlingit designs for Raven and Eagle. The images represent the two moieties of the Tlingit and Haida people. “Tlingit people and Haida people are born into their identity through a matrilineal clan system: One’s identity is established through the mother’s clan. All Haida and Tlingit clans are organized into two major moieties: Eagle and Raven. In Tlingit, Yeil is Raven and Ch’aak is Eagle (Wolf is sometimes used interchangeably with Eagle). Each clan is made up of clan houses.” –


At the top of the run we were let out at the visitors center, which has a restaurant that we didn’t try, and two gift shops with lots of artwork and crafts from local artists, which we did indulge in. There was also this really gorgeous beaded hanging / art piece suspended from the ceiling over one of the main stairwells. Within the beads is an image of a forest (at the bottom edge) and a river with salmon leaping up stream. The work, created in 1998 by Bill Hudson and Clarissa Rizal called “Salmon Return”, was a commission from the Mount Robert’s Tram for the stairwell of their visitor center. “It portrays the yearly return of the Salmon People, shown swimming up a cascading waterfall made of approximately 180,000 glass and crystal beads. The sculpture is approximately 21 feet long, and about 5 feet wide at the bottom.” – Bill Hudson Productions

thumb_IMG_4852_1024“Salmon Return”  by Bill Hudson and Clarissa Rizal

There is also a movie theater that shows the documentary “Seeing Daylight” (Turns out you can purchase a copy of the DVD here )which is about the local Tlingit people, their history, myths, and customs. Its a lovely piece and hit me right in the thinky thoughts so now I have ideas churning in my brain about the similarities in how native cultures personify and interact with the land and Powers, and how there must have been a Norse and Celtic tradition in a similar vein. The artist and anthropologist in me has a whole lot of research to do.

The center also houses a rescued Bald Eagle named Lady Baltimore. She was found shot through the beak and right wrist and either as a result of that, or of the fall after, her left retina tore so she has no depth perception which means she is unable to safely fly or hunt in the wild. She is cared for on the mountain by the Juneau Raptor Center .

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After visiting with Lady Baltimore we walked a little ways up one of the trails to get a sense of the foliage and view from the top – both of which are glorious, and then took the tram back down the mountain.

We grabbed lunch at the docks in another of the local spots then trudge home, wiped out, to take a long lie down.

After our nap, we walked over to the less touristy end of the docks to purchase tickets on a day long fjord and ice burg cruise for Saturday, then walked the couple of blocks up to the Sealaska Heritage Center.

Sealaska Heritage was founded in 1980 by Sealaska after being conceived by clan leaders, traditional scholars and elders at the first Sealaska Elders Conference. During that meeting, the Elders likened Native culture to a blanket. They told the new leaders that their hands were growing weary of holding onto the metaphorical blanket, this “container of wisdom.” They said they were transferring this responsibility to Sealaska, the regional Native corporation serving Southeast Alaska. In response, Sealaska founded Sealaska Heritage to operate cultural and educational programs. The late George Davis (Kichnáalx—Lk’aanaaw) of Angoon spoke these memorable words:

“We don’t want what you did here to only echo in the air, how our grandfathers used to do things… Yes. You have unwrapped it for us. That is why we will open again this container of wisdom left in our care.”

Sealaska Heritage is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars and a Native Artist Committee. –

(I didn’t manage to take a photo of the lovely facade of the building, but there is this nice one from the Sealaska Heritage website)

Along with several other shops and galleries, the Center participates in Juneau’s First Friday’s open house. The Center was showing an exhibit of Tlingit art, featuring local artists and a native children’s dance group. We were too early for the kids, but got to see the exhibit and happily fell into the centers gift shop. We also poked our heads into several of the other galleries and shops. One of the more intriguing ones was a shop called Trickster Company which features work by local artists, most of whom are exploring the blend between traditional styles and contemporary ideas and techniques. They have a lot of very cool work. One of my favorites was this one of Light sabers by Rico Worl!

And then it was back to the hotel to fall the frak over.

Sadly the assorted exposures, plus a ton of walking and not enough water caught up with me in the shape of a late night pain flare. No fun, but I survived, which is really what counts.

Next Up: Glaciers!!


Alaska trip 2016 – Part One Getting there!

I get to go see whales because my husband loves me lots!

How do I know my husband loves me so much? When the opportunity to finally take a real live, honest to Cernnunos, vacation for the first time in ten years came up, did he suggest Italy or France for a week of museum hopping for his Art History loving soul? Nope. He offered to take me to Alaska to see whales! Yup, true love J

After much planning, fretting, packing, repacking, more fretting and a plotting the sweetie and I set out for Juneau on Thursday June 2nd.

Day One, All the Traveling

Neither of us slept well the night before, but a little breakfast and coffee and we were good to go. Of course getting to Juneau from Oakland is a little on the complicated side. First of all, you can’t drive into the city, it’s walled in by water, tree-covered mountains, and a glacier. And yet, it’s the state capital, because why not? Secondly, it seems you can’t get to Juneau (from Oakland at least) without stopping in Seattle. The short description of our Day of Travel can be summed up thusly: “Two planes, three airports, a train, and a cab ride, we go thud now”. The longer version includes the fact that airplanes these days are sardine cans packed to the brim and not meant for people with shoulders or hips and that with two of us flying together one was always stuck in the middle. On the first leg it was Scott, while I got the window seat. On leg two, the slightly longer run, I took the middle and we lucked out with a nice lady who lived in Juneau and worked as a tour guide. So we got lots of tips and facts about the city and things to do.


A fleet of Alaska Airline planes lined up and ready to go at Seattle Tacoma International Airport.



Amazing view coming into Juneau Airport.

On the plus side, the Juneau airport is tiny and has really cool art work flying over head as you cross into the baggage claim area. With a little digging I discovered that the piece was commissioned as part of the city’s 1% for Art program and was created by Janice Criswell and Steve Henrikson. thumb_IMG_4818_1024

“Their hanging sculpture, “Wetland Wings,” is located in the two story vestibule of the east wing, near baggage claim. Flocks of migrating birds constructed of metal and glass in the Tlingit “form line” art style greet arriving visitors en route to the baggage area. The sculpture celebrates the birds of the Mendenhall wetlands, the 4,000-acre refuge that surrounds the Airport. The birds represented in the sculpture are Arctic Terns, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Mallard Ducks, and Snow Geese.” –

This was only the second time I’ve been on a plane in the ten years since I was diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity . For a very long time I thought air travel was permanently out of reach, actually I thought most travel was out of the question. Thankfully many things in my life have shifted. While I am not “cured”, I am healthier and much better able to handle the chemical exposures that are part and parcel of industrial life. Being on an airplane, wedged in with 100+ other people is a little on the scary side for me, but now I also know that it is something I can do without taking much in the way of a health “hit”. It’s exhausting and requires a lot of pre-planning, but it IS doable.

thumb_IMG_4799_1024First Leg: OAK to SEA

thumb_IMG_4803_1024Second Leg: SEA to JUN

thumb_IMG_4824_1024Look Ma, I made it to Juneau!

Since we had planned a week-long stay in Juneau sans car or side trips to other towns, we opted to stay at the Hotel Baranof. The Baranof is a Grand Old Lady of a hotel ( ). Built in 1939, she was an elegant retreat for executives and the hotel’s original owner, Walter Wooten Council and his family. These days she’s a little long in the tooth and showing her age, or perhaps a lack of attention by her current owners the Westmark Corporation, but her heart and bone structure shine through. We have a nice size room with a microwave and mini fridge and a very comfy king size bed. Even better, her location at the top end of Downtown puts us within walking distance of a ton of places to eat and things to do and makes for a great base of operations. We even found the local organic grocery story a few blocks away to stock up on supplies.

Our room looks out onto the hotel parking lot, which okay, is not the prettiest of sights, but looking just beyond that there is a row of homes and right behind those there is a wall of mountain. And I do mean wall. If you aren’t looking out over downtown toward the Gastineau Channel, then you are looking at the near vertical slopes of trees and rock with the occasional thin stream of water making its way down the side, all of which was carved out over the ages by the Mendenhall Glacier. It’s an impressive site.


thumb_IMG_4896_1024Looking up at the wall of rock from Edge drive (not our hotel, because that shot just didnt do the view justice).

Gastineau Channel is a huge part of why Juneau has their tourist trade, it divides Juneau into Douglas Island on one side and Juneau proper on the other. The first 9+ miles of the channel are deep enough for today’s massive, multi-story, 2000+ person, cruise ships. The ships come in starting late May and run into September, stay for a day of sight seeing and shopping, and then are off again. When we arrived there was only one ship left at the docks, a mid-sized beast that backed its way out of its slot, turned around, and slowly cruised back out to sea. Apparently that was the last of four ships that had been in for the day. We learned later that the summer season “started” on May 22nd with the arrival of six of the massive things. Sadly, the cruise lines have also taken over many of the shops and several of the eateries along the docks. The visitors think they are getting Real Native trinkets, but most of it is made elsewhere and shipped in, with the money going to the corporations instead of the town. There are lots of signs saying “locally owned” and where applicable “locally made”, so we’re keeping our eyes out for those places.

We ended our first day, which felt more like three days of marathons, with dinner at Hanger on the Wharf, a local hangout that also gets the tourists coming off the cruise ships. Mmmm fresh grilled halibut. Very tasty.

thumb_IMG_4825_1024Our view from dinner after a very full day.

Tomorrow: Resting and a little bit of sight seeing!