A love song for Juneau

I haven’t lived in Juneau, Alaska, for over a decade. I’ve spent little more than a handful of weeks at a time there. Home for me these days is Olympia, Washington. I’ve just recently returned from a ‘long weekend’ in California, a stunningly beautiful part of the world. There were six ladies present: three of whom live in California (two in the Bay Area, one in the LA area), two in the Pacific North West (me and one in Seattle), and one who lives in Alaska – Anchorage. But five of us are from Juneau, four of us have repeatedly considered moving back. I got to thinking.

Map of Alaska

For those that know me in person forgetting that I’m from Alaska is impossible. It is a part of my identity on par with being human or female. I am not my body, I am not my sex, yet I am completely embodied in those ways, and part of that embodiment is my upbringing in Alaska. It is because of my complex relationship with Juneau that I consider Place a form of spirituality.

Old growth forest, photo by Pat Costello

First, there’s the Land itself. Juneau is nestled in the Tongass National Forest, a temperate rain forest. It covers all of SE Alaska (with the exception of Glacier Bay, which is run as a national park). We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of miles of old growth forest, ice fields, and fjords (the largest, deepest fjords outside of Norway). There’s a reason all of those massive cruise ships sail through every year: the place is impressive.

It’s also wet, dreary, mostly uninhabited, expensive, difficult to get around, and isolating. Juneau, the state capital, is unreachable by car (unless you put it on a ferry). Boat and plane are the only way in or out. This particular aspect of growing up in Juneau messed with my head until my mid-twenties. No matter where you go in Juneau – doesn’t matter the neighborhood, an 18 hour hike, north or south along the 60 miles of road – you are in Juneau. So when I went off to college and tried to wrap my head around land based communities, it was tough! I mean, how can you be in a new town just by crossing the street??

Looking at Mt. Juneau and town, from Douglas Island, taken by Pat Costello

Around middle school, from ages 12-14 or so, I hated living in Juneau. Judging from the tv (always the best reflection of Real Life) life happened in California. opportunities felt far away. But that passed and I had more freedom to drive and hike and camp. I developed my own connection to the land and the waterways. I could recognize land formations, had my favorite fishing spots, knew which trees had eagles’ nests, knew when to avoid what places to avoid bears.

The play of light in the summer months was especially sublime. Alpine glow – the sun setting behind the various mountains but reflecting on the snow-capped peaks of the taller ones. Long, lazy June twilight, when the sky is dark for maybe 2-3 hours. Long, sunny evenings fishing in a cove, watching seals, otters, dear, eagles, ravens, all have their play too, while the sun reflects gold off the water. Northern lights in February or March.

Northern lights over Juneau, taken by Mark Kelley

And of course, there were encounters with bears and humpback whales. One reminding me I might not be at the top of the food chain; the other reminding me some mammals might be just as social and smart as us humans.

I could wax on and on about the glories of Alaska (and I often do), but that’s not what my ladies weekend made me think of. I thought of the community. I’ve never met people from any other place who feel as I do about where I’m from. Most people I know dread their high school reunions, are maybe in touch with one or two or three people from growing up. They’ve kicked their hometown to the curb and moved on. I am in touch with hundreds of people from Juneau (thanks, Facebook!). My oldest, dearest friends are those I’ve grown up with. We might not live in Juneau anymore, for various reasons, but it’s a bond that we’ll take to our grave.

The Ladies (I’m third from the left)

My 20th high school reunion is next summer (all reunions ever in Juneau occur over our most important holiday, the 3rd/4th of July). I cannot wait. My husband didn’t even attend his 10th reunion. Me? I’m psyched for it. In fact, my husband and I are strongly considering a third child, but I’m insistent that we not get pregnant August through December of this year, because I don’t want to miss the reunion! It’s ridiculous, planning my childbearing around the reunion, but there it is: I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Talking with my friends, ladies who are like family to me, brought several things home to me. The first was how happy I am not to be moving anymore. My family has settled in Olympia. It’s not Alaska, and it’s far away from a lot of people I love, but I’m not moving. I need to the stability to be a better friend. I’ve not been the friend I want to be, and I want to change that.

The second thing was the deep sadness I have in my heart that my children are not born and raised in Alaska, in Juneau. Olympia is a great fit for my family. My kids will be able to experience some of the natural wonder parts of Alaska when we visit. One week in the summer and the odd winter break aren’t really going to be enough (by my standards), but it’s something. What the kids won’t ever have, no matter how long the visits are, is the sense of People. Of Place. Of being From Juneau. Maybe Olympia is a place that people love to return to. We’ll see. I recognize that I’m speaking quite prematurely. But I’ve lived in a lot of places, traveled quite a bit, met people from all over, and I can say with certainty that there is no Place like Juneau.



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