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Juneau, The Jewel in Alaska's Crown: Cruising Alaska's Inside Passage on the Looney Front, Part 4

The location is spectacular -- separated by the narrow Gastineau Channel from Douglas Island, surrounded on all sides by snow- and glacier-capped mountains gouged into tortured folds and precipices by the retreating glaciers of the ice age.
07/26/2015 11:53am ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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The location is spectacular - separated by the narrow Gastineau Channel from Douglas Island, surrounded on all sides by snow- and glacier-capped mountains gouged into tortured folds and precipices by the retreating glaciers of the ice age.

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Juneau from the harbour

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Another view

Old Joe Juneau, one of two prospectors who founded a gold-rush settlement here in 1880 on land long the domain of the Tlingit Auke tribe, certainly knew a thing or two about the old real estate saw: location, location, location.

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Mountain close-up

Interestingly, the little hamlet was initially called Harrisburg, after Richard Harris, the other prospector, but the wily Canadian from Quebec won out in a miners' naming meeting in 1881 after reportedly buying drinks for a majority of those present.

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Juneau suburbs

Now a town of 32,000, Alaska's capital is a mecca for cruise ships, and travel guides advise you to avoid the July-August high-season when up to five boats a day can tie up, puking forth a cast of myriads. As it is there are three cruise-cities in today (latish May), including ours, puking forth 6,000 at least, much to the delight of the tourist traps all around town.

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Cruise ships in port

You get the hard sell even before disembarking, when a whole army of arm-grabbing camera-wielders from the ship's photography section - it's pretty big, believe me, with a whole portion of deck 4 devoted to it - garbed up as grizzlies flailing soft salmon toys, or eagles, or Lord alone knows what or what not, waylay you on the way down the gangplank to snap you in stupid embraces for $20.

Most passengers seem to relish this, but it's not for Yours Truly. Away, base varlet!

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Another view

The bustle-hustle continues on the wharf with scores of touts hawking just about everything except, for a change, 'Mister, you wanna my sister.'

The sites around Juneau, though, are indeed spectacular to behold.

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Mendenhall Lake

Perhaps the most impressive is the Mendenhall Glacier, a 12-mile-long 1.5-mile-wide hunk of ice calving blue-tinted icebergs into Mendenhall Lake from the 1,200-square-mile Juneau ice field. It's gradually retreating - 2.5 miles since the 1750s.

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Mendenhall glacier

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Close-up

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Even closer up

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Mini-icebergs in lake

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Close-up

Nearby, Nugget Falls thunders 377 feet down the mountainside in an explosive spray of white rage into the lake.

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Nugget Falls

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Another view

Also near town are Glacier Gardens, a magnificent privately run botanical reserve on Thunder Mountain adjoining a section of Tongass National Park.

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Glacier Gardens

It's a lush Eden of trees soaring hundreds of feet up towards yet another day of unusually cloudless blue sky, enhanced by trunks known as flower towers, planted upside down by its founder with multicoloured blooms cultivated in the upturned roots.

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Flower towers

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Another

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And another

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One more

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And one more

The panoramas from the park's highest point at 580 feet over the Gastineau Channel, the airport runway, and the surrounding mountain wall of glaciers and massive tortured crags are superb.

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View from the top

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Another

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And another

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One more

In town, meanwhile, you can drop in at the Red Dog Saloon, an establishment from Juneau's mining days that is now a tourist trap, recognized by Alaska's legislature as the oldest man-made attraction in town.

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Speaks for itself

Right on the wharf where the cruise-cities dock there's the ugly Mt. Roberts Tramway, a cable car that whisks you 1,800 feet up to another splendid panorama with alpine trails to its various vantage points.

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View from the top of tramway

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Another view

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And another

But why, oh why, is the army of the narcissistic on the march here, there and everywhere - with the superposition and imposition of their own ugly mugs on natural beauty, taken either by willing strangers, or worse - in an iconic mark of our times - by their own stupidly outstretched arms, effing selfies snapped of their own idiotic grimaces marring the magnificence of Mother Nature.

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Mt. Roberts trail

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The panorama

And that's without counting the hordes of passengers on board who, unlike Yours Truly, welcome its army of photographers and its circus of posing 'animals' with open arms, coughing up hundreds for their snapshots - disembarking, re-embarking, eating, dancing, swimming - when they can simply look at themselves in the mirror for nothing.

[Upcoming blog on Thursday: Skagway and the scenic wonders of the gold rush railway to Yukon]

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And just in case you thought of taking your favourite teddy with you

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.