Life in Juneau, like so many other Southeast Alaska towns, is a tale of two cities. Summer Juneau bustles with cruise ship tourists filing in and out of shops along South Franklin Street to buy souvenirs, boarding dockside buses for whale watching tours, helicopter flights, salmon bakes, or trips to Mendenhall Glacier where trails can be overrun with guided guests hoping to spot a black bear catching a spawning salmon.
Winter Juneau, on the other hand, can be ghostly quiet. Tourists and whales alike have moved on, South Franklin Street is mostly shuttered, whale-watching boats are dry-docked, helicopters winterized, and bears in hibernation. Many seasonal workers migrate, like the whales, for winter work elsewhere.
In summer, like the tourists, the sun never seems to go away. It is light when we wake in the morning, and still light when we go to bed at night. Winter, on the other hand, has days when the sun is so low on the mountainous horizon, and present for such a short period of time, that we never see it.
We have what feels like one long day followed by one long night.
I enjoy both seasons. I make most of my living in the summer, guiding tourists on trails and boats, teaching them about the flora, fauna, and history of this place, and going for long hikes out the road when I can. Winter, I work part time and do a fair bit of my own hibernating, but I also enjoy going on solo winter hikes closer to home, especially in February and March when spring is near, and peace and quiet on trails will soon be lost.
It feels strange now that days are lengthening as we enter into what the calendar tells us should be summer season, but boards are still on windows, boats remain wrapped in tarps, and no cruise ships are scheduled. We seem to be entering a strange new season—wintersummer—when the rest of the natural world goes on with summer business as usual, but homo sapiens keep acting like it is winter.
Soon, skunk cabbage will be rising like rain forest phoenix from the muskegs, bears will be sniffing their way back into town, and whales will be arriving from Hawaii, calves in tow, to fatten themselves on plankton and herring. Eagles will be hatching, fledging, and learning to fish, beavers will be emerging from their dens to continue construction, and the snow line will be retreating up the slopes to reveal bare, gray rocky peaks. But Juneau will remain quiet.
I like the idea of whales and bears having a summer season being largely un-harassed, only sharing the fiords and trails with a handful of locals in small boats, or with big lenses. I wonder how their behavior will change. Will I see more bears along Steep Creek? Will whales in wintersummer be more generous with their surface antics? I love this opportunity to experience the place closer to the way locals knew it before becoming a tourism mecca.
But, for all the good feelings I find in my thoughts of wintersummer wildlife living a less pressured life, and experiencing a sleepy wintersummer town, I wonder how those of us who depend on the traditional Juneau summer for our livelihood will fare. Already, I have lost at least three months of work, and I have no idea how much more might be cancelled before this is over. And, of course, I am not alone. Many people here have come to rely on the summer tourism industry for their livelihood. There are plenty of folks who have other income streams, retirement, or savings and investments to fall back on, or perhaps a spouse with a non-tourism job, but I am not alone in not having these luxuries. For the rest of us, if we don’t make a living, we have no fallback. I hope there are not that many of us in those shoes, but I fear the number is quite large.
Yesterday, I learned a favorite downtown restaurant has announced it is closing its doors for good. I wonder how many other businesses are in the same boat—unable to pay their rent, and in no position to weather the storm.
Nonetheless, I am not down or depressed. I am curious. I am uncertain. But I am okay. It is true that I don’t know how I will pay my rent or buy food this summer, but I do know that eventually there will be a new post-wintersummer normal, and I will find my way to thrive in it. In the mean time, Juneau is a community, and we will take care of each other. There have been days since moving here that I have lent my time and my money to serve friends in need, and I am sure there will be someone there to do the same for me, should I need it. And I am looking forward to photographing bears without so much competition, and hopefully finding invites from friends with boats to do the same with whales. When not adventuring with my lens this wintersummer, I have things to write, stories I need to tell, photos to process and print. Yes, as the song says, “every silver lining” does indeed have “a touch of gray,” but “I will get by… I will survive… We will survive.”