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Geographic gives sunny view of Juneau

Posted: Thursday, September 25, 2003

Alaska's capitol looks radiant in the new Alaska Geographic, "Juneau: Yesterday and Today." Like others in the series, it is an attractive mix of photography and text.

Calling Juneau a city of gold, the book has a chirpy, boostering tone. No budget deficits or mildew here; instead the reader encounters pictures of blue skies and reports of a beautiful, fun place to work or play. Parts of it read like a pamphlet from the chamber of commerce:

"From flightseeing to garden strolls, glacier dogsled rides to whale-watching, Juneau's businesses offer activities to draw every type of traveler, and travelers spend money," writes Susan Beeman in the section on the town's economy.

Other sections review Juneau's colorful history from gold camp to government center, discuss what it is like to grow up and live there, its arts scene, day trips to Tracy Arm and the community contributions of pioneer families and dynamic individuals.

The tales of the town's picturesque past and quirky individuals are the strongest part of the book. There's even special mention of Patsy Ann, the legendary dog who served as the official greeter on the docks for many years before World War II.

Julia O'Malley, a young reporter at the Juneau Empire, penned the section titled "Mining Camp to Metropolis." She says:

"Juneau's history can be viewed like a parade, with distinct time periods passing by like intricate floats studded with faces of the town's predecessors: the early Tlingit; European and Russian explorers; gold seekers Joe Juneau and Richard Harris; mining engineer and businessman George Pilz; and old-timers who watched Juneau mature during the last 50 years into the seat of government for Alaska and the home of more than 30,000 diverse people."

That's a mouthful, but it gives an idea of how many colorful elements came together to create the current city and how ambitiously this book strives to cover all the bases. O'Malley gives credit to the area Natives for their roles and paints a vivid portrait of Juneau's rough-and-tumble Gold Rush roots, as in this description of 19th-century living conditions:

"No sewer system existed. Gold Creek was prone to disastrous flooding. Rains fell torrentially and streets were sloughs of mud where livestock like pigs pawed and snorted. Dogs ran rampant. Sicknesses like smallpox, scarlet fever and influenza frequently carried children to their deaths."

"Juneau: Yesterday and Today" contrasts that past with its portrayal of modern Juneau as a comfortable and, at least by Alaska standards, sophisticated place.

Kate Ripley, who grew up in Juneau but now lives near Fairbanks, wrote the chapter called "A Taste of Juneau." She calls the town cosmopolitan, intellectual and liberal compared to most of the rest of the state.

"The populace here is highly educated, politically active, and interested in creative endeavors like art, music and theater," she writes.

Talking to longtime residents, she focuses on what they find special about their hometown. For example, Jim King, a resident since 1964, told her, "It's a nice community, not very large. It's a place where you can feel comfortable about your children, even though there are all the normal problems with school and growing up. Somehow, it just seems more manageable here."

Alaska Geographic published another edition about Juneau in 1990. The new book is longer, completely rewritten and has many new pictures. The arts section is new, and the authors included updates on the town's burgeoning tourist industry and the issue of moving the state capitol.

The price tag is a bit steep for a slender volume, but it's still a lot cheaper than airfare to see the real thing.

"Juneau: Yesterday and Today" is a handsome, handy reference, with a lot of good information included in its slick presentation. It may inspire more Alaskans to head to the capitol, and serve as a nice consolation prize for those who don't.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.



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