There has always been something exotic and exciting about the idea of traveling to Alaska, something about it brought to mind scenes from the Jack London novels I had grown up reading. The landscape, the culture, the climate, just seems so far removed from the Philippines.
You may also like:
But Alaska is huge, where exactly would we go? A cruise seemed to be the answer, as most of them made at least five stops at different Alaskan ports along the way. That idea was nixed almost immediately, because we like to travel on our own schedule, without anyone dictating how much time we spend on any one activity. Copious hours online led us to agree on Juneau, the capital of Alaska. It would serve as our base, where we could book tours and activities without having to leave. Almost immediately I said “I already have the perfect hashtag. #DidJuneau!” I was met with an eyeroll (my brother) and silence (my mother).
A taste of home
#DidJuneau that the capital of the 49th state is not accessible by land? The only ways into the city are via boat (such as the massive cruise ships that dock daily), via plane, or (as a cheeky online guide stated) via dogsled. We’d already 86’d the idea of a cruise, and as none of had ready access to a team of huskies, a flight in from Seattle seemed the most optimal course of action.
We’d been told that it rains in Alaska almost daily, although never at the monsoon levels of the Philippines. Unsurprisingly, we arrived on a drizzly, cold, morning. We couldn’t check in yet, so we just dropped off our bags and walked around downtown, to get a feel of the place we were going to call home for the next five days.
The first store we saw had a simple sign that said “Lola’s” in script painted over a drawing of the Philippine flag. Inside were shelves filled with familiar Pinoy brands. Not 15 minutes of walking around and we had stumbled across a sari-sari store! It turns out, there is a large Filipino population in Juneau, many working in the hospitality industry. The first Filipinos found their way over in the early 1900s, working in the canneries. Generations later, Filipino presence remains a part of the local landscape. A portion on the downtown area is even called “Manila Square” and bears a bust of Jose Rizal. And, just off from where the ships dock are two food kiosks that proudly serve “Filipino Style BBQ.” An entire time zone away, in a place that I had always felt would be so different from what I am used to, and there were still pockets that felt like home.
After walking around, some breakfast and coffee, and checking in, we walked back down to the docks—a hub for tours that mainly served the crowds of tourists coming in off the cruise ships—and bought tickets for the tram ride up the mountains to Mount Roberts. The visitor center nestled in the mountains provided us with enough information on the various trails we could walk. Bundled in our puffy jackets, armed with cameras, we took off to get our first taste of the Alaskan wilderness.
The views from up top—about 1,800 feet above sea level—were stunning. Lush mountains, and the pristine waters of the harbor below, served as the backdrop for this state capital’s bustling downtown area. While animals stay away from human foot traffic, it wasn’t unusual to look up and see a majestic eagle soaring above. During our hike, we came across a marmot, rushing across the path to disappear into the brush, quite possibly to hide from the eagle. While there are trails that lead both up and down the mountain, we chose to do the easy trail that ended at Father Brown’s Cross then looped back around to the visitor’s center.
We ended Day 1 much as we began it, with a taste of home in the form of an oversized stick of pork BBQ, a longer-than-normal lumpia, and a steaming mound of rice. The taste was distinctly Filipino, but the portions were definitely American.
Wildlife and glaciers galore
#DidJuneau that the capital and its surrounding areas are home to marine mammals, brown bears, woodland creatures, salmon, several species of birds, and the American bald eagle. I was amazed at the abundance of wildlife living freely and unmolested in and around the area. The protected waters of the Inside Passage and Tracy Arm Fjord in particular, are the part-time home of migratory humpback whales. Over 100 individuals have been documented and identified as pods come to feed in Alaska’s rich waters.
We were able to get up close to many of these creatures during our stay since Juneau’s thriving tourism trade offers many options for wildlife viewing. Even during the easy trail walks at the nearby Mendenhall Glacier National Park, we saw enough woodland creatures that I became convinced I was truly a Disney Princess calling to my animal friends.
A conscious decision was made when we were pre-booking our tours to go with family-owned local businesses as much as possible. And for the most part, we were able to do just that. We also opted to prioritize whale watching, and we loved it so much, we did it twice on two separate days. Seeing humpbacks in the wild may just be one of the best experiences of my life. There were no orcas on the days we were out on the water, but there were bonus sightings of Dall’s porpoises, seals, and the seemingly ubiquitous bald eagles. Seriously, they were everywhere.
One other day was devoted to a six-hour trip of the Tracy Arm Fjord, a majestic inlet that is part of a national park. Our captain ably maneuvered her 65-foot boat around icebergs and channels to show us waterfalls, wildlife, and finally, the breathtaking sight of the Sawyer Glacier. We stood on the deck, waiting to hear that loud “crack” that signified part of the glacier was breaking off, a natural occurrence as the frozen water succumbs to pressure and gravity. We were not disappointed.
I couldn’t be in Alaska and not live out those Jack London fantasies, right? Thankfully my family loves dogs as much as I do. Not an hour away from downtown Juneau is a doggy summer training camp, where close to 400 Alaskan huskies are trained for the famous Iditarod and Yukon Gold races. A musher cares for his or her own pack on the property and is in charge of the dogs' welfare. Since there was no snow on the ground, the “sled” was a cart on wheels that comfortably seated our party of 5. Our musher chose a pack of 12 yearlings for our run and away we went into the woods to get a glimpse of the tradition of Alaskan dogsledding. Also, they had puppies and we were allowed to cuddle them before boarding our van back to the city proper.
In between our excursions, we walked around town, checking out local shops including some local breweries, the museum, the botanical gardens, and breathing in the crisp, clean, air. We kept our pace relaxed, and slowly got used to the 10pm sunsets.
I do believe I am a little bit in love with Juneau, and will remember this trip as one of the best our family has gone on so far. The combination of wilderness and wildlife so close to a modern, working city really appeals to me. This taste of Alaska has both satisfied my curiosity and whet my appetite for more at the same time. Maybe it’s time to get back online to research Anchorage and/or Seward?
Photographs by Kage Gozun