We docked in Alaska’s capital city of Juneau around 6:30 am. Juneau can only be accessed by plane or boat as the surrounding mountains are ice fields and prone to avalanches. Highway construction and maintenance would be a nightmare so the city remains only accessible via water or air. Our tour for the day was “Alaska’s Whales and Rainforest Trails”. We hopped on our small bus and headed to a parking lot where we off-loaded and then took a mile-long hike on a trail through the Tongass National Forest which is a huge temperate rainforest in early stages of recovery from the glacier that retreated from the area about 100 years ago. When glaciers pass through an area, they strip everything in their path and push it downstream.
We learned about the different signs of a new forest in the area using the acronym MASH. "M" is for Moss which covers the ground. "A" is for Alder trees which are some of the first trees to spring from the ground. "S" is for Sitka Spruce which is the state tree and "H" is for Western Hemlock. These four signs, plus lichens, are indications of early reforestation. It was a beautiful trail – we saw tons of wildflowers - mostly lupins, and saw cottonwood trees with bear claw marks. After the bears come out of hibernation in the Spring, one of the early tasty morsels they seek out are the tips of the branches on the cottonwood trees. We also learned about native plants such as Devil’s Club which is a spiky plant and is used by Native cultures for medicinal purposes.
Bear are plentiful in the area, and our guides both wore bear spray canisters. We did not see any bear but saw where they had clawed trees. We also saw evidence of beavers where trees had been chewed and cut down. We heard ravens singing and calling out all around us.
Eventually, we arrived at Mendenhall Lake and the Mendenhall Glacier. This glacier has receded significantly in the last 50 years and in the next 25 years or so, it will likely not be visible across the lake from where we stood. We held a chunk of ice that had calved from the glacier – it was over 1000 years old! There was also a beautiful waterfall called Nugget Falls. I wandered around taking nature pictures on this beautiful day.
Then we walked further around the lake and came to Steep Creek where salmon spawn. In fact we saw several Sockeye salmon in the creek. July is spawning season as the salmon return to the creek of their birth to complete their cycle of life. Steep Creek usually sees around 2000 salmon annually and they provide good eating for the local bears.
We learned a way to remember the names of the 5 types of salmon - fun and easy to remember. Using one of your hands, starting with the thumb...
Thumb = Chum
Index finger = Sockeye (cause you can put your eye out with your index finger)
Middle Finger = King (because it is the tallest)
Ring Finger = Silver (put a silver ring on that finger)
Pinkie Finger = Coho or Humpie - (These fish are pink in color)
We left the Mendenhall area and headed to the harbor to go on the whale watching portion of our tour. The main whale we were guaranteed to see ($100 refund if no whales were spotted) was the humpback whale. These whales come to the Juneau area in the summer with their young to feed in the cold North Pacific water where plankton and krill are plentiful. Sure enough, we spotted a humpback whale right away and watched as it blew air out its airhole and raised its hump out of the water. It did not breach or show its fluke, so we moved on.
Suddenly there was a flurry of sound on the ship radio – orcas were spotted ahead! We joined a group of other boats as a pod of orcas swam along a reef and showed their beautiful dorsal fins. We followed the pod for a while until they submerged. All of a sudden, they appeared to the right of our boat and then swam UNDER our boat, emerging on the other side! So cool! Our guide was excited as that had never happened to her in her 5 years of guiding.
We then rode past a channel marker where two young Steller sea lions were sunning themselves. We circled them and they showed no care for us being there. This was a great tour provided by Gastineau Guiding. We really enjoyed it!