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posted by John : September 11-13, 2009

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The devil's playground

Skip the first bit because it was just dinner, ice cream, and a flight from Seattle to Juneau. Of course, it was flying on September 11, so that was kind of an adventure (at least for me), but otherwise the only strenuous part was saying goodbye to Amy and the kids.

Arriving in Juneau at about 9pm (local time) we were met by my Uncle Tony (Grandpa Jack's brother) and Aunt Mary Ann. They raved about the recent good weather and we made plans for the next morning: An early departure to chase a supposed good run of silver salmon in one of the glacier-fed streams to the northwest.

I stayed at my cousin Mary's house with her, her husband, Tim, and her son, Alain. Tim built the house pretty much single-handed and did a marvelous job. I know, you're thinking Dick Proenneke, but this is more Norm Abram. (Although Dick is the ultimate in cool...) Nobody was awake when I arrived so I did my best to get situated for a 5:30am pick-up without making too much noise.


5:30 is early, but thanks to the time change it was more like 6:30 and since I usually get up at 4:40 it was almost as good as a weekend at home. Uncle Tony was at the door at 5:25 and we headed back to his house for breakfast.

I'm used to rather spartan breakfasts when I'm adventuring. Perhaps a cold bagel. Maybe a bar. I wasn't ready for scrambled eggs and ham. And fruit. And English muffins. Aunt Mary Ann fed us well and ushered us out the door. (But wait! What about the coffee? Don't worry, we stopped on the way out.)

Although the forecast called for rain the sky was mostly clear. A low mist hung on the ground and as we drove out along the coast we looked for whales, but saw none.

We parked at Cowee Creek and were surprised to see so many other cars there. It was barely 7am and already there were a bunch of spin fisherman casting into the milky water below the bridge. We suited up (waders, fleece, gloves, vest, bear spray, etc) and started down the trail.

The forest was familiar, but not. I saw lots of the same plants, but in different proportions. There were lots of maidenhair ferns, but no sword ferns. Bunchberry was everywhere, but it was covered with big orange berries... in bunches. (I always wondered why it was called that.) Big spruces were all around, but there were no cedars.

The thing that was most striking, though, was the devil's club. It was everywhere. Around home there are small patches of the stuff. It's nasty when you run into it. The thorns are one thing, but the tiny tips of those thorns that break off under your skin are what make it one of my least favorite plants. Except that when the entire forest floor is made up of it, it's actually pretty cool.

We started in a hole with a stump in the middle with big, gaudy flies. Tony, ever the gracious host, cast a few times to show us where we should fish, and then let us start. Of course, we didn't get anything, but he did. A nice, big, fresh silver salmon that did a bit of jumping before he lost it. Ha! Take that, show off!

So, of course, I crossed the river to fish near him. And my father, who wasn't so foolish as to switch sides hooked into a fish and actually landed it. (Clearly, my luck with grocery lines and freeway lanes extends to fishing.) In a definite break with tradition the fish met its end and we covered it up so we weren't carrying a bear signaling device as we continued downstream.

At about a mile and a half from the car we dropped into the river again. To me, it didn't look any different than most of the other parts of the river, but Tony said it was a good spot. Apparently, so, since there was a fisherman on the other bank. (Tony knew him, but that wasn't so surprising. He seems to know everyone in Juneau.)

Once again, Tony did very well and even managed to land a fish. Once again Mr. Fish lost the battle. Once again I was left holding my rod with no fish. Hmph. We packed up and headed back up the trail with the intention to stop where we had caught the first fish. Unfortunately, a family had taken up residence on our sandbar so we were locked out. We retrieved the fish, cleaned both of them (at which point one of them bit me!), and made it back to the car, but then continued to the other side of the bridge.

While we had fished for silvers all morning the pinks (another type of salmon) were busy spawning themselves silly just upstream. (Actually, they were in a bunch of spots, but apparently concentrated upstream.) And where there are spawning pinks there are dolly vardons. No, not the singer, the fish with a ravenous appetite.

So back into the river we went and just upstream from the bridge. My dad cast out and bam: fish. I cast out and... nothing. Hmph I cast out again and BAM: another fish. Sweet. From then on we were almost fighting the fish off more than we were trying to catch them. In the end we didn't even bother to count. Plus, I'm not sure we were skilled enough with math to count that high. We threw in the towel only when it started to rain. We were back in the car before the clouds really opened up.

So... a successful morning of fishing means time to lounge around, right? NEVER! I'd conned my cousin, Mary, into taking me for a hike to see the Mendenhall Glacier. I remember the last time I was in Juneau I was able to walk out and (I think) touch the glacier. Ooh... cool. (Sorry, bad pun.) Although I now realize getting that close to the toe isn't exactly safe I still wanted to get a good view.

It would stand to reason that while we were in the woods fishing and the sun was out when we wanted clear skies for good views the clouds would roll in and we'd get soaked, right? Oh, how right you are.

We biked (yes, biked like on a bicycle with wheels and everything) a couple of miles from Mary's house to the trailhead and then a few more miles up the trail. It's been a long time since I've been on a bike and it showed. I was slow and clumsy and afterward had a wicked awesome cramp in my neck from looking up. It was great.

At the bottom of a set of switchbacks cut into the rock we chained the bikes to a tree and after a story about my dear departed grandfather having a coat stolen on the same trail resigned them to their fate. In only half an hour we'd made a couple of miles and were able to continue up the trail with only one eye on the clock. (We had to be back in time for dinner, of course.)

The trail climbed through the trees with only occasional views out to the lake and tiny glimpses of the ice. Of course, we shot pictures at each not knowing if it was going to be the last good view we'd have. Stunningly, Mary hadn't been up this gem of a trail in years. That's kind of like me not fishing the river in my backyard... oh... got it.

The trail, once a wide boulevard suitable for bicycles, was now a rough route up some slick rocks. We used trees to climb where friction would otherwise have done the job and always looked just over the next little hump to where we'd be able to see the whole glacier. We knew we were close when we saw a sign announcing the end of the trail and just through some trees the Mendenhall opened up.

Glaciers on Northwest mountains are cool, but they seemed tiny by comparison. They're confined to tiny moraines. The Mendenhall Glacier was mammoth. It flows from the Juneau Ice Field and is frozen (ha!) in a slow-motion cascade down the valley. From our perch a few hundred feet above we could get a sense of its size and also see some of the details of its tortured surface shattered into millions of crevasses that faded from white to blue to black. Helicopters ferried cruise ship tourists onto a couple of bases on the ice and although I thought our effort was more deserving these rewards I also thought it'd be awfully sweet to see the glacier from up high in spite of the cost.

Unfortunately, the rain and clouds made capturing the view and its impact difficult and we were time constrained so after a group shot (two is a group, right?) we turned back for home. The ride down the trail was exhilarating and frightening, but I had not crashes. (The time I forgot to put my foot down on something solid doesn't count.) At Mary's house we hung our gear in the garage to try to dry it out. I realized taking my backpack that was my sole bag for the airplane on a soaking wet hike the day before I needed to repack was probably not my best plan. Oh well.

We had dinner (tasty!) and then I was forced to put the kids on display for the northern part of the family via a DVD I had brought to give to my father. I tried to give everyone a bunch of chances to opt out, but they insisted. Sorry. (And you? You're here of your own free will so none of that!)


Another early morning, but one full of light rain. I made only one wrong turn as I drove myself from Mary's to Tony and Mary Ann's house and declared myself a champion navigator. We had another big, wonderful breakfast and headed back to Cowee Creek, after coffee of course.

Unfortunately, the crazy storm of the previous night turned the milky gray of the creek into a muddy torrent a few feet higher. Nonetheless, we suited up and headed downstream just like the day before. Although we were there at the same time we saw tons more people (including more that Tony knew). The hole we'd stopped at the first time was taken so we continued. There were people at the second hole, too, but it was big enough we decided to give it a go anyway.

However, due to the high water and the likelihood of bad things happening if we stuck around (getting cold, etc) we turned back. Along the way we stopped in a few spots Tony guaranteed wouldn't hold fish because they looked fishy to us. I made a few casts, we agreed with Tony, and we returned to the car hopeful the dollies from the day before would treat us again. However, the river there was just as high (go figure) and since it had involved a waist-deep entrance yesterday and it was now a foot or two higher we bagged Cowee Creek.

We didn't give up, though. Instead, we headed to Peterson Creek closer to town by a few miles. The water was high, but slow moving. More like a slough than a creek or a river. We tried at the saltchuck, but there were fishermen there so we headed upstream. (Confused by the term, "saltchuck?" So was I. It's where salt water flows into freshwater. Think of a lake that gets flooded with salt water when the tide is up. Wacky, huh?)

Upstream we stopped at a relatively nondescript spot that Tony said would be good. Sure enough he hooked into one pretty quick. (I'm starting to believe that he really is catching all those fish he sends us pictures of.) Dad got one, too. Although this might be hard to believe even I got one. Yeah, me! A salmon, too. Not some wussy dolly vardon. Though my salmon was barely bigger than a dolly (the fish or any of the girls' dolls) it still satisfied my requirement that I catch a salmon. Woo hoo! (Now all I had to do was see a bear and my Alaskan experience would be complete.)

We fished further upstream and caught more fish. Well, they did. I seem to have lost my fishing mojo. Regardless, we fished out the river and got back to the car with enough time to head to one last spot just in case the fish were there. (Unlike trout the salmon seem to move around a lot so you go where they might be and if you don't hook up you go somewhere else.)

Our last spot was at the outflow from the saltchuck we had tried a few hours earlier. It was relatively low tide so the water was flowing out of the lake down a little waterfall into the salt water. We stood on the barnacle covered rocks and cast a bit, but to no avail. Perhaps the sea lion that swam past had eaten all the fish. Who knows? On the way back we read the historical sign about the "Cradle of Statehood" or at least the cabin Alaska's chief statehood proponents favored.

All our cell phones were out of order (wet, no power, or left at home) so we couldn't call. We stopped first at Mary's place and I transferred all my gear inside. We hung out a bit to visit (Dad hadn't been inside their new house yet) and I packed up. My bag was still fairly damp so everything (including the special jar of lingonberry jam) went into big plastic bags and my backpack went into its special bag that had only been used when it went to Europe and New Zealand.

After the adults left we young adults talked a bit more and then headed to the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center along with the entire load of tourists from no fewer than 12 ships docked in Juneau. (Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but there were a lot of people and buses there.) Before we'd even made it to the parking lot traffic was bunched up, but not due to poor traffic control. A black bear sow and two cubs (one was black, the other cinnamon) were across a narrow stream walking along the road. Tim and I jumped out and joined the throngs tracking the bears. They were perhaps 20 feet from us, but couldn't care less.

At the visitor center we talked with the ranger (that Tim knew, of course) and then wandered down to a viewpoint. The glacier wasn't as overwhelming from this perspective, but still really cool. We contemplated trying to get closer to Nugget Falls, but that area was flooded under a few feet of water so we went inside instead. The visitor center is really well done and Alain ran all over pointing out his favorite things. Or maybe that was Mary. Regardless, I saw it all.

Outside we walked an easy 3/4 mile loop (called the "Trail Through Time" with reverb required) and then an elevated walkway where we saw yet another bear. Although the other tourists were snapping pictures like crazy I was far more dignified and took only one or two artsy shots. (I deleted all the rest so you can't prove I was all giddy.)

All too soon we were done adventuring and back at Tony and Mary Ann's house for dinner. I tried to show off my mad tech skillz by displaying the combined images of all the cameras on the big screen, but fail ensued. I couldn't even get them to play off the camera reliably. So sad. (I blame Samsung's lousy slide show software.)

After a great dinner we did a group shot (of course) and then headed to the airport for our 8pm flight to Seattle. It was a whirlwind trip and probably a day too short. There were lots of sights remaining to be seen, but perhaps that's just as well as now we have good excuses to return. Plus we brought home some fish for those that are into that.

Stats are hard to figure for this, especially since I don't have fancy mapping software for Alaska. How about these, though?

Saturday: 13 miles, 2,100 feet of gain, four big silver salmon, and a million dolly vardon

Sunday: 4 miles, 350 feet of gain, a couple of pinkish silver salmon, a couple of jack salmon, a sea lion, and four bears (next time I want to see goats, too)

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