Juneau, Alaska (Part 2): Salmon spawning, glacier & a lake

Mitch continued entertaining us with funny stories when we again boarded the bus to go to Mendenhall Glacier. He also told us some information about the land and weather in Juneau.

Juneau can get tides as high as 16-18 feet.  In 20 years, the land Juneau sits on will be higher than the water, eliminating the channel and Douglas Island will no longer be an island.  This is because it was glaciers that pushed the land down and the land is now rising as glaciers recede.  20,000 people (of Juneau’s total population of 33,000) live in what is known as “the Valley.” (This is the Juneau that most tourists don’t go to.)  The Valley gets less rain, sometimes only ½ as much.

Sitka spruce covered with a fungus

When we were about to arrive at the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, Mitch told us we would have one hour.  He made suggestions as to what to do there – the Visitors Center had some interesting exhibits and a 15-minute film and there were two trails: one short one where you could see salmon swimming upstream to spawn, and maybe a bear (if you were lucky) who had come to catch some of them, and a longer trail that went to Nugget Falls, near the glacier. That trail would take a minimum of 45 minutes round trip, and in Mitch’s opinion, it was better to take the shorter trail – also interesting – so that you’d have time to see other things as well.


I’m glad we opted to take the shorter trail, in spite of always looking for opportunities to take long walks, because it was interesting to watch the salmon, now beginning to turn white and emaciated because they’ve stopped eating and put all their energy to get to their spawning spot.

Exhausted and emaciated salmon slowly make their way upstream.

Not sure if these are alive or dead.

We saw some dead ones too, all white.


Salmon count for six weeks of summer
Sockeye salmon count for 6 weeks of summer

I took a video of the salmon swimming upstream. Most of them seemed lethargic, if determined: they would swim forward, then drift backward a bit, thus making slow progress.  There was one salmon, though, who still had some spunk, splashing and jumping to fight the current.  We saw no bears.

Steep Creek

Then we climbed the stairs to the Visitors Center, where we looked at the exhibits and saw short videos while waiting for the 15-min. film.  Eventually I calculated that we wouldn’t have time to see it: it was 5:48 and the film was due to start in 11 minutes.  We should have gone in at that point, but instead I waited and walked in just as he film was romeo-book-coverending.  Although I took several pictures, I did not take a picture of the taxidermied black wolf, although I saw it.  I later wished I had, because a couple of days later, I read the part in the book A Wolf Called Romeo where the author mentions the black wolf in the Visitor Center and what relation she might have had to Romeo (perhaps a sister or a mate…his mother? Probably not.).

This plaque along the trail to Nugget Falls commemorates the memory of the wolf known as Romeo.*

Mendenhall Lake was created by Mendenhall Glacier only a few hundred years ago! The glacier has been receding for more than 200 years.  A glacier’s ice mass is unstable, always changing its shape by melting and calving, always moving its position by advancing and receding.

Mendenhall Glacier and Lake

Glacial ice

Why does the glacier look blue? Compacted ice crystals over time form a solid mass of ice.  When light strikes these crystals, it is bent (refracted) inside the solid ice and only the blue spectrum is transmitted back to our eyes.

Close up of Mendenhall Glacier

With about 15 minutes to spare, we walked down a paved path below the Visitors Center toward the glacier and Nugget Falls.  I could see small figures silhouetted against the rushing white falls – people who had opted to take the long trail.  I realized we didn’t need it – we could see the falls just fine from here and this way we got to see most everything else.


Mendenhall Glacier and Auke Lake

Sand bar on Auke Lake

A ribbon of glacier-fed water trickles down the mountain.

*The photos of the plaque and of the book cover were downloaded from Google Images, from the web site http://www.rd.com/true-stories/love/romeo-wolf-who-loved-too-much/ . This web site summarizes the story of this beloved black wolf of Juneau and includes some wonderful pictures of Romeo and his dog friends.

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