- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Part 6 of a 6-part series

The city of Juneau, Alaska’s capital, may be the most cloistered town in America. Conceived as a port for gold mining in the 1880s, the small enclave of Russian and American newcomers, plus the natives of the region, was built upon the sands along Gastineau Channel between the new town and Douglas Island — a foothold of modernity in the primeval of the Inside Passage.

A can-do spirit and a fierce self-reliance are needed to live in Juneau, a city that, due to nearby topography, is entirely cut off by land from the rest of the state — impossible to reach by road, even by the Jack Kerouacs of the world. Thus, the only way in or out is via boat or airplane.

Only 30,000 live in Juneau, where the state Legislature meets for but a few months of the year when the weather is at its more lenient. Cruise ships dock here on their way north into the extremes of the Inside Passage, and those locals not connected with government or hospitality eek out a living based on research, education or entrepreneurship.

Accordingly, Juneau’s food and bar scenes are booming, and with the State Museum, Governor’s Mansion and Symphony all contributing to its arts scene — and providing places for politicians, locals and tourists alike a chance to commingle — one of the smallest capitals in the nation is the perfect place to experience hundreds of years of culture and history in the largest state in the union.

It’s a long trip to get here, but once you are encased within Juneau, with no way to drive away, you have no choice but to experience this capital wonder of the Last Frontier.

***

Day 1:

Kara Tetley of Travel Juneau collects Victoria and I from the airport. A friendly sort originally from Oklahoma, she offers a primer on Juneau and its history — such as that much of the waterfront area now rests on pilings as erosion and man’s activities have eaten away at the shoreline — as we head toward the Lemon Creek area of town. For it is here that one of the holiest sites in American craft brewing awaits.

Alaskan Brewing Co. (5429 Shaune Drive, Juneau, Alaska, 99801-9540, 907/780-5866) was founded in 1986 by Jeff and Marcy Larson, who left their corporate jobs to found the first brewery in Alaska since Prohibition. (That’s a 67-year wait, for anyone who’s counting!) As I learned last year when I met Jeff and Marcy at the Great American Beer Festival, the Larsons’ first brew was based on a pre-Prohibition recipe the couple unearthed in the records of an Austro-Hungarian immigrant who came to work the Alaska gold mines around 1900. That became the basis for the Alaskan Amber Ale, still the brewery’s flagship beer. They have since added the Husky IPA, Amber, White and many other perennials and seasonals.

Jeff, Marcy and Andy Kline, communications manager, were universal in Denver in saying if I ever found myself in Juneau to please come on by. So I have.

Alas, Andy is out, but we are left in the capable hands of marketing specialist Darin Jensen, who has been with Alaskan for some time. Darin shows us around the production line, which he says has had to expand to increase to meet the demands not only in Alaska but in the Continental U.S. as well. (To wit, it was among the first craft beers I tried while studying at USC in California.) Alaskan now distributes to 19 states in the Lower 48, but as of yet, they have not breached east of Ohio, ensuring I’ll be having as much as possible before we fly out.

Victoria, Kara and I behold as bottles clink, are labeled and filled with beer and thereafter loaded into boxes for distribution. Darin also walks into the industrial fridge, where inventory of cases are stacked ceiling-high, along with kegs ready to ship to bars.

Following the walkabout we are shown into a VIP tasting area. As it’s summer, we are poured a taster of the Aurora Cherryalis Sour. I’m not very fond of sours, but I must say that the cherryness offsets the bitterness that typical make sours get-away-from-me beers. It’s also got a hint of sea smoke and peatiness, making this ideal for scotch drinkers. I find the Husky IPA not spectacularly hoppy, which is just fine for me, and will be a great option to pop open come January. The winner here is the Smoked Porter, which is positively divine.

I’m hurried through the gift shop, which is rather crowded, and am told that there is much, much more merch to be had at the Alaskan Brewing Company Depot, located in town at 219 S. Franklin Street. Hopefully later.

Kara takes Vicky and myself for lunch at Zerelda’s Bistro (9351 Glacier Hwy, Juneau, Alaska, 99801, 907/500-7096). It’s a cute little place owned and run by a baker, which certainly explains the gourmet cookies and creative sandwiches.

Along the waterfront, Victoria and I check in at the Four Points by Sheraton Juneau (51 Egan Drive, Juneau, Alaska, 99801, 907/586-6900), with its comfy lobby abutted by McGivney’s Sports Bar and Grill. Our quarters are roomy and allow us to spread out, which feels nice after so many cramped spaces in trains and planes the past few days.

Later Kara picks us up for a driving tour of central Juneau that takes us past the statehouse and governor’s mansion. Along Franklin Street are some of the oldest water holes in the state, including the Red Dog Saloon at 278 South Franklin, where, above the bar, is showcased a weapon checked with the marshall on June 27, 1900, by none other than Wyatt Earp, who was on his way to prospect far to the north in Nome, but apparently felt he wouldn’t need — or forgot — his weapon.

Oh, and while at the Red Dog, be sure to order up a round of the house specialty, the Duck Fart shot. (It sounds far worse than it tastes, I promise.)

Kara also takes us by the port, where cruise ships dock regularly during the summer. And although recreational marijuana was legalized throughout Alaska by a 2015 referendum, I learn from several folks in town that cruise passengers disembarking make the mistake of trying to then take some 420 from Juneau’s dispensaries back with them onto their ships, only to have it confiscated upon re-boarding.

Also, unlike Amsterdam, there are no “public” places to smoke up in Juneau. You can buy it but cannot smoke it on the streets or in hotels — another strike if you’re here as a tourist. The only “advice” to impart on this matter is to make friends with a local so you can toke up (legally) at his or her private residence.

For dinner Kara takes us to the hip joint Salt (200 Seward St., Juneau, Alaska, 99801, 907/780-2221). It’s cocktail o’clock so I order the Belvedere Blues, a martini made with Belvedere vodka, vermouth, olives hand-stuffed with blue cheese (blue cheese is delicious; everyone who says otherwise is wrong) and olive juice. It’s precisely what I need right now, with the saltiness of the olives and juice nicely complementing the vodka. Victoria opts for a cocktail infused with Amalga, a local Juneau-distilled gin.

Appetizers of halibut bites and salmon lumpia are both well prepared, but the true winner taste-wise is the duck confit salad.

For entrees I try the scallops, which are decent if not amazing. Victoria has the king crab risotto, and Kara orders up the halibut chowder, which comes over the table still cooking, and you can actually watch the ingredients pop and move with the heat. For the table we share a delish sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.

Dessert is bourbon cake, chocolate pots de crème and a vanilla crème brulee that is out of this world. You can come here for dessert alone and leave very happy.

After a nightcap we turn in. There’s still one more full — and final — Alaska day afore us.

 

Day 2:

If there’s one thing Victoria and I haven’t done “enough” of on this trip, it’s eat. So what better way to kick off our final day in Alaska than a food tour?

At the docks Vicky and I meet Midgi Moore, the owner of Juneau Food Tours. A Georgia native, this peach translated her love of food into first a blog about her new home in Alaska and then, rather than tell people about Juneau’s scene, show them around herself.

Our first stop on Midgi’s “Juneau Bites & Booze” tour is Tracy’s King Crab Shack (432 S Franklin St, Juneau, Alaska, 99801, 907/723-1811), where fresh crustaceans are prepped daily right on the docks. This place has a cheeky sense of humor, advertising the “best legs in town” and a sign warning patrons not to take alcohol outside its borders “or you will be boiled alive.” One T-shirt for sale even claims “Tracy Gave Me Crabs.”

My kind of place.

(Know that there will be a line, but if you take Midgi’s tour, you get to bypass it like a VIP.)

Our “bites” sample includes a heavenly bisque and a crab cake remoulade that has a very high quotient of spice. It’s delicious, but man it’s got a kick. Drink water.

Next up, some south-of-the-border treats at the outdoor Deckhand Dave’s (356 S Franklin St., Juneau, Alaska, 99801, 907/957-2212), owned and run by David McCasland for two seasons. Dave is a former commercial fisherman who worked on the boats to pay off his student loans before opening his shop, where hungry cruisers stop by to sample his blackened rockfish tacos prepared in an Alaskan Amber sauce that is out of sight.

From the don’t-knock-it-till-you-try-it department, nearby Barnacle crafts salsas, seasonings and other products entirely from kelp harvested in the waters near the capital. The Sea Verde salsa would be perfect on top of the tacos we had at Deckhand Dave’s, and the Campfire variety needs to be married to some enchiladas STAT. Barnacle’s seasonings include the Ocean Gold Blend dried kelp fronds and nutritional yeast that should be sprinkled atop popcorn.

Our next stop brings us back by the Four Seasons for wings at McGivney’s paired with Denali Brewing’s Mother Ale Blonde.

It’s still early in the day, but as we’re already a few beers in, it makes sense to go for the harder stuff at Amalga Distillery (134 N Franklin St, Juneau, Alaska, 99801, 907/209-2015), which is named for a harbor nearby. The Juneauper Gin is floral but spicy on the back of the palate, and pairs well with the house-made tonic. This is followed by a Spruce Tip Collins, entailing a shoot of spruce instead of lime; stir it up a bit for a sweet taste. The Unaged Whiskey is a prize.

At the Imperial Saloon (241 Front St., Juneau, Alaska, 99801, 907/586-1960), located inside the old Imperial Hotel, we sample “super tots,” deep-fried tater tots served with melted cheese, bacon and green onions, which we enjoy with an “Eagle Fart” shot of Crown Bailey’s and vodka (why the obsession with flatulence I do not learn). This is the food Juneauites consume at 3 a.m., Midgi explains, once the bars close down. This is also a historic joint, dating back to 1891, and where “negotiating ladies” were often found. Robert Stroud, the so-called “Birdman of Alcatraz,” was from these parts, and murdered a bartender from the Imperial who supposedly failed to pay for the services of a prostitute Stroud was pimping — thus earning him a ticket to “The Rock” in San Francisco Bay.

Let it not be said that there is no spot in Juneau to serve the hipsters. Jared Curé spent months restoring the former Arctic Bar to transform it into the hip cocktail joint The Narrows (148 S Franklin St, Juneau, Alaska, 99801, 415/205-3704). Jared serves me a delicious Manhattan made from Dickel Rye, and for my sweetie gets a concoction of Aviation gin, liqueur de violette and lemon juice. Both of us enjoy some Alaskan Fudge Co. [https://alaskanfudge.com/] along with the drinks.

Our last stop is the Alaskan Hotel and Bar (167 S Franklin St, Juneau, Alaska, 99801, 800/327-9347, an establishment truly out of the pioneer past. While we sip on an Alaskan Ale, Midgi explains how the Tlingit word “hoochino” was Anglicized to “hooch” to mean an inferior whiskey.

After all this eating and drinking, Vicky wisely chooses to have a massage at Glacier Salt Cave & Spa (917 Glacier Ave., Suite 101, Juneau, Alaska, 99801, 907/500-9001), while I have a hike booked — which at first sounded like the right thing to do to work off all those calories, but I’m a little toasty after rather a few drinks, so it’s going to be interesting. However, my guide is the ever-smiling and friendly Patrick Courtnage of Adventure Flow, a company that specializes in outdoor excursions like hikes at Mendenhall Glacier or, today, up to the terminus of the Mt. Roberts Tramway.

As Patrick, a native of Montana, and I trade tales of Big Sky Country, he takes a quick turn off the main forest path and we find ourselves at a rope swing — a little secret of the locals. I whoop and holler into the trees as I swing among the canopy, and Patrick, grinning and chuckling, helps me down to a soft landing.

At various points along the way we spy rivulets cascading down the sheer cliff faces surrounding the capital. This is a bit of an arduous hike, and I’m (possibly) regretting one of two of those drinks on the food tour, but I’m also a firm believer in that it’s good to test your limits and to push yourself, especially at less-than-optimal conditions. Besides, it’s a beautiful day, the sun is out, and the cool air evens out the sweat on my brow and back.

And who knows, maybe I’ll never be back here again.

We make it to the Tramway and the accompanying views of the Juneau settlement abutting the waterway. I’m fully soaked and huffing, but it was worth it. Right next to us is a giant cross erected by Roman Catholic Father Brown in the early 1900s, and as I try to frame it for a photo, a paraglider comes floating by, descending down into the valley below.

Patrick and I take the tram back down to sea level, and I’ve sobered up enough just in time for Kara to take Vicky and myself over to Darin Jensen’s home. The rep from Alaskan Brewing Co. has invited us over for snacks as well as, from Alaskan’s vaults, vintages of the Smoked Porter that go all the way back to the ‘90s. Darin and his girlfriend Tami get a roaring fire going as dusk brings in the chilly temperatures, and Darin walks us through the minutia of each of the Smoked Porters on hand.

He knows more about the brand than anyone, it seems, and he and Tami pair the beer with charcuterie and local cheeses. There is much laughter and good cheer, and this episode once again highlights my personal belief that in your travels, it always pays to make friends with locals to see “their” home rather than just the tourist spots.

Back in town, for our final Alaska meal, Vicky and I hit The Rookery Cafe (111 Seward St., Juneau, Alaska, 99801, 907/463-3013), which sources local ingredients and offers a twist on old favorites. The soup pork, which tastes somewhat like hot and sour soup, is incredibly tasty, and the calamari appetizer is choice. Vicky and I are both digging on the onion skins and spaetzle, and our main is something called an “Adult Taco Bell.” Don’t laugh, but I have a fondness for that particular chain (because I’m on a writer’s budget), but when they say “adult,” what they mean at Rookery is incredible taste and presentation. I won’t say more than that; you’ll just have to come to Juneau to find out for yourself.

We turn in, Vicky and I both bearing a gleam of sadness in our eyes. We’ve been in the Last Frontier for an unbelievable 10 days, and tomorrow we start out journey back to Washington with a day stop in Seattle.

We don’t want to leave, that’s perfectly clear, but we both agree we will be back.

 

***

Some final thoughts: Alaska is all that you think it is and more. It defies explanation; even as I have tried in six articles to tell of my own adventures, the feeling, the freedom, the notion of seeming to be in a whole other world that is still part of the United States is paramount. We have seen so much, and yet we have seen so little.

It has whet our appetites for more. Alaska, you’ve intrigued me ever since I put that puzzle of the states together in 2nd grade, the last great piece up high in the north disconnected from the main body politic. Some of your secrets I’ve uncovered, yet so much remains.

Like the ore once mined here, it will take more work and effort for us to unearth all of its treasures.

Eric Althoff is Travel Editor for The Washington Times.

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