Science Talk

The Juneau Tour: Scientific American Alaska Cruise, Part 3

Scientific American Bright Horizons Cruise 22 arrives in Anchorage, Alaska, on August 31st, which allows us to post audio from a fascinating taxi trip through Juneau on August 28th.

Steve Mirsky:    Hi.  Steve Mirsky here for Scientific American Science Talk.  We're still on our Alaskan cruise with Bright Horizons.  It's Bright Horizons Number 22.  For more information, you can go to  And we're sitting just outside the harbor.  Really, we're in the harbor in Anchorage, Alaska.  We're very close to the pier here, but we were supposed to actually be tied up to the pier by 7:00 this morning Alaska time.  It's now 10:26. 

And we're not quite safely tied up yet, apparently because of combination of some strong currents and there's big tides here.  There's apparently a 30‑foot tide differential possible every day.  And so we're just waiting until it's safe.  There was a tug earlier today I saw from my window just trying to get us nudged in a little closer, but we should be safely against the pier pretty soon.  Then we'll be able to wander around in Anchorage.  And I've heard that Anchorage is a tough town.  I heard that before I left New York. 

And, in fact, let me share an e-mail I received from a friend of mine when he heard I was in Anchorage.  He wrote:  "I saw a man knocked out cold in a street fight outside a bar last time I was in Anchorage as we stood outside with a tourism board representative.  My son, then three, was with us.  It was in the middle of the afternoon.  Everyone was a little worried the guy might be dead.  We never found out.  I figured that was pretty much the worst day of that tourism representative's career."  Then he says, "There was a nice ice sculpture museum across the street from the maybe dead guy, though."  So looks like a tough town, but it's a beautiful day and I'm sure we'll be in trouble.  I mean, not be in trouble. 

And I've got the TV on in the room that gives us our position.  It's 61 degrees, 14.34 minutes north, 149 degrees, 53.38 minutes west.  And the other day when I first gave you positions, I should have realized, because I had numbers bigger than 60 for the seconds, but Twitter friend, John Armstrong, pointed out to me via e-mail, or on Twitter that is, that you can't have more than 60 seconds.  And then I realized that the figures here are in degrees but then minutes and decimal points of minutes without the seconds.  And it's now 10:28.  I'm doing AM radio.  So it's now 10:28 AM.  I'll give you the time every two minutes. 

We're going to go out for a hike in the surrounding hills as soon as we can get off the ship.  But for now, I wanted to play you some audio that I recorded back in Juneau.  It takes a while to upload these things because we don't have an Internet connection until we're back in a port, a port of a fairly good-sized town as well.  And we were in Hoonah the other day, and the Internets, the Interwebs, as the "series of tubes," as former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens might have called them, were not particularly reliable. 

So the other day when we were in Juneau, we were in a cab to get to the airport because we did a floatplane flight over what I thought was going to be the Mendenhall Glacier, but because of weather, we wound up flying over the Casement and Davidson Glaciers.  And I might have some audio of that for you in an upcoming episode.  But when we were in the cab to get over to the airport, we were fortunate enough to be picked up by a very interesting cab driver, name of James Dean, or J.D.  And we stopped along the way at salmon ladder. 

And I thought you might be interested to hear some of JD's narration on the ride over to the airport and at the salmon ladder.  The other voices you'll hear are me; Robin Lloyd, the web editor at Scientific American; and Neil Bauman and Theresa Mazich, who run the Insight Cruises, the Bright Horizons Cruises in conjunction with Scientific American.  So without any further adieu, from Juneau, Alaska, here's J.D., the cabbie. 

J.D.:                    Right up here, you can see a picture on the wall.  It's supposed to show you how the Raven met the natives on the clam shell, and he became a man.  All I got to say about that is natives were doing way better drugs than the white people.  That's like evolution on steroids.  Even Darwin stretched out a few hundred thousand years. 

Right up there is the capital.  It used to be a high school.  In 1958 they moved the high school and turned that into office buildings.  And then in '59 when we become a state, they turned it into the state capital.  They complained that they're one of the few states that don't have a dome.  They want to spend $65 million to build one with a dome, but every election, they spend $15 million lobbying to move the capital to Anchorage.  If you look right down there, the gray house with red trim, that was beachfront property.  All of it is a landfill. 

Steve Mirsky:    The population again was? 

J.D.:                    30,786.  Now, one or two might have died.  A couple might have been born.  That's _____  _____at the beginning of the year.  That's Douglas Island, 76 miles of shoreline around it.  And only one‑fourth of the island is inhabited, but all of it is city limits.  From the end of Thane Road to the other end of the road, 53 miles, all of it, city limits.  That makes us the third largest city in the world and the largest city in the United States by landmass. 

Steve Mirsky:    And a great portion of the glaciers within the city limits; is that right? 

J.D.:                    Yes.  City limits goes 12 miles out into the glacier.  Do you know why the glacier is blue? 

Steve Mirsky:    No. 

J.D.:                    That's 'cause behind these mountains, we have 1500 square miles of ice fill, and every year, we get anywhere from 300 to 400 feet of snow up there.  All that weight squishes all the air bubbles out of the ice and it all colors the light pass through it except for blue, which reflects right back at you.  And when it breaks off, calves off, whatever you want to call it, then it's really blue.  Then the air and sunlight break down the crystals and the ________ prism pass through it and the ice appears white.  That's about a mouthful, huh? 

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah, we did see some brand new blue at the South Sawyer yesterday where they just calved off. 

J.D.:                    This foreign highway was put in at the same time they filled in downtown in '73.  They used mine tailings to fill it in with.  At that time they only had enough technology to extract 30 to 50 percent of the gold.  So I'm not saying our streets are paved with gold.  I'm saying we've paved over our gold.  One of six boat harbors, and it still took me three and a half years to get one of my boats in there. 

Steve Mirsky:    The waiting list is that long?  Well, you need a boat if you're going to go anywhere, right?  We're an island without a land connection. 

J.D.:                    We're not an island.  We're a land lot.  We're connected to Canada, but I got a 37-foot fiber-form with a 15‑foot beam – that means wide – and 25-foot Bayliner, 15‑foot skiff.  And I built a dock that's 20-by-20, take it out behind the island, drop anchor, put your ____ out on the boil and made up the grandkids' fishing poles.  These people had beachfront property.  Didn't have a road.  They complained they couldn't pull their boats into their boathouse right there.  So at high tide, they put a tunnel underneath the road and at high tide, you can. 

The red top building with the gray walls is a fish hatchery.  If it wasn't for fish hatcheries, we'd have no wild salmon.  That particular hatchery put out 126 million fish last year, and out of that, 8 to 10 percent will come back.  We get enough eggs to do it all over again.  Salmon spawn within ten feet of where it is born.  It is born inside that building.  They're coming back to it.  Would you guys like to swing in there and see the ladder, fish coming up?  It won't take very long at all. 

This old boy was speeding along and an officer pulls him over and comes up to his window and says, "Sir, let me see your driver's license."  He says, "I don't got one."  Officer says, "Why not?"  "DUI."  "Okay."  He says, "Well, let me see your registration and proof of insurance."  "Don't got that, either.  It's not my car.  I shot the guy that owns the car.  The gun is in the glove box.  Body is in the trunk."  Officer says, "I'm calling for backup."  He says, "Okay."  The other officer gets there and walks up and says, "So you don't have a driver's license?"  "I've got a driver's license.  Here you go."  "Huh?  Well, okay.  So you don't have proof of insurance or registration?"  "Yeah, I do."  He says, "______ the glove box.  There's a gun in there."  He says, "No, there's not." 

He opens up the glove box and gives him proof of insurance and registration.  Officer says, "Is there a dead body in the trunk?"  And he said, "Well, of course, not."  He pops the trunk.  Officer goes back, and when he comes back, he says, "I don't understand.  The other officer said you didn't have a driver's license, you didn't have proof of insurance, didn't have registration, had a gun, had a dead body in the trunk."  He said, "I bet he said I was speeding, too, huh?" 


This old boy had a mean dog, bit everybody in the neighborhood, killed everybody's dog in the neighborhood.  Takes it to the store with him and ties it to a fire hydrant.  Pretty soon _____ comes in the store and said, "Is that your mean dog out front?"  The guy says, "Yes, it is.  Stay away from him, he'll bite ya."  He said, "No, he won't.  My dog killed it."  "Your dog killed it?  What kind of dog you got to kill my dog?"  He said, "A Mexican Chihuahua."  "A Mexican Chihuahua killed my big ole dog.  Let's see this killer dog."  He walks outside, looks around, sees his dog nearly dead.  "So where's this killer dog at?"  "Still stuck in his throat." 

Steve Mirsky:    Is that the newspaper, the Juneau Empire

J.D.:                    Yes, it is.  During the tour, they're telling them about the hatchery here. 

Steve Mirsky:    We can just see the ladder? 

J.D.:                    Yeah, you see the ladder.  Go up and see the a bunch of fish aquariums inside.  They've got some salmon dip in there that is to die for.  I bought a bunch of it all summer long, and then in the winter, I pass it out for Christmas presents. 

Steve Mirsky:    This is the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery in Visitor's Center.  

Female:              Can you explain the salmon ladder to me? 

J.D.:                    Well, salmon, they keep them for six months to imprint on their brand where they were from, okay, and 'cause each creek smells different.  Well, the kings go out for six years, dogs go out for three years, silvers go out for four years.  They go as far away as Japan and come back and spawn within ten feet of where they were born.  So they're coming up.  There's ocean out here, saltwater.  They come up and they can take anywhere from two hours to weeks depending on how close they are to spawning.  And they come up the ladder and go inside there. 

Female:              Why make it hard?  Why build a ladder? 

J.D.:                    Because salmon  or you can't just have water running that fast down.  It has to have stops.  And salmon are used to jumping in waterfalls and different things to get up.  And 

Female:              They like to fight. 

J.D.:                    And they also jump up and turn sideways and hit slap down and break their egg sac.  Now they say they anesthetize them here, and what they do is run a small current of electricity-filled water and then wop them in the head with a steel pipe.  They call that anesthetizing.  Then they cut them open, put the eggs in a sterile bucket, take the males and squirt 'em in there.  Now, they've been artificially "insalmonated." 

Steve Mirsky:    So they're just let back out into the wild and they find their way back here when they're ready? 

J.D.:                    Yes.  They go as far away as Japan and come back. 

Steve Mirsky:    So how have you come to know so much?  You just absorb whenever you come in here and hear them talking? 

J.D.:                    Well, that's here, and I look things up on the Internet to a lot of cab drivers, they pick up people and take them to the glacier and they talk on the phone the whole way.  Myself, somebody calls me when I'm I say, "Make it quick.  I've got customers.  They're paying me for me to entertain them, not you."  And I hang up.  And so a lot of times I go out and pick up people from the glacier that other cab drivers have taken. [Phone ringing]

Steve Mirsky:    Oh, we've got an example. 

J.D.:                    Hey, be quick.  I'm tripping.  I've got people in here.  Okay, yes, sir.  I'll call you as soon as I drop off. 

Female:              And are you a Juneau native? 

J.D.:                    No.  I moved up here in '91. 

Female:              Oh, from where? 

J.D.:                    Right by California. 

Neil Bauman:     Have you noticed the glacier receding a lot since you've been here? 

J.D.:                    Yes.  The glacier was 250 yards this side of the waterfall when I first got here.  Now, it's 350 feet the other side of the waterfall. 

Neil Bauman:     So 500-and-some-odd feet.  20 years? 

J.D.:                    Yards, not feet. 

Steve Mirsky:    Both numbers were in yards just now? 

J.D.:                    Mm, hmm, yeah.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article