A lodge with a view

Glaciers, salmon, bears all add up Taku Glacier Lodge

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

They came hoping to see a bear. They saw two, up close and in action.

Shutters clicked and camcorders whirred as the mother black bear, trailed by a crying cub, approached the barbecue pit at the Taku Glacier Lodge.

The dripping slabs of grilled king salmon, ever-alert cook Randy Haley, and Disney, the patient black Lab, were gone by the time they arrived. But the sauce spattered in and around the grill smelled good enough to attract the bruins. Momma and Baby Bear, in turn, kept three dozen or so cruise-ship tourists watching and clicking away.

"The bears have learned we have the best-tasting sand in a thousand miles," said Pat Volmer, caretaker, host and bread baker at the lodge.

While bears are common, confrontations between bears and people are almost non-existent at the lodge, a dining hall, gift shop and collection of outbuildings about 20 miles northeast of downtown Juneau.

The day lodge, which offers a salmon-bake dinner and flightseeing tour over mountains and glaciers, is one of Juneau's oldest human-made attractions. Built in 1923 and operated as a tourist destination on and off for more than half a century, the lodge has been owned since 1993 by Ken and Michelle Ward.

"The experience we hope is something they can't get just cruising around on the ships," said Ken Ward. "It's a pretty private and secluded style of a tour."

The trip began at the floating dock below Merchants Wharf, where customers board 10-seat de Havilland Otters and five-seat Beavers that take them on the half-hour flightseeing tour to the lodge.

From the cockpit, pilot Gary Thomson advised his passengers of the safety equipment on board, urging them to don heavy earphones that mask the noise of the propeller and provide recorded narration describing the landscape below and the area's history.

The line of aquamarine floatplanes flew down Gastineau Channel before making the turn into Taku Inlet, where they passed U-shaped glacial valleys, each with a muddy stream zig-zagging down its center, shining silver when a ray of sun slipped past the clouds. Instructed by the recorded voice, the visitors scanned the snow-dotted rocky mountaintops for sheep and the lush green river flats for moose and bear.

Next came the glaciers - Norris, Taku, West and East Twin, and Hole-in-the-Wall - broken and dirty near tidewater, melt lakes and gravely moraines, smooth and white with fresh snow at higher elevations.

Passengers reached across the aisle to draw their companions' attention to turquoise meltwater ponds filling long crevasses between dirty ridges of ice.

"The deep blue of the crevasses, you can't appreciate it except from above," said Jan Thomas of Ann Arbor, Mich., sailing Southeast on the Legend of the Seas with husband Tom and three other couples they have known for 38 years. "People just riding on the cruise ship miss seeing what this is like."

Looping before landing, the pilot provided a view of the fast-flowing Taku River, a braided waterway gray with glacial silt weaving its way past sandy islands and green muskeg flats divided by tannin-dark streams lined with white blooms of wild celery.

Once docked and unloaded from the planes, the visitors wandering up the paved path to the lodge were drawn to Haley's salmon grill, where he raised a cloud of smoke and ash as he fanned the stacked sticks of alder into flame.

With an eye open for approaching bears, the cook said he didn't find fixing five meals a day boring.

"The most fun is meeting different people from all over the world," said the Wyoming native, noting he's even met people from his hometown.

Once grilled, the salmon headed into the rough-hewn-wood dining hall, one of the oldest buildings on site. There, Anya Van Dort served up the cooked chinook while the long line of diners piled their oversized plates with baked beans, cole slaw, apple compote, sourdough bread and herb biscuits.

As they dove into their dinners, caretaker Volmer described one of the key attractions of the lodge, the Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier right across the river.

Referencing an old back-and-white photograph hanging on the wall, Volmer pointed out a small patch of ice that's advanced in recent years.

"Last year it surged and it moved about 350 feet, covered up the ground, started calving into the water for the first time and started knocking over trees," he said.

Some of the calving pieces of ice are collected and used for refrigeration at the lodge. The cleanest pieces are broken up to cool drinks at the dining hall.

Volmer also briefed his customers on the lodge's bear safety rules, including keeping food inside, which came in handy when the mother and cub showed up.

Not long after lodge staff took the plates away and began wiping the tables, the small female bear loped up to the grill and began licking what remained of the drippings. The cautious cub followed, but the larger bruin chased it up a nearby spruce where it began bawling, protesting its separation from the salmon smell.

Lodge staff kept a close eye on the camera-clicking crowd; one employee carried a long staff he sometimes uses to chase off bears.

Bears at the barbecue are a tradition at the lodge, where signs, carvings and photographs celebrate the memory of Scarface, a regular who died a few years ago. But despite the grill visits, the lodge doesn't have a serious problem with bears, said Ward, the co-owner. He said food and garbage are handled carefully, visitors are kept from carrying food outside, and few bears have done more than walk through or lick the grill.

"They don't try to break into our cabins. And when they are around when we're not cooking, we do allow them to paw through the grill," he said. "But there's nothing left in there for them to eat except what's scraped off the grills and some of that basting sauce."

After the bears moved on, the human visitors examined the hunting trophies on the dining hall wall or visited the gift shop to buy lodge-themed shirts and hats or books with titles such as "Moose Dropping and Other Crimes Against Nature." Others took short trails through the woods or hung out on the porch, photographing swallow nests, trying out mosquito zappers resembling tennis racquets and chatting with their hosts.

Back in the kitchen, staff prepared for the next tour's meal with Van Dort baking biscuits and Cody Taylor mixing cole slaw dressing. Both said they liked having the wilderness to themselves during off hours, but also enjoyed sharing it with up to five tours a day, seven days a week.

"The guests really seem to love it here," Van Dort said. "It's really nice to talk to everybody."

Ed and Lillian Young of Chicago, sailing the Inside Passage on the Legend of the Seas, said they chose the lodge tour because it offered several experiences they wanted from an Alaska vacation.

"We wanted to see a glacier and we enjoy the floatplanes," Lillian said.

"So we combined the two," said Ed. "And having lunch up here sounded like a good idea."

The flightseeing trip, lodge visit and meal cost $199 per person, with a rate of $170 for locals.

Co-owner Ward said people like the Youngs are part of the lodge's marketing strategy.

"When they get back, it turns out to be the highlight of their vacation and word gets passed along," he said. "Seventy percent of them are here because somebody told them they needed to do that trip when they get to Alaska."

Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at eschoenfeld@juneauempire.com.

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