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One year in Juneau: Finding the best in the worst

Friends soothe the sting of facing headfirst into the rain

Facing into the rain on the path to Mount McGinnis
Facing into the rain on the path to Mount McGinnis
By Kayla Heidenreich CDN Contributor

JUNEAU, Alaska — My alarm rattles off at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning in early November. The window over our bed gives my partner, Brady, and I, a glimpse of the gloomy fall day awaiting us. 

The wind taps at the glass and the weeklong torrential downpour rips through ominous clouds above. I look at Brady, the temptation of bailing on our last-minute hiking plans lingers in our gaze, yet I force myself out of bed. After all, I had made a commitment, and not just to Brady.

When we boarded the ferry from our hometown of Bellingham to Juneau, Alaska, exactly a year ago, we had plenty of fears. Would we fit in here? Would we be able to make friends? Would the dark months be overbearing? 

Now that we have spent a solid year setting roots down in the muskeg, it’s safe to say the positives outweigh any negatives, but as the 18-hour summer days started rapidly eroding, I couldn’t help the nerves creeping into the back of my mind. 

When our ferry docked in Juneau after the three-day journey up the inside passage on Dec. 3, 2022, winter was already in full swing. We had yet to experience the dreary and dark shoulder season of fall, and it felt like Juneau was putting us through our final test.

The memories linger as Brady, our dog Mac, and I drive toward the Mendenhall Glacier, where two familiar cars await our arrival. 

Our three friends pop open their car doors, unleashing their over-excited dogs, and we all laugh, knowing it took some serious motivation to get here. Our plan is to hike Mount McGinnis, one of the bigger and more challenging mountains near Juneau. We mount our bikes to try and get a head start on the 11-mile hike, and pedal headfirst into the rain.

photo  The wisdom in the eyes of a mountain goat and kids along the Mount McGinnis trail near the Mendenhall Glacier provides a brief respite from the rain and cold of a Southeast Alaska wintry day. (Photo by Kayla Heidenreich)  

We pedal a mile before we must ditch our bikes and start up the steep, rocky climb. The rain consumes my mind as it echoes through my hood and drips down my neck. 

The trail shoots straight up the slick granite mountain face requiring the use of all four extremities in many places. After I turn the corner of my first rock scramble, I am greeted by a mountain goat who had been curiously watching my ascent. 

We sat there, the goat and I, looking at each other; just two wet beings sharing the same mountain cliffside. I was mesmerized by the wisdom in the goat’s square eyes, the thick tufts of sopping wet fur that somehow keep them warm, and the tight rings that make up the perfectly arched horns. 

The rest of my group joins me, and someone points out the two baby goat heads poking up just below the cliff. Holding all three of the eager dogs’ collars, we slink by this family, wishing them well.

We continue up past the tree line where we become engulfed in the expanse of the Mendenhall Glacier and its deep crevasses, highlighted in dark blue, etched into the thousand-year-old ice.

Brady and I picked up these three friends in the busy summer months. We would only see each other every so often, but always enjoyed it when we did. After the first two-week stretch of rain hit in September, Brady and I realized we needed to face the rain to survive, and we needed help doing so. 

We coined the term “Fab Five” and made a deal with each other that every Sunday, rain or shine, we would plan an adventure, and we would show up for one another. 

We slowly ticked off the biggest hikes in Juneau, ran 18 miles across Douglas Island, had mountain bike tailgate parties and shared glorious après meals, hot tubs and celebratory drinks. The fear of the lonely, dark, wet months evaporated as our adventures filled my cup with endless rainwater. 

photo  The ancient, deep blue ice of the Mendenhall Glacier makes a Sunday morning 6 a.m. alarm call a bit less biting. A year in Alaska, including two winters has delivered lasting life lessons, writes CDN columnist Kayla Heidenreich. (Photo by Kayla Heidenreich)  

Soaked, exhausted and elated, we climb closer to the summit. Seven hours deep, the three dogs lead the way. The blue ice pales against the misty air and the wind bites at my face and numbs my hands. 

As we approach the summit, the already bad weather takes a turn for the worse, encapsulating us in what many endearingly call “ping-pong-ball conditions.” My waterlogged Canon DSLR camera decides it has had enough and shuts down (sadly forever). We timidly keep pushing toward the summit, our confidence wavering in the unknown.

I check the trail map on my phone — it says we are 200 feet away from the summit. We have found a large boulder teetering on the side of a cliff to use as shelter from the wind. 

The summit is tucked under a blanket of fog and the trail has disappeared with it. I look around at my crew, the faces of people who have kept me sane the past three months. I realize taking the risk to tag the socked-in summit isn’t the point. The point is, we all showed up in the pouring rain and got to spend the day experiencing the raw beauty of Juneau, together. 

Unanimously we call it quits and scramble down below the cloud. We create our own summit, one with a view, and dance and cheer our way back down the steep mountain. 

As winter dawns on us and the snow is finally starting to fall, it feels very full circle to when we stepped off that ferry a year ago. 

Juneau has taught me lots of lessons, but the thing that sticks out the most is living a happy life takes hard work, but you’ve got to stand up and face the rain. Surrounding yourself with community makes that a whole lot easier. 

CDN outdoors columnist Kayla Heidenreich writes monthly, of late from Juneau and beyond;

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