The City and Borough of Juneau is a unified municipality located on the Alaskan panhandle, at the geographic equivalent of where the grip meets the metal and you’re always burning your hand. It is also known as the Capital City, America’s Most Scenic State Capital and, by certain locals, the Hotel California — you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.
Nestled into steep mountains rising some 3,500 feet straight out of Gastineau Channel, much of downtown Juneau stands at the base of known avalanche paths. As such, it’s not a matter of if, but when an avalanche destroys the city. It’s also not a matter of if, but when some smug know-it-all says “it’s not a matter of if, but when an avalanche destroys the city.”
Atop these mountains sit the Juneau Icefield, noted for massive, awe-inspiring crevasses, flowing deep blue moulins and schmaltzy dog sledding outfits that helicopter tourists up there for $500 a pop (gratuity not included).
Both the city and ice field take their names from gold prospector Joe Juneau. Apparently, founding municipalities runs in the family. Joe Juneau’s cousin, Solomon Juneau, also helped establish Milwaukee, Wisconsin — fitting, considering how much beer Juneau, Alaskans consume.
The Tlingit name for the downtown area is “Dzántik’i Héeni,” meaning “Base of the Flounder’s River;” the area north of Juneau through Auke Bay is called “Aak’w,” meaning “expect road construction delays.”
To the south of Juneau, the Taku River is named after the icy “t’aakh” or “taku” winds, which blow down from the ice field through gaps in the mountains. The taku winds are not to be mistaken for the taco winds, which also emanate from deep within interior passes.
At 3,253.92 square miles, Juneau ranks as the second largest U.S. city by area, exceeding both Rhode Island and Delaware. So if there’s that much room, why can’t you ever find parking?
According to the Census Bureau, the city and borough’s population totals 32,756, nearly all of them at Costco on PFD day.
Cold, wet and dark turning to cold, wet and light in the “summer.” Precipitation averages 60 inches a year, snowfall 85 inches, usually falling at the same time, non-stop, for months on end.
Juneau history goes a little something like this: Alaska Natives inhabit the area for 10,000 years, developing a rich cultural heritage with strong artistic traditions … then it’s “discovered” by Joseph Whidbey, in July/August of 1794. Too bad; he could’ve gotten a way better deal if he planned his trip for May or September. Then miners discover gold (again, even though Alaska Natives already knew it was there, also for 10,000 years). Then cruise ship companies discover gold. Then Sarah Palin discovers she’s been nominated to run for Vice President. Then someone opens a CoolSculpting™ spa. And there you have it.
Another important development: Alaska’s government seat shifted from Sitka to Juneau in 1906, the same year Viscount Tredegar opened the Newport Transporter Bridge in Newport, South Wales. Coincidence? Most likely, yes.
Juneau remains Alaska’s capital. It is the only U.S. state capital inaccessible by road; it is also the only U.S. state capitol in which it’s physically impossible to purchase a men’s dress suit unless you get super lucky at the Salvation Army.
Juneau is a company town, and that company is the government — federal, state and municipal employees comprise nearly a quarter of its economy. Tourism also plays a major role, as does the commercial fishing industry. Everyone else is either a scientist or a doula. Or both.
Juneau is home to museums, multiple theater, opera and dance companies, a state-of-the-art Alaska Native heritage center, several large music festivals, a combination sheet metal/bridal shop with giant Wizard of Oz figures on the roof and, as of last week, a light-up bronze whale statue with fountains and an infinity pool.
Juneau residents enjoy a healthy outdoor lifestyle. Popular activities include: hiking, biking, trail running, kayaking, skiing and talking about all the hiking, biking, trail running, kayaking and skiing you’ve been doing. Hunting and sport fishing are also popular, as is jaywalking, and, lately, getting into Twitter fights about the aforementioned bronze whale statue.
Points of interest include the Mendenhall Glacier, the Legislature Building, the Governor’s Mansion, the world’s smallest Costco (seriously) and the former site of America’s last remaining Blockbuster Video.
Notable people from Juneau: pro basketball player Carlos Boozer, visual artists Rie Muñoz and Dale DeArmond, Olympic silver-medalist alpine skier Hilary Lindh and a high school student whose case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court after he held up a banner reading “Bong Hits for Jesus” during the 2008 Olympic torch run. Mel Gibson has long been rumored to own a vacation home in Juneau. Mel Gibson does not actually own a vacation home in Juneau.
But mostly …
Juneau distinguishes itself by not being Ketchikan.
• Geoff Kirsch is an award-winning Juneau-based writer and humorist. “Slack Tide” appears every second and fourth Sunday.