Not Alice’s Wonderland

Linda Burton posting from Juneau, Alaska – “It was a lesson in anger management that created what you see today.” Jessica has stopped our tour cart in front of the most unusual trees I’ve ever seen. They are upside down! These inverted spruce and hemlock trees have their root ball pointing towards the sky; the trunk is buried seven feet in the ground and fish netting lines the top of the root ball. Mosses lay over the netting and colorful flowering plants grow atop that, making “flower towers” that create an Alice-in-Wonderland magical feel. Anger management? Well yes, Steve Bowhay was a nurseryman, known around Juneau as the Yard Doctor. Long story short – while expanding his nursery in landslide-destroyed territory, he tried to move a large boulder and damaged the excavator he had rented. Numerous fallen trees were a part of the landslide mess; in his frustration over the damaged (expensive) equipment, he grabbed a large tree with the “claw” and slammed it into the ground. Now there’s a twist!

It didn’t take Steve long to visualize a darned good use for those fallen trees on the property, and the “Flower Tower” idea was born. Glacier Gardens is open to the public now; grandson Sam and I are touring it on a cart that takes us on a steep ascent 600 feet up Thunder Mountain, through lush rainforest, past serene ponds and splashing waterfalls; some natural, some a result of Steve’s design. Jessica points out the giant nurse logs, the mosses draping down, the appropriately named skunk cabbage. Sam and I watch for signs of deer, or bear. The view from the top is magnificent, allowing an eagle’s-eye view of the valley we’ve been driving through for several days. There’s downtown Juneau, the wetlands, the airport, the channel. On the way down, we pass through a portion of the Tongass National Forest, a place that can be spoken of only in terms of superlatives.

The Tongass is the largest unit in the national forest system – 17 million acres; a forest of trees and islands and rain. It is a wild place, filled with eagles and deer and bears, and the scenery is unsurpassed. It covers most of Southeast Alaska and surrounds the famous Inside Passage, a waterway that goes past islands housing grizzly bears, and rivers tending precious salmon roe. It is home to the world’s largest temperate rain forest, though almost half of the Tongass is covered by ice, water, wetlands, and rock. There are 11,000 miles of shoreline.

Few places in the world have the geologic and climatic variations that sculpt this landscape. The snow and ice of the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Ice Field within the Tongass are less than eight miles from the salt water in Gastineau Channel. There are three glaciers within a few miles of Juneau – Eagle, Herbert, and the Mendenhall, famous as the “drive-right-to-it” glacier, and it’s the next stop for Sam and me today. The Visitor Center is just a few miles down Mendenhall Loop Road, and it is buzzing with binocular-clad visitors. Sam runs back and forth, towards the lake, up the ramps, inside the museum. A 200-year-old block of ice sits melting on a stand, brought in for the day, I’m sure, a touchable hunk of the awesome river of ice we see outside. More chunks are floating on Mendenhall Lake, listen carefully and you can hear the glacier “calving” as pieces of ice break free. Traveling several inches a day, the glacier is receding rapidly; a relief map showing the Mendenhall in the 60’s reveals an entirely different landscape than what we see today.

The Gastineau Channel is not navigable near the glacier’s end due to the silting process; Sam and I make a last stop at the overlook of the Mendenhall Wetlands, our shadows stretching long in the late-day sun; a make-believe sight in this unbelievable wonderland. Three magnificent eagles sit by the stream just to our right. “Alice never saw anything like this,” I comment to Sam.

About Glacier Gardens, 7600 Glacier Highway, Juneau, Alaska 99801, 907-790-3377,

About the Tongass National Forest

Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, Juneau Ranger District, 8510 Mendenhall Loop Road, Juneau, Alaska 99801, 907-789-0097