Laura Goes to Juneau, Alaska
Words by Laura Bento
Just before touching down in the Alaskan capital of Juneau, my son, Clay, was glued to the window. Every once in a while he would look over at me with this excited grin and point at the landscape below. We were both amazed at the view; he was amazed at the one outside and down below, and I was busy burning the memory of his smile and excitement into my heart.
Clay is 15 and headed into his sophomore year of high school this fall. He is smart and witty and kind and is often mistaken for an 18 year old, which quite frankly freaks me out. Adventure has always been a part of our life—from spontaneous day hikes somewhere pretty to driving to Tennessee to jump off the side of a mountain paragliding. I’ve even been known to check him out of school for a random flight lesson at the local airport.
Travel and adventure keep us curious. Meeting new people who are different than we are bursts the bubble we live in and crumbles walls of prejudice. And I haven’t even gotten to the best part—traveling and spontaneous adventure bonds you more deeply to your children. When they are curious and disconnected from the same two or three friends they do life with at home (and maybe you even make them put their phone away while you travel), it may even spark a conversation with you.
We grabbed our bags and headed toward our rental car, and through the windows we could see clear blue skies and snow-capped mountains all around. The temperature on my phone said 46, but when we stepped into the sunshine it felt like 65 instead. The air was crisp and clean, and we stood there for a moment in awe. We drove toward downtown, and Clay couldn’t stop snapping pictures. No matter how many pictures we would end up with from this trip, none of them could measure up to the beauty before our eyes.
Pretty much the first thing I like to do when I arrive in a new city that I’ll be staying in for a few days is find out two things: 1. Where is the good coffee? and 2. Where is the best food?
We walked into The Rookery Cafe to grab some coffee and a late lunch, and I was lucky enough to meet Travis Smith, founder and co-owner. When our food came out, he came out too with a sandwich in hand. As we enjoyed lunch and lattes, Travis loaded me up with tons of information about the food and beverage scene. Chef Bo Schooler is his business partner, and he actually owns three restaurants total. Travis told me that Chef Bo is a three-time James Beard nominee. I made a reservation on the spot for In Bocca Al Lupo for that night. Travis and I sat and talked for a bit about entrepreneurship, leading and managing people, and his passion for creating incredible things—not just food, but ambiance and great culture for his people. Clay and I had full bellies, and I knew that this place being a two-minute walk from our hotel meant Travis was stuck with us for the next six days.
The city of Juneau has a little over 30,000 residents, and the main contributor to the economy is tourism. I know that sounds scary, but 92% of the tourists come by boat—cruise ship that is. It is a sight to see when those ships come in—a huge portion of the city comes to greet the first ship of the season, playing music and dancing. The passengers get off the boat for ten hours of exploring or excursions. And I guess for some people that’s enough, but not for me and Clay. We had a whole week of adventure ahead of us.
Clay went exploring on his own for a bit while I unpacked my things at the hotel that overlooked the water and the mountains. I kept thanking God for the view and this exciting opportunity to make some cool memories. That first evening we walked a few blocks up the hill to Travis Smith and Chef Bo Schooler’s Italian place, In Bocca Al Lupo. Clay glanced over at me on our walk and joked, “This city is like if Gilmore Girls and Harry Potter had a baby.” I laughed and kind of agreed. It’s gritty but beautifully aged and manicured.
In Bocca Al Lupo was cozy and almost hidden with its incognito entrance. Above the door it reads, “The Back Room.” I had the best seafood mixed grill I have ever put in my mouth. Clay ordered the Leeky Goat pizza, and he loved it so much that I barely got a bite. Every table was full, and Chef Bo seemed as though he was conducting an orchestra.
While exploring on our second day, we stumbled upon the Jensen-Olson Arboretum, where they grow unique flowers and have a community garden. We walked around a bit and discovered in talking to Mr. Jensen, horticulturalist and Arboretum Manager, that the primrose is native to Juneau. We left there and grabbed brunch at GoNzo AK. They are known for their waffles, and they didn’t disappoint. It isn’t fancy, but the views are stellar and the food is awesome.
We hiked up to the Shrine of St. Therese, an old Catholic church that sat on what seemed like a peninsula. I took pictures of the cathedral and said a prayer and tried to imagine how many people had done the same before me. We skipped rocks in water so clear that we could see straight to the bottom—and by “we,” I mean Clay. I tried, but no dice. I gave up and baby-talked to a marmot instead.
As we wandered into the Alaska State Museum, Clay was blown away by the incredible artifacts from the native people of Juneau and amazed by how long ago they settled this land from Asia. I had conversations with so many interesting people who each had their own Juneau story to share—some had lived in this city their whole life and others had visited, fell in love, and never plan to leave.
We turned in early that night to prepare for our most audacious adventure yet—the glacier hike with Above & Beyond Alaska (ABAK).
I was slightly nervous, and Clay was over-the-moon excited. We arrived at ABAK prepared for an eight-hour hike up to Mendenhall Glacier. There were nine of us making the journey. “It is 3.5 miles up,” Emma, our guide, informed us. She was chipper and 23 and had already climbed Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) a couple of times. Once we made it to the trail, it started to hit me that I’d never done a hike like this—8 hours?! 3.5 miles UP?!
I looked over at Clay, and he had already made fast friends with Bo (another of our guides). The trail was breathtaking and milder than I imagined. Along the way, Emma would stop to point out signs secured with mounds of stones. Each sign had a year on it signifying the point the glacier reached during that year along with an explanation of what the terrain was like. As we got closer and closer to the glacier, the years on the signs were more and more recent. It was a sobering thought that we are experiencing enough warming that the glacier is rapidly melting. Emma made the comment that Clay’s generation would probably be the last to see the glacier before it is completely gone. Just before the glacier, the terrain becomes extremely rocky, and we felt a little like we were in a Star Wars movie. The temperature dropped significantly, and we stopped to put on more layers and put crampons on our shoes in order to have traction on the ice.
We felt so accomplished after reaching the edge of the glacier. Then almost immediately we were distracted from that feeling of accomplishment by the view. Not only the view looking out at Mendenhall Lake, but also looking down at our feet strapped with crampons walking around this incredible creation. Our tour guides led us around, and we eventually stopped at what appeared to be a tiny pond. We refilled our water bottles with glacier water—the kind I’ve bought in a plastic bottle from the gas station a million times. I watched my son kneel there to fill his bottle, and I thought again of what one of our guides said—that his generation may be the last to take this hike because of the rapid melting.
Eighty-eight flights of stairs. That’s what the app on my iPhone said. After all of that hiking, our bodies really needed a day of rest, so we took it easy. I did my normal routine of heading to The Rookery Cafe for coffee and to get some work done, and Clay would stroll over when he woke. That day we also discovered a place called Hangar on the Wharf. It’s a long blue building that looked to be a staple to this downtown. It sits right on the water and gets its name from being converted from an old airplane hanger. This place was gold for us. Hangar on the Wharf is the second oldest restaurant in Juneau and has by far the best views we saw while having a meal. As we watched planes take off from and land in the water, we ordered a little halibut chowder to warm us up. There is something about eating seafood you know has just been caught. I had the best salmon of my life, and Clay ordered fish-n-chips. After eating, we headed upstairs to play some pool. I couldn’t help but notice their incredible beer selection as we passed by the bar. One of the locals told me, “This is a real, year-round local hangout. We love it here because they have 125 beers to choose from, and every Thursday and Friday come 4pm, everyone is here.” I totally get it. If I lived here, this place would be my “Cheers” too.
In this same building there were also a few other restaurants, and one I have to tell you about is Pel’ Meni. You won’t find this place on Instagram, and you may not find it at all. It was down a tiny hallway in this same building. Cash only, and all they sell are the most delicious dumplings anyone has ever made. Beef or potato topped with a ridiculous amount of butter, curry powder, and sour cream, and BOOM! Welcome to Heaven. Pure happiness and a drink for $8.
Adam Underwood owns The Local Guy Charters. Born and raised in Juneau, he grew up on these waters and finally decided to follow his dreams full time a few years ago. Clay and I hopped on the boat with Adam early in the morning. He explained as we headed toward the “inside passage,” preparing to travel through Saginaw Channel, Favorite Channel, and Lynn Canal, that he never promises fish, whales, or bald eagles. But in the first 20 minutes or so of being out on the water, we saw two humpback whales. We were giddy! When you couple these massive beings emerging from the ocean only 30 feet from the side of the boat with the snow-capped mountains all around us, it was another moment I wanted to put in the time capsule of motherhood. Captain Adam embodies so much gritty character. As a boat captain, he is committed to providing unforgettable experiences, and boy did he ever. Not only did we catch a few fish, we saw sea lions jumping on and off of buoys, humpback whales the size of school buses popping up and out of the water, and, most surprising, bald eagles swarming our boat. I have to think Captain Adam was somewhat of an eagle whisperer. My face hurt from smiling by the time we exited his charter boat.
Later that evening we were finally headed to Tracy’s Crab Shack for dinner. There are few things more inspiring than walking into a restaurant to find the owner and namesake behind the line and looking like she is having the time of her life. I could tell she was special right away. As we had been eating all over town, Tracy’s name was synonymous with the idea of “a rising tide floats all boats.” She is a legend in the community as a bootstrapping, innovative restarauter. Fourteen years ago she saw a huge need here in Juneau for visitors and the locals. There wasn’t a place to just grab a quick “leg.” “I cook what I like. And I like things simple. So you can come in and get my favorite things which is called the sampler. It is one king crab leg, a cup of crab bisque, two rolls, and an order of crab cakes with my special sauce.”
She started in a literal shack on the dock near where the cruise ships come in. She explained how for three years she struggled to keep the business afloat. As an entrepreneur, her struggle sounded familiar. It always seems we have more freedom to talk about our humble beginnings when we experience success. And boy has she experienced success. Tracy now owns four different restaurant concepts in Juneau. She is the heartbeat of the hospitality industry here and beloved by most everyone I met. And my, oh my, the crab legs are as big as your actual arm! I was full after just one.
Near the end of our trip Clay was resting in the hotel room, so I escaped with a few people I had met to Alaskan Brewing Company. I happened to meet Darin Jensen in the tasting room, and he offered to give me a tour. As it turns out, Darin started as a brewer here in the 90s. With the new popularity of microbreweries and craft beer in the South, it was interesting to find out that Alaskan Brewing Co. was the 67th craft brewer in the country and opened in 1986. This beer, alongside their tried-and-true Alaskan pride, has won them several gold medals for their beer. Now if I can only find it consistently in my neck of the woods. I am no stranger to touring breweries, but I had never learned so much about the process and the chemistry behind it all. And get this—they are also early adopters of cutting edge technology, being the first ever beer-powered beer brewery. They burn all of their spent grain to produce steam, which is what powers their brewing process.
My friends from the brewery offered to treat Clay and me to a farewell bonfire on the beach. We sat on the beautiful rocky beach roasting hot dogs on the fire, eating delicious smoked salmon and salmon dip from a local grocer, and listening to the sound of whales harmonizing with The Zac Brown Band playing on the speaker. I looked across the fire at Clay, and I knew neither of us would ever forget the memories we had just made.