August 2004
Juneau, Alaska
Work & Vacation

A Few Days of Work
Downtown Juneau Although I travel to Juneau, on average, several times a year as part of my NCAR responsibilities, I almost always visit the area in the late fall and winter, when weather-related aviation hazards, such as turbulence and wind shear, are not hard to find. This August, I made my first summer visit to the Alaskan capital in five years.

What a difference a season makes. The waterfront tourist shops, that I subconsciously regarded as perpetually closed, were not only open, but packed with visitors from all over the world. The cold and empty streets that I had become so familiar with were crawling with tourists. More than half-a-million visitors arrive each summer on cruise ships so large that they dwarf even the largest buildings in Juneau. They reach this isolated town, with no road connections to the "outside world," via the almost unbelievably scenic Inside Passage of Alaska. Most will not stay long. The majority stay one afternoon and evening, and then move on to Glacier Bay.

Juneau seems unnatural without rain or snow. No ice to chip off the windshield every morning. Instead of worrying about keeping my socks dry, I had to worry about getting sunburned. During my stay, Juneau had one of the hottest days on record.

The primary purpose for my visit was to verify that a recent software upgrade to our turbulence warning system was working properly. This was a simple task, so I had a fair amount of time on my hands. Along with some other NCAR personnel, I spent half of one day taking a new employee, Aaron, on a tour of NCAR facilities and meteorological sensors. I also gave a (long overdue) presentation of DOW radar data to the Juneau office of the National Weather Service.

During my spare time, I went hiking with Aaron and Paul Prestopnik, another NCAR engineer, and took pictures and collected rocks for a "Geology of Juneau" presentation that I was going to give as a lunch seminar when I returned to Boulder.

A Few Days of Fun
Tracy Arm Fjord After the NCAR team returned to Colorado, I stayed behind and Carolyn came up for a few days of tourist fun. This was her first trip to Alaska, and, for all we knew, might be her only opportunity for a summertime visit. She caught an early-morning flight from Denver and arrived in Juneau just before Noon on Saturday.

After a nap, I gave her a tour of the area, including Mendenhall Glacier and Douglas Island. Unfortunately, the normally spectacular views were limited due to haze drifting in from a huge forest fire in nearby British Columbia. Hazy or not, southeast Alaska is still spectacular. We toured the waterfront and the Capitol building, two of the most popular destinations in downtown Juneau. We watched float planes land in the Gastineau Channel and cruise ships navigate the crowded docks.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of the trip was a glacier and wildlife cruise to Tracy Arm Fjord, about 50 miles south of Juneau along the Inside Passage. This all-day trip culminates with an up-close visit to twin tidewater glaciers located at the end of the fjord, twenty-five miles from the entrance at Holkham Bay. Tracy Arm is even more spectacular than the Juneau area because everything is so close. Textbook examples of glacially-modified U-shaped valleys lined the fjord. Ice debris from excessive calving prevented the boat from directly approaching the South Sawyer Glacier, but we had a great view of the North Sawyer Glacier. This five-story tall wall of ice, with its fresh cracks that reveal deep blue crystalline ice, is literally supported by the water of the fjord and calving is induced as tidal cycles flex the end of the glacier. Harbor seals relax on, and swim among, the blocks of floating ice. Orca sonar is cluttered by floating ice, making the ice-rich waters near the glacier relatively safe for seals.

Gold Panning As our boat entered the Gastineau Channel, we noticed thick dark smoke billowing upward from downtown Juneau. Workers carelessly pouring hot tar on the roof of a building at the corner of Front and Seward streets ignited a fire that destroyed a half-dozen century-old historic structures. Not only was this front page news for the remainder of our visit, but it seriously disrupted the tourism industry.

One of the "must do" items for any visit to Juneau is a ride up the Mount Roberts Tramway. The 2½ minute ride lifts visitors on a 1½ inch cable to a height of nearly 2000 ft above the ships docked in the Gastineau Channel. The views of nearby Douglas Island were spectacular. At the top there is a restaurant and a souvenir shop featuring native art. There is a film on the native culture of southeast Alaska and plenty of hiking trails.

When we were in downtown Juneau, Carolyn picked up some brochures on gold panning and thought it would be a lot of fun. I was more skeptical - thinking it was just some hokey tourist nonsense. She insisted and I agreed. We had a great time. Part of the reason is that, due to a delayed cruise ship, we were the only ones on the "expedition." By an odd coincidence, our guide was from Colorado. We headed up Gold Creek, where Joe Juneau first discovered gold more than a century ago. Our guide showed us how to use a pan to sift out the gold. Within a few minutes, I found a few flecks. Then a found even more in my next shovel of wet dirt. I was suspicious about salting, so I insisted on shoveling my own dirt. As long as I dug deep, I always found gold, so I'm pretty sure that the flakes I found were naturally deposited. Carolyn found gold as well. Soon a large tour group arrived and, before I knew it, I was helping them find gold. Our guide said that they should hire me.

Our last evening in Juneau I took Carolyn to my favorite local restaurant - Chan's Thai Kitchen. Afterwards, I distributed the rocks that I had collected as evenly as possible among our luggage that would be checked. I have often wondered what airport security personnel think when they realize that those opaque objects on the X-ray are rocks.

Due to the "heat wave" and the fact that southeast Alaska hotel rooms are not air-conditioned, we left the window open at night. The early-morning stillness of our last night in Juneau was interrupted by the loudest and most rumbling thunder that I have ever heard. It seemed to echo among the mountains for more than a minute. We also saw lightning, which is rare for Juneau.

The severe weather elevated the risk that our flight to Seattle would be delayed or cancelled. This began to seem more likely when I learned that the early morning flight out of Juneau had been cancelled. Eventually, however, I learned that our flight was on schedule. The problem with the earlier flight was unrelated to weather. On the way to Seattle, we changed planes in Sitka and had a brief layover in Ketchikan. The Sitka airport is small and poorly designed. An aircraft change requires that passengers leave the secured area, which requires rescreening before boarding the new aircraft. Despite the hassles and concerns, we arrived in Denver on schedule.

Photo Gallery
Douglas Island Douglas Island St Terese

Stephens Passage Tracy Arm Fjord Tracy Arm Fjord

North Sawyer Glacier North Sawyer Glacier Rocks near North Sawyer Glacier

Gold Panning Juneau Waterfront Downtown Juneau Fire Cleanup