Turning the Compass North: Juneau, Alaska Calls – A Story of Intention

Nathaniel Christopher

Amidst the challenges of the past year, I received an invitation from my dear friend and former boss, Jean, and her husband, Kent, to escape to the calm and beauty of Juneau, Alaska, for a time of friendship and healing.

Jean and myself in front of the Mendenhall Glacier.

Like many British Columbians, I’ve always been fascinated by our neighbour to the northwest. We share so much in common, and it seems that our history and destiny are closely linked; however, this was my first-ever visit.

My last trip to the United States was an underwhelming visit to Reno, Nevada, in December 2022. I had no reason to go; I hate gambling and didn’t know anyone down there, so I was destined to have a bad trip. And I did!

I did not want to repeat that mistake, so from then on, I decided that all future trips to the United States would be initiated by a credible invitation from a good friend or relative.

This is the view from Douglas Island.

When Jean and Kent let me know that they wanted me up there, I was ready and immediately booked return tickets to Juneau via Seattle on Alaska Airlines.

While waiting in the lineup at Vancouver International Airport, I struck up a conversation with some seasoned American travellers. Their evident admiration upon learning of my destination spoke volumes about the affection and respect many from the “Lower 48” hold for the “Last Frontier.”

The moment I uttered the words “Juneau, Alaska,” I couldn’t help but notice how fresh, unassuming, and delightful they sounded. It felt as though the name “Juneau, Alaska” carried a sense of promise, hinting at the adventure that lay ahead.

Juneau residents are proud to call their city Alaska’s capital. I absolutely love this banner.

The flight down and then up was quick and without issue. The first leg from Vancouver to Juneau took about half an hour, and the flight from Seattle to Juneau was just over two hours.

This was the westernmost and northernmost extent of my travel to date.

My first impression of Juneau was one of astonishment at the beauty of the mountains, the glacier, and all the trees that surround the town. It looks like the British Columbian coast on steroids! The air was crystal clear, and the weather was beautiful.

Many of Juneau’s streets reminded me of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Downtown Juneau is very walkable and pleasant.
An aerial view of Juneau from the Goldbelt Tram.

Between my gracious hosts, the weather, and scenery, I could not have asked for a better welcome.

I was also struck by the relative isolation of the community.

Juneau is one of the most remote U.S. state capitals, with no outside road connections to other regions of Alaska or British Columbia. Consequently, the community is dependent on air and sea transportation.

To underline that point, Jean and Kent drove me out to the “four corners of Juneau” as their first order of business. This is what they call the terminal points of the four major road networks, including: Point Bishop Dupont in the southeast, the northern terminus of the Glacier Highway in the northeast, the Peterson Creek Trail Head in the northwest, and the Treadwell Trail Head in the southwest.

If I got any of these names wrong please correct me!

A stolen and shot-up truck at the northern terminus of the Glacier Highway. I was told that when young people get bored they sometimes steal vehicles, drive them into remote areas and shoot them up for fun. Incidentally, it looks like some people shoot up injection drugs at this location.

It was novel and a tad surreal to experience the extent of an entire road system within a relatively small area.

A lot of people come to Juneau because of its distance from their home state or country and their previous life… Others, however, bemoan the cost of shipping nearly all of their food and items from the Lower 48. To them, the many flights to Seattle are a lifeline that keeps them sane.

“Everything on your plate was flown in from Seattle,” said Kent during breakfast. “That includes the eggs and meat.”

Juneau was extremely quiet compared to Vancouver; however, the only thing that broke the silence was the near-constant buzz of helicopters, seaplanes, and airplanes at all hours.

One of the many flights leaving Juneau.

“It kind of reminds me of ‘Good Morning Vietnam,'” joked Jean.

Where I live, the origin of the food I eat and the clothes I wear is almost an abstraction. In my naive and ignorant mind, it just kind of turns up in the stores as if by magic. However, the residents of Juneau are not afforded that luxury. The origin of their purchases and how they get there is at the forefront of their consciousness due to the cost and logistics of shipping their goods from afar.

The port of Juneau is an important lifeline.

I never heard the word “lifeline” uttered so much and with such gratitude as I did in Juneau. People there seemed especially grateful for Amazon Prime’s shipping policies as well as the presence of the smallest Costco in the United States.

When we went out to eat, Jean pointed out that most of the restaurants in Juneau likely get most of their food from Costco! “Anything they serve at the restaurants here can be made at home,” she said. “Do you want some fancy pasta from Salt? I will gladly make it for you!”

The food from this meal probably came from Costco!
Jean took this picture of me taking a picture of my food. How meta!

The Still Creek Costco in Burnaby is the closest location to my house, and it is a hellish hellscape from Hell. It’s one of the busiest Costcos in the world, and going there is an overwhelming ordeal on the best of days.

The Burnaby (Still Creek) Costco is hellishly overcrowded.
The Burnaby (Still Creek) Costco is hellishly overcrowded.
The Juneau Costco is the smallest in the United States. As you can see it is much less crowded than the Burnaby location.
The Juneau Costco is the smallest in the United States. As you can see it is much less crowded than the Burnaby location.

The Juneau Costco, by contrast, was a dream come true. I went there during a “busy” time, but it was absolutely dead compared to the Burnaby location. It was a rare treat to browse the aisles without bumping into someone.

A short video of the smallest Costco in the United States.

While remote, Juneau also holds a central role as the capital of Alaska. Despite its isolation, it serves as a significant hub of governance and culture, embodying the essence of Alaskan identity.

As a political nerd, I was determined to visit the Alaska State Capitol and, if possible, the Alaska Governor’s Mansion during my visit, which conveniently took place when the Alaska Legislature was in session.

The Alaska State Capitol in Juneau.

The Alaska State Capitol is the fourth that I have visited, and it is one of the most unusual in the United States in that it lacks a dome and looks very much like a standard office building. In other words, it is an unpretentious and functional edifice that reflects the character of the state. I really liked it.

The Alaska House of Representatives Chamber.
The Alaska Senate Chamber.

Before Jean and I went to the Capitol, Kent warned both of us to keep our volume down as we both speak quite loudly. As we entered the building, I whispered to Jean that the safety and well-being of Alaska depended upon on us being quiet during our visit! Juneau is a small city, and it would not serve me if the leaders of Alaska took notice of a loud and obnoxious Canadian visitor.

I was struck by the accessibility of the politicians there. As we wandered the hallways, I quickly realized that most of the people there were either state representatives or senators, so it was especially wise to stay quiet.

I tried to find the Governor… but he was not in!
I visited the Governor’s Mansion… but it didn’t look like anyone was home.

The people I did speak with, however, were very friendly and accommodating of this autistic visitor. When I was taking a photo of the Senate chamber, I felt a tad self-conscious and told a nearby staff person or politician that I was a bit of a political geek who enjoys touring US state capitols.

“Then you are lucky to be here,” he said. “This is the most remote US state capitol so most people who are into this sort of thing never make it here, or if they do, it’s the last one on their list.”

While at the Capitol, Jean and I attended an afternoon sitting of the Senate Resources Committee, which was chaired by Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel. She was the most professional, articulate, and dignified politician that I observed during my trip.

Alaska Senate Resources Committee Meeting on 26 April 2024.

She knew how to manage a meeting, kept her ego in check, and showed respect for her colleagues, visitors, and guests. I would not be surprised if she becomes Governor someday.

Nathaniel visits the Alaska Governor’s Mansion. Cameo appearance by JEAN!

The presentation was about a 2011 US Geological Survey of undiscovered oil and gas resources in parts of Alaska. Back in the 2010s, I started but didn’t complete a program of study in Geographic Information Systems, so I found this talk to be especially interesting. In my opinion, geographic data often reveals more about the intentions of humans than the features of the land. In this instance, politicians were interested in oil!

After that, Jean and I returned to her house where I took a much-needed power nap.

The cruise industry is big business in Juneau. The ships kind of dwarf the local buildings… I don’t really “get” cruises because you can do all of the cruise activities on land. That being said, I am not averse to taking a repositioning cruise to Juneau in the future.

Of course, I can’t discuss Alaska without acknowledging the deep respect and affection its residents hold for wildlife, particularly the abundance of bears and ravens in the area.

I’ve always had a love for wildlife, including bears, raccoons, skunks, and crows. In fact, I am only one of two armigerous Canadians who has a raccoon in their coat of arms. Though some may find it odd to express such admiration, I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic responses I received when discussing bears and ravens in Juneau.

During my time there, numerous locals shared delightful stories of their interactions with these creatures. For instance, a friendly staff member at the Goldbelt Tram mentioned the unique feeding habits of bears in and around the city. “They aren’t as aggressive as bears further inland, so there’s no need to fear them,” she assured me. I encountered her while admiring and talking to a taxidermy bear at the visitor’s centre atop Mount Roberts – a behaviour perhaps considered unusual elsewhere but perfectly normal in Juneau.

Jean and Kent’s dog Scout is a sweet and loving presence.

While I didn’t have the chance to see live bears, I was thrilled to come across a group of ravens on the boardwalk. A kind lady was feeding them what appeared to be dog food.

“I’ve been feeding them every night for 13 years,” she told me. “They always remember acts of kindness.”

In that moment, I felt like I was in heaven.

Kent took this picture of me with the lovely ravens and the nice “raven lady.” It was truly a wonderful experience.

As I marvelled at the harmony between humans and wildlife in Juneau, I couldn’t help but notice a parallel sense of warmth and kindness radiating from the many people I encountered.

Jean took me on a tour of her current and past workplaces, and it seems like everyone there has so much going on in their lives. Nobody that I encountered seemed bored, isolated, or lonely; far from it. Everyone was very friendly, and it was interesting to hear so many regional American accents that you never encounter in Vancouver.

This was as close as I got to the Mendenhall Glacier. Apparently you can take tours up there! I’d be worried about slipping down the ice and falling to my death…

Although I am from another country, I never felt like a foreigner. When people asked where I was from, I just told them, ‘down the coast in Vancouver. I am your neighbour.” Further to that point, I never felt judged or self-conscious during my time there. At all times, I genuinely felt like the people there accepted me as I am, and I am grateful for that because I don’t always feel that way in my own backyard.

I’m not the first loud and opinionated autistic Canadian to pass through Juneau!

Juneau Airport is pleasantly quiet and small.
I had a lot of room to stretch my legs and take pictures.

As a rule, I find travel to be distressing and unpleasant. When I’m in a far-off place, I often find myself lying in my hotel room and thinking, “Who am I, and what the hell am I doing here?” However, upon returning from Alaska, I felt refreshed and at peace. The trip was good for me, and I hope to return someday soon.

Kent and Jean were wonderful hosts.

I’m incredibly grateful for the hospitality extended to me during my time in Juneau, Alaska. Jean and Kent have gone above and beyond, treating me to unforgettable experiences, delicious meals, and warm accommodation. Their generosity has truly made this trip unforgettable, and I am deeply appreciative of their kindness and hospitality. Thank you for opening your home and hearts to me.

I am a resident of Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, who has been blogging here for nearly 25 years. I enjoy sharing my thoughts and feelings on my own online platform. From 1998 until 2017, I worked as a journalist, and I have posted most of my articles in the 'News' section of this website.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *