Friday, August 20, 2010

Gold in Alaska

We've been working our way north in recent summers. In 2008, we traveled through Washington and Oregon. Last year, we visited pre-Olympics Vancouver, Victoria, and Whistler. And this year, we headed off to explore the fjords and glaciers of southeast Alaska.

Gold turned out to be the unifying theme of day one of our journey (August 12):

* Perhaps not understanding the idea of vacation, Donald read about the gold standard while flying from DC to Seattle to Juneau (except when he was watching Date Night).

* We learned that Juneau was founded during the Alaskan gold rush. Indeed, Joe Juneau was a gold prospector.

* According to the City Museum (well worth a visit), earlier residents of the area had used gold to make bullets. Apparently many mountain goats and brown bears were shot full of gold rather than lead.

* Gold mining was once Juneau’s primary industry (now it's government). We were told several times that abandoned gold mines stretch for twice as many miles as Juneau’s surface roads (which famously do not connect with the rest of North America).

* We stayed in the Goldbelt hotel (which wins the award for fastest check-in ever -- under one minute).

* We discovered that downtown Juneau is rife with jewelry stores selling diamonds, tanzanite, and, yes, gold to cruise ship passengers.

John Muir famously traveled the fjords of southeast Alaska in the late 1880s. What he wrote about the the nearby city of Wrangell applies just as well to Juneau today:

The shops were jammed and mobbed, high prices paid for shabby stuff manufactured expressly for the tourist trade. … Most people who travel look only at what they are directed to look at. Great is the power of the guidebook-maker, however ignorant.

In the days that followed, we tried to get off the beaten track and see the real southeast Alaska.

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