June 28th: Lesley and I awoke early but again found ourselves already in port. We had yet to see the docking procedure and now assumed are assistance was not directly required in this aspect of seamanship. For the first time during this journey it was raining fairly steadily and was forecast to continue throughout the day. This was not surprising since we were in Juneau where it rains about 300 days a year. We had a quick breakfast as usual and met a small bus on the pier that was to take us about 20 miles outside of downtown to a rain forest.
This excursion was the 'Guides Choice Hike' and as I have previously mentioned, an excursion I was eager to experience. There were about 30 of us on this trip with three guides. The group was broken up into 10's and Lesley and I had Gene as our naturalist/guide. I secretly wanted Gene to lead us, not only because he was the owner of the operation, but was older and presumably more experienced than his younger employees. Gene surely fit the outdoors naturalist type with his long greying hair tied back in a ponytail and matching beard. Later we learned that he camps solo all the time in the Yukon and I can easily imagine him surviving quite nicely on roots, berries, and thorns and such.
The rain had lessened as we began our hike and although Lesley and I had the foresight to bring our own ponchos we swapped them happily with the sturdier ones provided by this tour. We only hiked 50 yards or so before Gene warned us not to eat anything along the path before asking. Not that we would be naive enough to do so, but after he mentioned the dozen plants that could kill us, I was thankful nonetheless. With his dire warning still echoing, Gene himself said, "Oh, what's this?" He scooped up a brown mushroom and after taking a big bite said, "These you can eat." He offered the fungus to our little group but nobody had that woodsy appetite yet.
We hiked for about 15 minutes and then started to get within some real thick undergrowth. The path was nicely groomed but I could imagine that constant upkeep would be required to keep it as cleared as it was. We hiked over a beautiful little wooden bridge and then turned into the real part of the rain forest. This was not a tropical rain forest but a temperate one. In fact, I believe this unique environment exists only in southern Alaska and western Canada. I grew up in a forest area but this was unlike any I had ever seen. The first startling thing you see is that just about everything is covered in a dense mat of moss up to 8 inches thick. It gave the entire forest a surreal look and I could not help but think they could have filmed a scene from 'Lord of the Rings' here. I was walking directly behind Gene and through the day peppered him with questions. I don't think it annoyed him and in fact I believe he was glad to have someone who took a similar interest in the forest. My first question was regarding the thick moss and he said, dependant on the species, it can take decades to grow as thick and lush as we saw it. He added that a moss expert could spend an entire day identifying the different species residing in an area of one square meter.
We hiked in a series of S movements slowly ascending what would eventually be 1000ft. It seemed that there was always one side of the path bordering steep hills and one had to pay attention or might find themselves tumbling down a distance. This and other accidents had occured before but Gene comforted us with his first aid experience and of his pack filled with all manner of health related supplies. There were an abundance of wild flowers growing along the paths edge and Lesley was able to identify quite a few impressing Gene along the way. One interesting plant was called Bear's Club or perhaps Devil's Club, I cannot recall exactly. It was fascinating because it had leaves resembling a maple leaf but were huge, 18" across. It also had cruel looking thorns riding up the entire stem and even more surprisingly had more thorns on the underside of the leaf.
After sometime we encountered a series of steps, a hundred or more that quickly raised our altitude. One member of our group had a bit of trouble here which begged the question why someone who had both a knee and hip replaced would want to tackle such a hike. We were all impressed with his never say die attitude and nobody was upset in having to wait for him, (in fact another hiker stayed with him and brought up the rear) but I don't know how much enjoyment he eventually gleaned from this excursion.
After reaching top altitude we took a short rest near a break in the trees that offered a wonderful view of Mendenhall Glacier. Truthfully, I was not even aware we were that close. Another excursion had offered a bus ride to a nearby visiting center where one could get out and then take pictures of the glacier but I assuredly enjoyed hiking above it in the forest and viewing it in this manner.
It had been raining all the while but the forest canopy acted as an umbrella and only a slight mist made it down to the floor. Even still, after hours of hiking we did find ourselves somewhat damp. Curiously, we never saw any wildlife here and only occasionally heard any sounds at all. Gene had said that this was indeed bear country and we could be walking within feet of one without ever knowing it but the abscence of sighted animals was odd. On a bear note: in downtown Juneau all the trash cans are made of metal and without a removable lid. To throw something away you have to slide a hand up and into a little chute and then press a bar to open. This design prevents bears from making a total mess.
I feel gentle reader, that I have cheated you a bit, unable to provide adequate description of this fantastic forest but the words on't come easily. I can say that if you have ever enjoyed a walk in the woods you would absolutely love this magical place.
That evening Lesley and I dined at Sabatini's the other surcharged restaurant. This was our best meal of the entire cruise. You only had to order your entree and everything else on the menu was offered in diminutive portions. You could have more of anything if you liked but we found we never had to double up on any one dish. There were cold appetizers and then warm ones. Followed by different soups and then an array of pastas. After your main course, (Lesley had lobstertail and I had Tiger Prawns) three small deserts were then presented. Everything was delicious and the service very individual and attentive. It is an additional $20 per person but a similar meal in Boston would easily run over $100 per individual.
It was yet another wonderful day in Alaska and we still had Ketchikan to look forward to tomorrow.