Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Curious Case of Juneau, Alaska

In Juneau I was hosted by Travel Juneau, and I travelled there courtesy of the Alaska Marine Highway.

I've just spent three nights in one of the oddest little cities I've ever visited: Juneau, located in the southeast strip of Alaska that stretches alongside Canada's province of British Columbia.

Why is it such a curious delight? Let me give you some examples.

1. You can't drive to Juneau.

Although it's Alaska's second-largest city, you can only reach it by air or sea - the mountains around it have so far proved impenetrable to road-builders. So I arrived aboard the ship you can see below, the MV Matanuska. Built in the 1960s, it's one of the vessels of the Alaska Marine Highway, a network of ferry routes which stretches from Washington state all the the way north and west to the far-flung Aleutian Islands.

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2. The gardens grow upside-down.

Well, not exactly. But at Glacier Gardens just outside Juneau, the gardeners have utilised upturned old tree trunks to create these strangely alluring elevated flower beds. It's also worth visiting for the golf cart tour they offer, heading high up along the slopes of the surrounding rainforest.

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3. It's the political hub of Alaska.

Although Juneau can't be reached by road, and is located in the far southeast of the state, the city is the capital of Alaska. It's held that status since the 19th century, though there have been attempts to move the seat of government elsewhere. For the time being though, the State Capitol stands proudly in the heart of the city - a city often visited by bears in the middle of the night.

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4. Its location used to be in Russia.

In the late 19th century, concerned about the vulnerability of its North American possession, the Russian Empire agreed to sell Alaska to the USA. In 1867 the territory was handed over with due ceremony in the Russian-era capital of Sitka - an event duly recorded in the exhibitions of the Alaska State Museum in Juneau (see below).

Naturally, as the museum notes, the indigenous Native Alaskans protested the sale; as the Russians were giving away a place they had never fully conquered, and which had seen millennia of prior occupancy.

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5. The Russian presence lingers.

Across southeastern Alaska there are traces of Russia's time in Alaska, most visibly the presence of Russian Orthodox churches. The oldest still standing is St Nicholas' Church in Juneau, a picturesque timber structure above the city's commercial core.

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6. There's a shop selling a comprehensive range of Hawaiian goods.

I don't even begin to understand this. But here it is.

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