I am my mother’s daughter. Just as she would have done, I arrived at the airport, checked my bag, snaked through security, and got to the Alaska Airlines gate two hours before departure. I am genetically wired to be ridiculously early.
But forces other than DNA pushed me out of bed before 3 a.m.; I was off to see my fiance, Mitch, captain and owner of the boat Wind Walker, who spends summers fishing for crab and salmon in Southeast Alaska. He’s been up north since the beginning of June and won’t be back home to Seattle until early September, 10 days before our wedding. I haven’t set eyes on him for six weeks, though he usually fishes within cell-phone range, so the distance isn’t devastating.
As often happens with my trips to Alaska, the original itinerary crumbled the week before my departure. You can’t plan anything with a fisherman during the season, which is a source of frustration for someone like me, who lives to plan. I had booked a flight to Petersburg, Mitch’s hometown of 3,200 people, some 90 miles south of Juneau. Mitch would be fishing the day I arrived, but he planned to leave his truck—keys dangling from the ignition—for me at the airport, and I could expect to see him by dawn the next day, which in Petersburg arrives about 4:30.
I had been to Petersburg twice before, so I had a good idea of how I would pass the day: walk the four-block span of downtown, watch swarms of eagles soar over the harbor, grab a bite at my favorite restaurant, Coastal Cold Storage, and top off the day with a drink at the Harbor Bar. But unfortunately the area that Mitch thought would be open for fishing closed early, so he drifted toward Juneau. And I bought a one-way ticket from Petersburg to the capital city and readjusted my expectations.
When I came to Petersburg last May for the town’s Little Norway festival, the flight was canceled in Ketchikan, some 100 miles south of Petersburg. Since the next plane wouldn’t be arriving until the following day, Alaska Airlines ferried the Petersburg-bound passengers up the coast on float planes. The flight to Juneau today, on the other hand, left each stop on time and, in the rare and glorious Alaskan sunshine, offered expansive views of the Inside Passage.
When I arrived in Juneau around noon, I couldn’t check into my hotel right away, so I headed downtown to the historic district. Juneau looks like what I imagined all Alaskan towns must look like, though few do: old architecture circa the Gold Rush, reminiscent of the clapboard Wild West towns of Gunsmoke and just as clean.
Juneau locals seem to scorn tourists, even though tourism is the city’s main industry and ensures that the historic downtown remains lovingly preserved. Yet walking the main drag of South Franklin, I understood the less-than-cordial-relationship. Massive cruise ships docked along the waterfront burp out throngs of tourists. They move frustratingly slow, fingering faux wolf pelts dangling outside gift shops and oohing and ahhing over the cheap reproductions of Native American wood carvings and other Alaskan kitsch. The street’s crowded with trinket shops, bars, and jewelry stores—I counted three in one block—intended for moneyed cruisers in a romantic state of mind.
I ducked and weaved my way back up Franklin to the north end of the waterfront for lunch at the Hangar, an old bar and restaurant with a great view of the Gastineau Channel. I ordered poorly, as I am apt to do, but still ate much of my halibut burrito, ruined by too much cheese and other taco goo. The ice-cold Alaskan Pale Ale helped me relax into my chair.
After lunch, I started up the steep hill behind the city, where most cruisers don’t venture, to see the quaint Victorian houses, most of them cheery with hanging baskets, and the governor’s mansion. I huffed up several blocks until the street dead-ended into a series of steel steps that cut through the brush. The city of Juneau, often referred to as the San Francisco of Alaska, built many of these steel staircases along the hillside to let pedestrians travel up the steep grades that cars can’t.
A block away from Gov. Frank Murkowski’s roomy colonial pad, out of breath and sweaty, I came eye to eye with a black bear who had just stepped onto the road. I managed to think don’t run in the few seconds it took for the bear to do an about-face and lumber back down into the woods. Though the bear was clearly as unnerved by the encounter as I was, I stuck to the roads for the rest of the afternoon.