Tours above the tree line

Gastineau Guiding takes travelers through the streets of Juneau and up the slopes overlooking Gastineau Channel

Posted: Monday, August 20, 2001

The combined city tour and alpine walk offered by Gastineau Guiding Co. shows off Juneau to good advantage from sea level, tram level and alpine level.

Tours leave the Princess cruise dock near the Mount Roberts Tramway several times a day, depending on the arrival of cruise ships. The two-hour tour begins on a comfortable 24-seat bus with a driver and at least one guide. Narration is geared for laughs, describing Juneau as "the biggest city in Southeast Alaska - a raging metropolis of 30,000," and describing the Federal Building as "our largest building - in September, when the cruise ships are gone."

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Guide Linda Whitman chats about her two years working in the Tongass National Forest and her year in Tenakee Springs, seemingly just shooting the breeze but actually telling her dozen guests about a variety of Alaska lifestyles.

As the bus slides down Franklin Street and glides past the Capitol, there are asides on the Alaska Marine Highway and on Juneau's gold discovery: "They found gold the size of peas and beans. Richard Harris fell to his knees and wept - in elation or exhaustion, we aren't sure which."

The tour passes the Governor's Mansion and $250,000 homes on 12th Street, prompting a Canadian tourist to exclaim, "Is that U.S. (currency)?"

As the bus nears the wharf again, Whitman's patter segues into the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the formation of Native corporations such as Goldbelt, Juneau's urban Native corporation, which owns the Mount Roberts Tramway.

Waiting for a tram, Sandy Baker of Mississauga, Ontario, says she chose this tour because "You can shop anywhere, but if you are going to see something you might as well see something from the best view."

Baker is traveling with three friends, who describe themselves as "all neighbors and all former Girl Guides (Girl Scouts)." The foursome intends to visit a saloon, sample Alaskan Brewing Company beer and buy souvenirs for the kids back home. It's 3:15 p.m., and their ship, the Norwegian Wind, sails at midnight.

Alpine walks at a glance

Tour package: Gastineau Guiding Co. offers an interpreted forest and alpine walk on Mount Roberts with a tram ride, preceded by a city tour by bus. No more than 12 clients per guide.

Cost: $44 per person for the alpine walk (includes Mount Roberts Tramway lift ticket, good for the rest of the day). Discounts available for locals.

Times: One each hour. Tours average two hours.

Contact info: Call 586-2666. Or browse their Web site at stepintoAlaska.com.

Whitman fields questions ranging from beer to economics to distilled water.

At the top of the tram, 1,800 feet up, guests are equipped with hiking staffs and rain ponchos (as needed), and then unhook a chain and head down a steep gravel path toward a private lookout. Bill Wilson, 67, is a bit leery. "Are we going to put chains on coming back up?" Wilson asks.

Actually, most of the trail is fairly level, with only five sets of steps.

Here, Whitman takes what she calls a "tracking" approach to her spiel. She instructs guests how to track the movement of glaciers, avalanches, browsing marmots, snowpack and other forces on the landscape.

"We'll be looking for evidence of where the sunlight hits more, or glaciers shaped things," she said as guests look out on Gastineau Channel where they can see distinct ripples of incoming tide. She launches into a mini-lecture about the fact that 20,000 years ago "this land was covered with ice that was 4,000 feet thick. That ice shaped everything we can see."

Whitman has worked for Gastineau Guiding for six summers, and her experience shows. She assumes a friendly, non-professorial, almost confiding attitude while imparting a great deal of information.

She talks about the Treadwell mine cave-in. Moving right along to other sites, Whitman discusses porcupine damage, identifies lichens including Old Man's Beard (and poses for cameras wearing a piece as a hat), and Tlingit carvings on trees that mark clan sites such as burial grounds.

The tour uses the half-mile public loop but also accesses two private segments that Gastineau Guiding leases and has developed. This gives guests the sense they are seeing vistas, including one out over Gold Creek, that others cannot a sense of exclusivity that obviously sits well with them.

Meanwhile, they are absorbing Whitman's information about earthquake fault lines, Steller's jays, salmonberries, how fast the Mendenhall Glacier moves (two feet a day), and the habits of hoary marmots - to name a few.

About 200,000 people a year ride the tram, but only a small percentage venture out on the trails at the top, Whitman said.

The $44 tour is leisurely, winding back and forth in the forest, pausing for squirrels and chickadees, and then rising above tree line, taking time for photos. It ends back at the Nature Center, owned and operated by Gastineau, where Whitman and other guides hand out water or hot cider.

Guests are now at leisure to visit the restaurant and gift shops at the tram, browse in the nature center, watch a film in the center's Marmot Theatre or the Tlingit cultural film produced by Goldbelt. Guests will be able to use their lift tickets for the rest of the day.

"Out of all the different trips, I think this was the best; you were really super," Heather Wilson, 63, of Ontario tells Whitman at the conclusion of the tour.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.



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