Alaska is famous for rugged and beautiful terrain, including glaciers, jagged rivers of ice that flow down from the mountains to the sea. One of the best ways to see Alaska’s incredible glaciers is with Juneau’s Wings Airways and their Glacier Tour and Salmon Feast.
We meet at the airfield and board Wings Airway’s De Havilland Otter, a sturdy 10-seater that offers each passenger a window seat for our three-hour tour. Our veteran pilot, Wayne, fires up the plane and we take off effortlessly. Our route will take us from Juneau down Gastineau Channel, then up Taku Inlet, flying over Tongass National Forest and the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Icefield and five of its glaciers—Norris, Hole-in-the-Wall, East and West Twin Glaciers and five-mile-wide Taku Glacier, one of the only advancing glaciers in the world.
The fog has lifted, though clouds still hang on the tops of the mountains surrounding Gastineau Channel. The Channel is huge with emerald-colored water surrounded by massive green peaks. The fishing boats plying the waters below look like toys. On the horizon rise snow-covered mountains that seem to go on forever.
Despite being only a few minutes out of Juneau by plane, this is wild country. We fly over Admiralty Island, 100-miles long and populated by more bears than people. There are larger populations of bald eagles in this area than in the rest of the United States.
The hemlock and Sitka spruce-covered mountains rise up nearly vertically like green Titians. Above 2,500 feet, the trees disappear, replaced by lichen in multiple shades from whitish greento black-green. Sometimes we see white specks on the peaks. These are Alaskan mountain goats clinging to these dizzying slopes to avoid predators like black bears and grizzly bears.
We cruise over verdant valleys, some filled with glacier ice. The Juneau Icefield is populated by more than two dozen glaciers. These are giant folds of tortured ice, thousands of years old, dotted with spectacular aqua blue pools, deep crevasses, and patches of azure blue ice, frozen water under tremendous pressure.
Glacier rivers are constantly on the move. In the 1930s, glacier movement made Taku Inlet too shallow for cruise ships and today, the only access to Taku Glacier Lodge is by seaplane or small boat.
Captain Wayne circles the silty river and neatly glides the plane alongside a small dock. We deplane and climb a gentle incline to Taku Glacier Lodge, a rustic, low-slung log structure with a wide covered porch sporting inviting rocking chairs facing the water and Taku Glacier. This original lodge building, built in 1923, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside, we’re greeted by thick logs crackling in a wide stone fireplace and hand-hewn, picnic style tables and chairs.
Our meal isn’t quite ready yet, but we can smell it. We wander outside to watch a staffer smoke King salmon filets over an alder wood fire in a large stone pit. The salmon was freshly caught just a few miles from the lodge on the Taku River. The fire billows smoke and flames lick up. We’re mesmerized watching the cook manipulate stacks of flaming wood to produce more smoke or more heat.
The smells emanating from the BBQ have also attracted a couple of neighborhood bears—an older sow and a young black male, a newcomer to the Lodge. One staffer has cornered the black bear up a tree keeping the curious youngster at bay with a long stick. “He’s a new one this season,” the man tells me, keeping one eye on the bear. “We’re not sure how he’s going to react. He hasn’t learned yet that I’m the baddest bear at the Lodge and that he has to behave.”
While we wait for our meal, another staffer offers to take us on a short nature hike. Having bears so close puts me on high alert, but our guide carries a long bear stick just in case. At Taku Lodge, black bears are part of the landscape and bears and humans have learned to co-exist. In fact, the staff treat the bears around the lodge more like pesky mosquitoes than scary predators.
We march single file along a path through the woods, the guide pointing out various plants and telling us about life in the Alaskan wilderness. The trees, mostly spruce and hemlock, are thin. This is boreal forest. Extreme temperatures, heavy snowfall, and permafrost, layers of frozen ground a few feet below the surface, prevent the trees from sinking deep roots and stunts growth.
Fresh BBQ Salmon and More
As we plunge deeper into the forest, mosquitoes, a perennial pest during the warmer months, buzz around us. Soon we circle back to the lodge and the inviting smells of the BBQ. We file into the dining room and load our plates with juicy, smoky salmon fillets, spicy baked beans with chunks of reindeer sausage, sweet sautéed apples, and freshly baked spicy ginger cookies, cinnamon scones, and herb biscuits. The iced tea we’re enjoying is cooled with ice from glaciers just across the river. It’s all delicious and satisfying.
Through the windows we watch the antics of the bears. After waiting patiently, both the black and red bear leap onto the stone BBQ to lick salmon juices from the bottom of the pit. The older red bear is practiced at this, but the eager young black bear singes his feet on the hot grate and scrambles away.
The staff encourages us to eat more of everything and, while it’s delicious, we’re stuffed. We have just enough time to cruise the well-stocked gift shop. My friend buys a pair of sweats with bear paw prints on the rear—a perfect reminder of Taku Lodge’s salmon bears and a meal and glacier flight that we won’t soon forget. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor