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By Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers' Tales

Across the gray waters of the Gastineau Channel the mountains are humpbacked shadows, with thin skeins of cloud drifting across their summits. The Norwegian Sun is the only cruise ship on Juneau's wharf today, and despite the thin drizzle, passengers continue to flock down the ramp. They wear yellow rain-slickers over thick jackets or hooded parkas as a defense against the rapier-sharp Alaskan wind.

2. View of rainy Juneau waterfront from the ship's deck

My dining table companions catch up with me. With the easy camaraderie that develops on a cruise ship, we've become friends: Darlene is a vivacious brunette, and her husband Jack, is a rangy Gary Cooper like figure. "C'mon," Darlene, links arms with me. "Let's go hit the fleshpots of Juneau!"

6. Entrance to Red Dog Saloon, with note appended

Juneau's nearest approximation to a ‘fleshpot' is the "Red Dog Saloon", a crowded honky-tonk tavern reminiscent of the days of Alaska's gold rush boom in the early 1900s. Slatted swing doors lead into a room where the walls are crowded with mounted bearskins, moose heads, stuffed beavers, black-and-white photos of miners, prospectors and smug, grinning fishermen holding aloft their salmon trophies. Wooden posts, thickly covered with business cards of visitors from all over the world, punctuate the room—and a staple gun is within easy reach on the counter should a visitor wish to add to the collection. The floor is inches deep in sawdust.

5. Red Dog Saloon, with banner appended below

Their liquor menu has items ranging from "Cheap Shit" ($6.00) to "Very Expensive Shit"($8.00) I forego all varieties of shit, and decide to gorge on a Ninilchik Wrap of Alaskan salmon wrapped in a tomato tortilla. It lives up to the promise: "The only way it would taste better is if you caught the salmon yourself."

Lunch over, we saunter along Franklin Street, the main drag. My guide book indicates that most of the buildings flanking the street still retain their original facades as, unlike many other Alaskan towns, Juneau has never experienced a major fire.

3. Store selling Indian fine art and crafts. Photo: Phyllis Beavan

Somewhere along the way, I lose Darlene and Jack as we peer at window displays, occasionally dropping into a gift shop en route. While some carry the usual kitsch of key chains, totem poles and mass produced Eskimo dolls, most of the boutiques and art galleries are filled with expensive, glittering merchandise: precious stones set in filigreed gold jewelry, Lladro porcelain figurines, oil paintings and West Coast native carvings of wood, antler horn and walrus ivory.

4. Downtown Juneau. Photo: Phyllis Beavan

I pause to admire Russian Matroshka dolls, cloisonné trinkets and pretty miniature boxes of woven bark. The gold-rush days are over, but Juneau's wealth still pours in, mined today from the pockets of tourists who gladly invest in the town's abundance of superbly crafted objets d'art. With an average 500,000 summer visitors to the town each year, this translates to the equivalent of several pounds of shiny gold nuggets.

7. Shopping street. Photo: Phyllis Beavan

For all its veneer of sophistication, Juneau also has a folksy charm. I sit on a street bench munching on an apple, and a local resident joins me for a chat. She is an elderly woman with black boot-button eyes, high Indian cheekbones and a gurgling laugh. Her great-grandfather was a seal trapper who traded with the Russians when this area was still a forested wilderness. "I remember when Front Street was just a dirt road," she says. "That was back in the late ‘20s when I was just a little girl. Then in the ‘30s it became one of the first paved streets in Alaska."

8. Colourful banners in downtown Juneau: Photo Phyllis Beavan

As Alaska's capital, Juneau boasts other distinctions too. It was the first Alaskan town founded by America in 1880 following the territorial acquisition of the State from Russia. The borough boundaries cover 3,108 sq. miles so it is, geographically speaking, one of the largest cities in the world. Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts seal the city off from the interior so Juneau is accessible only by boat or plane. Today it is home to over 30,000 people, comprising approximately half the population of South East Alaska.

My companion stands up to leave. "Be sure to take a look at our State Museum," she advises. "Lots of old photos of the miners and loggers. There's even a group picture with my dad in it. He was a fisherman back then."

1. St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. Photo: Phyllis Beavan

But I have to forego the pleasure of seeing the Alaska State Museum and the highly recommended St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church as my cruise ship leaves in half an hour. "Oh well," says Darlene as I whine about this at dinner, "all the more reason to come back again next year." True enough.

PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts unless otherwise indicated.

1. St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. Photo: Phyllis Beavan
2. View of rainy Juneau waterfront from the ship's deck
3. Store selling Indian fine art and crafts. Photo: Phyllis Beavan
4. Downtown Juneau. Photo: Phyllis Beavan
5. Red Dog Saloon, with banner appended below
6. Entrance to Red Dog Saloon, with note appended
7. Shopping street. Photo: Phyllis Beavan
8. Colourful banners in downtown Juneau

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