Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 9: Adventuring in the Wilds of Juneau

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

Although rain prevented us from viewing Mendenhall Glacier up close in a helicopter, it did not prevent us from other outdoor activities we had lined up in Juneau-two of which departed from the Eaglecrest Ski Area

The first was a zip line course. We had done some zip-lining a few days earlier in Ketchikan, but since the zips were incorporated into a climbing confidence course, they were neither long nor scary. Alaska Zipline Adventures, on the other hand, is not for the weak of heart. This zip line course rips through a rainforest canopy 80 feet above the ground. If something goes wrong here, there’d be serious problems.

The location couldn’t have been prettier. The rainforest was awash in majestic, old-growth pine trees bursting with color and primordial glory. Six steel cables, some up to 650 feet long, zigzagged between the trees, connecting them like a procession of mountain climbers tied together, while far below a stream gurgled through a thick bed of incredibly green and overwhelmingly beautiful foliage.

Each of the trees had a platform attached to it where a friendly staff member hooked our safety harness onto the cable and gave us a reassuring pat on the back before we launched ourselves into the wide open expanse.

The first jump was certainly the most unnerving. There I was standing in a tree 80 feet above the forest floor about to step out into nothing. When I finally did, the zip line immediately made a whirring noise and I whisked suddenly away. The forest was a blur, but the tree I was flying towards at the end of the line remained fixed straight ahead and growing larger by the second. I knew that the slack in the line would slow me down as I got closer, but I was still moving at a pretty good clip when I suddenly began to twist in my harness until my back was facing the oncoming tree. The thought of slamming into it backwards was a little unsettling. I began to wildly flail my arms and managed to turn myself around just in time to realize another mounting challenge; the platform I was rapidly approaching wasn’t built for a 6’4″ person. Shorter people had only to lift up their legs a little and they would land safely on a wooden ramp built into the side of the tree. I, on the other hand had to clutch my knees up to my chest otherwise my shins would have crashed painfully into the platform.

I managed to do so and landed safely with a loud whoop! My first ride was a success. The next five rides were easier and grew increasingly more enjoyable as our guides taught us fun little moves to perform, like hanging upside-down, or grabbing an ankle and jerking arrhythmically like Napoleon Dynamite. My personal favorite was Superman, body parallel to the ground and arms outstretched as I flew over planet earth. Wheee!!!

We here having so much fun we completely forgot it was raining. The thick forest canopy kept out much of the wet stuff and the waterproof jackets provided by our guides kept out the rest. Only my face and hands were a bit cold. By the time we reached the last zip line, a thermos of hot apple cider appeared out of one of the guide’s daypacks and we toasted to our flying adventure before launching off one final time.

The following day we returned to Eaglecrest Ski Area for another bit of outdoor fun: a Cycle Alaska “Sky to Sea” bike ride which promised to do just that.

Like so many tour outfitters in the state, the bulk of Cycle Alaska’s clients are cruise ship passengers. The good news for solo travelers is that cruise ship passengers never have a car, so most outfitters provide a free shuttle service that picks up clients from the docks or their hotel. It therefore came as no surprise when the Cycle Alaska van which picked us up in front of the Prospector Hotel with five cruise ship passengers who had signed up for the bike ride as well. During the 30 minute drive to the top of Eaglecrest Ski Area they regaled us with stories of all-you-can-eat buffets and swinging couples at the onboard nightclubs.

The bike ride seemed a pleasant escape from all of this.

The ride turned out to be about ten miles, most all of which were downhill. Thankfully the rain was very light and wasn’t too much of a bother (like every other outfitter in Juneau, Cycle Alaska also provided us with waterproof jackets and a helmet).

The bikes were very nice mountain bikes with comfortable gel seats and nice shocks. Every few miles we pulled over to the side of the road and walked down a trail or along a stream. We had three guides with us and another which followed behind in a support van. The guides would point out various shrubbery and edible plants and then we’d be back on our bikes coasting along.

Eventually we hit flat ground and the watery shores where we ran across another group of travelers braving the weather with kayaks. Rain is a constant presence in Juneau; life simply does not stop when the clouds burst. Nor for that matter, do the adventure outfitters.

Yesterday: Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier
Tomorrow: Salmon Fishing and Whale Watching in Juneau