Travel junkie journalist Julia Dimon has landed in some unlikely locations, such as the jungles of Guyana, in close proximity to Chernobyl, and on the playa of Burning Man. Never short on story or anecdote, she has provided her own unique globe-trotting perspective on each destination and situation. But one location that brought her back for an encore was the great state of Alaska. In her most recent return to the last frontier, Dimon explains her personal connection to the Alaskan wilderness and the trip to Taku Lodge that provided a new perspective on the vastness of the AK landscape. —LYA Editor
Words and Images by Julia Dimon
Alaska: a state of gold, glaciers, grizzlies, and gruff mountain men who inspire reality TV shows.
The 49th state is a mecca for nature and wildlife lovers. It’s a hub for outdoor enthusiasts who seek to challenge their minds and bodies through an endless number of activities: everything from gentle hiking to world-renowned fishing to hard-core mountain biking, and climbing some of the country’s most challenging peaks.
For me, Alaska holds a special place in my heart. I traveled there a few years ago with my then-boyfriend, who chose her rugged nature as a backdrop to propose. There we were, at a remote fly-fishing log cabin in the middle of the Katmai Peninsula, when he got down on one knee, pulled a little black box from his pocket and, with a trembling voice, asked for my hand in marriage. From that moment forth, Alaska would always be special to me. A place not just of remote wilderness, but also of romance.
A few months ago, I returned to my beloved Alaska, this time on a mission to explore the southeastern part of the state. My adventure started in the capital city of Juneau, cruising along the coastline through the scenic Tracy Arm Fjord to the frontier Gold Rush town of Skagway, with a short stop at Icy Strait Point and a little whale watching in Ketchikan.
One of the highlights of my trip was an excursion by antique floatplane from Juneau to the quaint and historic Taku Lodge, a remote log cabin across from the Taku Glacier.
Wings Airways, a locally owned Juneau airline, offers flightseeing tours around the area. I signed up for an adventure called the “Taku Lodge Feast & 5-Glacier Seaplane Discovery.” It promised 35 minutes of glacier flightseeing en route to a place called “Taku Lodge,” followed by two full hours on the Taku Lodge grounds, a delicious salmon bake, and a 15-minute return flight past the glaciers to the downtown Juneau waterfront. Sounded like a lovely way to spend an afternoon in Alaska, so I signed my waiver, paid my money, and prepped for my flight.
“Welcome aboard” hollered the pilot, extending a hand as I clumsily climbed up the ladder on the side of the plane and settled into my seat. I slid on a set of oversized noise-cancelling headphones, buckled my seat belt, and prepped for the ride. The pilot gave us a quick safety briefing, pushed a series of buttons and checked gauges before he was off… skimming the water and gearing up for takeoff.
For those who geek out on planes, allow me to seduce you with a little “plane porn.” We were flying on a DHC-3 de Havilland Otter, a single-engine, high-wing, propeller-driven, STOL aircraft developed by de Havilland Aircraft of Canada. There were a total of 466 of them produced from 1952 to 1967, many of them purchased by the U.S. Army. Our particular model, a gleaming white beauty with a black stripe, was built back in 1958 and served the oil industry in Angola (in Africa) for 12 years. Oh, the stories she no doubt could tell.
I looked out the window as we soared high above the Alaskan capital of Juneau. The houses became smaller and smaller, swallowed by the never-ending expanse of trees and lakes and nature that exist untouched around Alaska’s third largest city. Despite the city’s size, there are, amazingly, no roads leading to Juneau. As we get higher above the city, it became apparent why. There’s water on one side, mountains on the other, so if you want to get to or get away from Juneau, it’s either by boat or plane.
The pilot waved a hand and pointed out an area of interest. We were flying high above the Gastineau Channel, where the famous English explorer George Vancouver sailed throughout Southeast Alaska in the late 1700s looking for the Northwest Passage.
The vista from the little plastic window in the floatplane was fantastic! The landscape was so epic that it’s easy to feel small and insignificant in the face of grand, but unforgiving, nature. Sharp peaks jut out over ice thousands of feet deep. I spotted foaming waterfalls gushing from rocky outcrops, and glaciers with pools of water so neon blue that they looked like they must be a popular Smurf mountain retreat. I later learned that these sections of bright blue ice are in fact not Smurf-related, but are the result of how the ice crystals grow. These dense ice crystals act as prisms and absorb all colors except blue, which is the one color our human eyes can see.
There are 38 different glaciers that flow out of the Juneau Icefield. It’s the fifth-largest icefield in North America and is roughly the size of Rhode Island. Glaciers cover 5% of the state’s surface. The Taku Glacier (roughly 30 miles long) is one of the few glaciers on the icefield that is actually increasing in size.
We flew above Admiralty Island National Monument Wilderness, a 100-mile island designated by Congress, where there are twice as many grizzly bears as people and more bald eagles than in all the rest of the United States. The lowlands along the Taku River are popular areas for spotting (and hunting, if that’s your thing) moose. I kept my eyes open for these majestic animals milling about on the flats along the river. In this part of Alaska, black and brown (grizzly) bears are far more common but, despite gorging themselves on salmon during the spawning season, they can be tough to spot from above.
Little did I know that it would be easy to spot a black bear once we arrived at our destination of Taku Lodge.
Our de Havilland Otter swooped around, descending slowly, leveling out and skidding atop the water for a smooth landing. I hopped out on the dock and made my way across her modest grounds towards the rustic log cabin of Taku Lodge.
The lodge was built back in 1923 by a Juneau doctor who used it as a hunting and fishing retreat. It was then purchased by the heiress of a lumber fortune and passed on to a young nurse by the name of Mary Joyce. Mary spent her days raising quality sled dogs and maintaining the lodge property. In December of 1935, having achieved some critical acclaim in the dog-sled business, she was invited to attend the Fairbanks Ice Carnival. A natural outdoors woman, she accepted the invitation, got her dogs ready, and bravely decided to travel 1,000 miles by dog sled…solo! It took her 52 days, through almost impenetrable terrain and with harsh temperatures that reached -49 degrees.
This history of female pioneerism really resonated with me. You go, Mary! Young Mary Joyce proved to be a total badass Alaskan lady who defied gender roles of the time and successfully accomplished one of the most grueling pilgrimages (we’re talking unforgiving, relentless, untamable wilds) all by herself. Bravo. Such a feat would surely be celebrated today, but back then, without the high-tech gear and fabrics that we have access to today, it seems even more remarkable. I loved that the Taku Lodge served up a side of feminism with its fish bake.
Walking around the property, taking in stunning glacier views of the Tongass National Forest, I noticed a bunch of my fellow visitors gathering around a dilapidated wooden shed, snapping photos. A black blur lumbered across a snowbank and I realized they were gawking at a large black bear!
“Stewie” the bear is often seen around Taku Lodge. Perhaps it’s the gorgeous views or the friendly guests that lure him here, but chances are pretty good that the daily salmon bake has something to do with it. Stewie meanders around the outdoor grill, waiting for the guests to go inside the lodge before helping himself to the gooey fishy leftovers.
Peering from a window inside the lodge, I observed as he put his paws atop the outdoor grill, stood on his two back legs and voraciously licked the salmon residue off the metal rack, occasionally looking around to see if anyone was watching. I don’t blame him. The salmon is baked to perfection, caked with a candied glaze that would make any protein more palatable.
While he feasted on salmon outside, we feasted on salmon inside. The lodge – a log cabin decked out with antique snowshoes, Klondike memorabilia and the compulsory taxidermist’s moose head above the fireplace – is the perfect setting for an authentic Alaskan lunch. And what a lunch! The spread of baked beans, coleslaw, hot rolls and salmon grilled to perfection was truly one of the best meals I’ve had during all my trips to Alaska. We’re talking melt-in-your-mouth, home-cooked comfort foods that leave you so satisfied, they require unbuttoning your pants. Battling the onset of a food-induced coma, I joined the other guests for a short stroll around the property, taking in the views before hopping back aboard the floatplane and prepping for takeoff.
A visit to Taku Lodge is a great day trip from Juneau. You get a bird’s-eye view from an antique floatplane, take in some incredible views, and learn some riveting local history before topping it all off with a bear encounter and an incredible salmon lunch that’s quintessentially Alaskan.
If you’re interested in experiencing this trip for yourself, check out: http://www.wingsairways.com/flight-and-feast-tour.html
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