My thought, upon taking off for my first ride in a helicopter: There is no way this is going to work.
Up early this morning, because we are going on a shore excursion. I always start out on cruises sure that the shore excursions organized by the cruise line are over-packaged and over-priced, and I am going to be so smart and cool and book everything myself, and I bet you can see where this is going. Our excursion, organized by Princess Cruiseline and booked onboard for a hefty sum, was a trip by helicopter to the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. I never really got over my initial terror towards helicopter flight, but it was absolutely, undeniably spectacular. We flew up below the clouds to the glacier, melting into a muddy lake at the edge of the city. It was white and dirty on top, but where the ice had recently split or slid you could see down to the fresh ice below, clear, bright and sharply blue. We were riding six to a helicopter, plus our pilot, with me and Megan up front and two kids and their grandparents in the back. We flew in a wide loop over the glacier, while the pilot talked about it through the headsets. Then we set down on a flatish area (most of the main part of the glacier is split up by deep crevasses) and the pilots took off to pick up their next load of tourists. We were left to wander around, under the watchful eyes of the guides who were stuck out there all day, watching people come and go and take pictures. There were pools of water on the ice and I stuck my fingers in one to confirm that it was, in fact, cold.
Needless to say, we did not have Juneau to ourselves. This is the height of the cruise season, and ours was the smallest of the five (yes, five) ships in port dumping, by a rough estimate, about twelve thousand unwanted tourists on the small city. The funny thing is, I don’t know where they all went. Sure, the little shopping area right near the docks was absolutely jammed, with slow-moving clots of old people stocking up on t-shirts and hideous jewelry (why would you go to Alaska to buy jewelry? They don’t make it there, and it’s not like it’s duty-free). But you get about a block away from there, and it’s like the cruise ships don’t even exist. We’ve been having good luck with restaurants listed in the guidebook Megan brought (despite my guidebook addiction, I couldn’t find mine when it came time to pack), so we headed off to find it. The place was described as the place where all of the movers and shakers of the city went to eat (Juneau is the state capital, after all) but it turned out to be a fairly modest little place on the corner of a strip mall. Anyway, there we were, in a place listed in all the guidebooks (we looked at some in a bookstore) as the place to eat, on a day the city was absolutely overrun with tourists, and there were maybe five other cruise passengers there (we learned this by eavesdropping). The food was terrific, especially the seafood quesadilla Megan ordered (my halibut tacos were nice too, but a little spicy for me, so I was happy to help her finish them).
I am on a mission to eat fresh wild salmon while I’m in Alaska, because where else am I going to get that? So, since we were in port until eight we thought we’d hang around and get dinner at a place we saw down by the dock. There wasn’t a whole heck of a lot to do in the meantime, so we elbowed our way through the mobs for a while, bought some tourist crap, then took ourselves off to the internet café where five dollars got us a blissful hour of email, baseball scores and general connectivity. I left myself six minutes on my card, or thought I did, so I could check again later. (Pay attention- that’s going to be important).
Having shopped and internetted to our hearts content, we needed something else to do to kill time before we could reasonably eat dinner. I was all for my usual approach of picking a random direction to wander in, but in deference to the fact that Megan already thinks I’m nuts enough, pulled out the tourist map I had picked up. There was a reference to a ‘Mt. Roberts trail’ right near the town, which sounded promising, so we headed off that way.
This would be a good time to point out that Juneau is a hilly city. Very hilly. Now, I grew up in the Bay Area and I am not unfamiliar with hills, so you will believe me when I say that these hills were impressive. They don’t have sidewalks in Juneau, they have stairs. Our route up the mountain, not surprisingly, took us up a lot of these, through an undeniably cute residential neighborhood and into an attractive, if damp, wilderness area. (Book idea: Off the beaten path in cruise ports. I particularly like the idea of doing the research.) The path was nice but, well, steep, and after all the walking we had been doing Megan had had enough. If I was a better person I would have insisted that I was tired too and we both could have gone back and petted one of the friendly local cats. But I think we have already established that I am not a good person, and I am a fiend for walking, so it should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I left her sitting by the side of the path while I headed up the mountain. I didn’t go very far, anyway.
On our way back through town we stopped at the internet café again, so that we could both burn off the few minutes we had left on our cards and check for last-minute responses. When I put mine through I had two surprises: one, I only had two minutes left, not six, and two, I had a response from one of the places I had applied to for a job. So I wrote the fastest reply I could and sent it off with two seconds to go. I’m still not sure if I used my real name or not.
We made a few final purchases on our way back through town and made it to the restaurant a bit after six. Then we found out where all the cruise passengers were- they must have been eating salmon at that restaurant, because the wait for a table was an hour long. So we took the tender back to the ship and ate at our table with our new friends.
Someday soon though, I am going to eat some salmon.