Postcard from Alaska – Awaiting Juneau

A small cruise vessel enters Icy Straight en route to Glacier Bay
On approach to Juneau we encountered something I had never experienced before, a delay in landing for something other than weather. Indeed, the weather was beautiful, not a cloud to be seen over the spectacular Alaska scenery for the last hundred miles as we flew along the coast.

As we approached the city the pilot announced that another flight was in the way and we would have to wait before landing. As a result we circled a couple times over the entrance to Icy Straight and Swanson Harbor. I sat at the window enjoying the view as Deb slept on my shoulder. The water below looks wonderful, it is going to be tough to wait a day until we leave harbor.

Postcard from Alaska – Float Plane

The weather was forecast to be perfect, no clouds, blue skies and warm. Unusual weather for Juneau, even the locals were commenting on the hot days. Given the forecast I set up arrangements for something I had wanted to do, take Deb on a float plane trip over the Juneau Ice Field.

We had wanted to do this last time we were here, but the weather supplied a day with sullen grey skies and drizzling rain, stopping the plan. This time we had a whole morning available, an opportunity not to be squandered.

The float plane itself is part of the treat for those who love aircraft. A DeHavilland Otter is a legendary aircraft. Asking the pilot I find that this one was built in 1958, quite a bit older than I am.

The pilot looked at my six foot height and offered me the most spacious seat in the aircraft, the co-pilots seat, a rare treat and the best seat in the plane for photography. But I had done this before, riding the co-pilot’s seat of an even older DeHavilland Beaver. I asked him to put Deb up front in my stead. She owes me.

Taking off we bounce over the water and between the towering cruise ships crowding the harbor. The takeoff is surprising fast, we quickly soar above the city and head south for the Taku Glacier. My camera had a fresh 4Mb card and battery, but I aim and fire repeatedly. I will have to change the card before this flight is over.

A beautiful flight over stunning terrain, I have over 200 photos to go through. Ice as far as we could see, the plane carrying us into a world so different from what we know in our daily lives. If you visit Juneau, and the weather cooperates, I highly suggest you take this plane.

DeHavilland Otter
A DeHavilland Otter built in 1958, used to fly air tours out of Juneau


Today we land in Juneau. It is a little wierd, I have been to this northern city so many times. A place that I have never lived, but know my way about reasonably well. The ritual is always the same… Check the boat, go over the shopping list, drive about town to buy the mountain of supplies it takes to spend a week or two exploring and fishing. Fred Meyer, Costco, Western Marine… The places where I can find the mutitude of items on The List.

Nordic Quest
The Nordic Quest underway near Tenakee, AK
Between stops for groceries, there may be a trip or two to the airport to meet a flight. Not that Juneau Airport is any trouble. Three gates, one baggage claim, you can park just a few yards from where your folks are grabbing the bags. An uncle, a good family friend, the rest of the crew for the trip. Another run down Eagan drive to Aurora Harbor.

Errands completed, grocieries stowed, we will finally slip the lines and head down Gasineau Channel. The desination is Icy Strait and Glacier Bay. We will not make it all the way there, getting started too late in the day. Where will we anchor for the night? Swanson Harbor? Funter Bay? Depends on how late we get started, how long the light lasts.

Postcard from Alaska – Arriving Juneau

Arrival in Juneau is always pleasant. This is a very small airport, far smaller than even Kona or Hilo. As a result there are no long lines, no mile long walk to the rental car agency, no shuttle vans or snarled traffic awaiting once you do free yourself from the terminal. Walk from the gate down one flight of stairs to the single baggage claim. Forty feet from the luggage you find the rental desks, where you pick up a key and walk out into the parking lot just outside the terminal for your vehicle. A complete contrast to our experience with the enormous labyrinth that is SEA or PDX.

The jet was a 737-800 Combi model, the front half was air cargo, with a bulkhead just over the wing. We boarded and debarked by walking across the tarmac to stairs at the tail of the plane. I expect to walk across the flightline in Kona, but at SeaTac?!

Alaska Air Combi
Alaska Air flight 61 unloads cargo and passengers in Juneau

Inside Passage

It took 3 hours to fly to Juneau, it took 18 days to get back.

The video is done. Shot with a Canon 60D, a Canon G11 and an iPad, the video documents the voyage from Juneau to Anacortes I took last month. Bears, whales, dolphins, and a whole lot of water. It was a great trip, I can only hope I convey a little of the experience in the video.

Compressing 1,800+ photos and dozens of video clips to three minutes is an interesting exercise. This is compounded by the thousands of timelapse exposures that needed to be assembled. It went surprisingly quickly this time, a mere three evenings of work. (As long as you classify evening as getting to bed before 2am.) Either I am getting better with the tools, or I just got lucky when it came to fitting the thing together.

I have produced several videos about these voyages by boat through the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. How do you keep each video from looking just like the last? This time I changed it up stylistically, opting for a much more driving soundtrack coupled with the frenetic pace of timelapse.

Does it work? I will await your judgement.

Inside Passage from Andrew Cooper on Vimeo.

Departing Juneau

Anchored in Ford's Terror
The Nordic Star anchored in Ford’s Terror
Time to cut the connection, for the next few weeks there will be little oportunity to slake my digital thirst. Marine radio offers little bandwidth, limited to simple audio and the daily marine weather forecasts.

For the next three weeks we will be cruising from Juneau to Anacortes. Three weeks of fishing, sightseeing, whale watching and photography. It should be a good trip, time spent with my father, an uncle and good friends.

There will be the occasional opportunity for contact, brief stops along the way to get fuel and supplies, places that may also offer a 3G signal. Those moments will be brief, just a chance for updates and perhaps a phone call to my wife to let her know I still exist. I can only consider the mountain of messages that will await my return to the digital world.

Postcard from Alaska – Black Bear

A young black bear, well known to the staff of the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center, is attempting to catch salmon in Steep Creek, just below the visitor center parking lot. He was not too good at it, lots of splashing and no fish to show for the effort. The fish were there, bright red sockeye salmon busy spawning in the stream bed. This was this bear’s first year on his own, still learning the skills of survival.

Yes, I was really this close to the bear, this was a shot with a standard lens, no telephoto. Fortunately there was a small bridge over the creek to provide a slightly safer vantage point. The bear showed no interest in the gathering crowd of sightseers on the bridge, concentrating on the salmon.

Black Bear
A young Black Bear (Ursus americanus) trying his luck at fishing in Steep Creek, near Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, 31 July 2006

Postcard from Alaska – Tracy Arm

Tracy Arm is one of the must see places near Juneau. If you are not traveling in your own boat you can jump on one of the fast excursion boats that make the run from Juneau each day. A classic fjord with walls that tower thousands of feet above, waterfalls everywhere, and icebergs to make navigation interesting as you make your way up the glacially carved canyon. The terrain beneath the water is just as dramatic, not unusual to be a few hundred feet from shore with a thousand feet of water below the keel. In some places the depth finder can not find bottom, over 1,200 ft or more down.

At the top there is Sawyer Glacier, a tidewater glacier that drops those icebergs into the water as you watch. There are actually two glaciers, in twin arms of the fjord that separate near the end of the trip. Sit among the ice flows watching the seals and ice crashing from the cliff-like face. If you can time your arrival for high tide it is far more likely to see a really big calving, with hundreds or thousands of tons of ices breaking free from the face to crash into the water and create waves that rock the boat.

It is customary to scoop up some of that glacial ice floating around to fill your coolers. Crystal clear and very dense, the ice from the bottom of the glacier is interesting stuff. We break it up and make cocktails out of it to enjoy as we cruise back down the fjord.

Tracy Arm
Looking up Tracy Arm, a classic fjord in southeast Alaska

Postcard from Alaska – Nordic Tug

Nordic Tugs is a company based in Burlington, Washington on the Puget Sound. They make a line of boats intended for cruising the coastal waters of Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. Comfortable, roomy, well appointed and very seaworthy. One of these boats will be our home for the next few weeks as we explore the inland passages of southeast Alaska. An ideal way to experience the spectacular scenery of the region.

Nordic Tugs Charters of Juneau operates and rents a fleet of tugs. It is these vessels we have used in our family expeditions each year. From the smaller 32′, to the larger 42′ Chrisara and the largest 54′ Nordic Star. It is this larger vessel we will be renting again this year. Three staterooms, plenty of freezer space, a full galley, and a large bridge that does not seem crowded even when the entire crew comes topside to view a whale.

I expect to get a fair amount of handling practice with the boat this year as I will be staying the entire three weeks to assist my father with boat handling, a combination first mate and deckhand.

Nordic Tug
The 42′ Nordic Tug, Chrisara, anchored in Blue Mouse Cove, Glacier Bay, Alaska, 28 June 2004

Postcard from Alaska – A Real Bookstore

The interior of Hearthside Books on Front Street, Juneau
Leaving the women behind I stride towards the one shop I want to look through. My wife, my mother and her best friend– their idea of shopping and mine do not mesh. We know this and have arranged a plan, I leave them for an hour, to meet again at the vehicle.

I rapidly pass storefront after storefront, fine jewelry and tourist kitsch have no attraction for me. A few pretty pieces in the galleries draw a glance or two, but I turn and walk on. Memory leads me down the street and away from the docks, towards a shop I have visited in years past and I only hope it is still there.

Leaving the waterfront district and the tourist shops behind, I climb another block, to a shop occupying an oddly shaped storefront where the street splits. The result is a pie wedge shaped building, the shop I want is in the point.

This is a place I will always enjoy, a store filled floor to ceiling in books. It is a small shop, no literary supermarket, there simply isn’t the space. But the book-buyer here carefully chooses the selections, there seems to be anything you could want in the one foot of shelf space devoted to each subject.

A single rack, three feet of wall, is Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I have either read most of what is available, or know the authors displayed are not ones I enjoy. I make a couple selections, a classic Heinlein I have not read since I was a young teenager and one by Ben Bova I do not know. These I will save for traveling, to pass the time during the trip home with a long layover in Seattle.

For the next selection I rely on the advice of the sales clerk, a field guide to Alaskan birds. Every vacation is marked by what you forget at home, for this trip one of the forgotten items was a well worn copy of Sibley’s Western Birds.

Purchases made, the clerk ushers me out the door, closing time had passed while we chatted and exchanged credit card slips. I have few minutes before I must meet the gals, so I stroll back towards the docks and back into the crowds from the cruise ships.