ALASKA SPECIAL ISSUE: Juneau : Frontierland : At the edge of the wild, the Alaskan capital has trendy trappings but a boom-town spirit

Dye, a free-lance writer and former science writer for The Times, lives in Juneau

The front-page story told of a local hunter who'd shot and killed two charging brown bears in less than a minute--only to have his legs crushed when the second 1,000-pound beast fell on him.

I had just arrived in Juneau, a Coast Guard officer starting a yearlong assignment in the Last Frontier. Glancing up from my newspaper at the drizzling skies and bleak little clapboard houses in bare, muddy yards, I couldn't help but wonder: "Why was I here? Why was anybody here?"

That was more than 30 years ago, and Alaska's state capital--the only one in America inaccessible by highway--is a lot different now than it was when I saw it for the first time.

Those drab little houses, many of them clinging to the steep flanks of Mt. Juneau like nests for human swallows, have been painted bright colors and are surrounded with luminescent tulips and vivid rhododendrons. And an annual summer influx of more than 400,000 cruise passengers has helped transform Alaska's third-largest city (pop. 30,000) into an Aspen of the North, complete with coffeehouses, jazz bars and live theater.

But what kept bringing me back to Juneau to visit, and prompted me to build a home here three years ago, is what hasn't changed: its extraordinary setting in the midst of massive glaciers and the world's largest temperate rain forest.

Predicting rain in Juneau is as safe as predicting sunshine in Phoenix. Residents get used to it; the tourists are the ones with the umbrellas.

The town is nestled at the foot of mountains that rise about 4,000 feet straight up from the waters of Gastineau Channel, a narrow arm of southeast Alaska's Inside Passage. Across the channel, the mountains of Douglas Island rise nearly as high, trapping weather systems smack over the top of Juneau and dumping about 80 inches of rain and 100 inches of snow a year on the downtown area.

But the sun shines about half the days in a typical summer, giving downtown Juneau a glow. Its turn-of-the-century buildings have been gussied up, and places where ladies of the night once entertained gold prospectors have been turned into art galleries and shops selling smoked salmon and moose sweat shirts.

One feels a sense of history walking these narrow streets, and sometimes it seems as though a down-on-his-luck prospector is looking over your shoulder, about to ask if you could spare a few coins for a drink at the Red Dog Saloon.

The original Red Dog, built just after the turn of the century, no longer stands. The bar is now housed in a larger building down the street that recreates the vintage atmosphere just a few stumbles away from Marine Park, one of two cruise-ship terminals on the Juneau waterfront. (The two are only about a quarter of a mile apart.) With sawdust on the floor, stuffed animals on the rustic walls and boisterous entertainment, the Red Dog even lures locals into town during the height of the tourist season. Expect to be insulted by the piano player when you walk through the door.

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My favorite spot in downtown Juneau--and an ideal destination for a rainy day--is the Alaska State Museum, just behind the Prospector Hotel on the waterfront. Narrowly focused on Alaska, this small museum includes an eagle tree where visitors can see up close just how magnificent these creatures are. A spiral walkway circles the tree, allowing you to walk past a nest like those used for generations by eagles in the wild. Several stuffed eagles are almost within arm's reach, and they are much bigger than they seem when seen along the beaches of southeast Alaska.

More than a century has passed since Joe Juneau and sidekick Dick Harris anchored their boat in Gastineau Channel. The two had come here from nearby Sitka, the old Russian capital, in search of gold. The local Auke Indians assured them--correctly, as it turned out--that they would find the colored rocks in a clear stream flowing from a lush valley between Mt. Juneau and an adjacent peak, Mt. Roberts.

If you take a hike back in the mountains, you will find traces of the thousands who followed Juneau and Harris. The best-known walk is the 3.5-mile Perseverance Trail, where old mining carts and other pieces of equipment, abandoned when the gold played out, can be seen from a well-maintained path that leads from the end of Basin Road.

Hiking trails are much of what Juneau is all about, and my favorite begins near the north end of Douglas Highway, the only highway on Douglas Island. Turn right after crossing the Juneau-Douglas Bridge and follow the road 12 miles to False Outer Point trail. The trail offers a mile-long, flat walk through a primitive rain forest, lush with fiddlehead ferns and towering spruce trees, past ponds filled with lilies to a rocky beach.

Bald eagles can usually be seen in the trees along the beach. The forest canopy is so dense that the white head of this once-endangered raptor can be spotted miles away, standing out against foliage so lush it almost appears black.

The eagles are doing what their human neighbors enjoy most here: fishing. A 40-pound king salmon on the end of your line will put up enough fight to hook you for life, and when the sun comes out and the kings are running--usually in April and May--the city almost shuts down as residents load up their boats and head for the water. (The rest of the summer, you can fish for halibut, crab and at least one of three other salmon species--chum, pink or coho--by signing up with a charter-boat operator on the Juneau waterfront for about $225 per person, per day.)

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Even if you don't catch one, chances are you'll eat fish while you're in Juneau. Many of the city's restaurants feature fresh salmon, king and Dungeness crab or halibut. (The latter is rich in flavor if fresh, and it won't taste anything like halibut in the Lower 48.) I recommend the Salmon Bake, a creek-side, outdoor restaurant about three miles north of town that offers salmon cooked over an open fire.

Juneau's leading tourist attraction is the Mendenhall Glacier, just a 13-mile drive north on the main highway. I have seen glaciers all over the world, but nothing tops the Mendenhall. From its iridescent blue "foot," or front edge--caused by ice packed so densely that it bends the light--the river of ice extends up into rugged peaks carved by its relentless gnawing as it retreated and advanced over the past few million years.

The Mendenhall is only one of 38 major glaciers feeding off the Juneau ice field, a broad expanse of ice covering more than 2,000 square miles north of Juneau. Though the Mendenhall's "drive-in" status has earned it the title of world's most accessible glacier, guided helicopter flights are available from the airport and Douglas Island to other sections of the ice field as well as to the Mendenhall. You can don a pair of "moon boots" and walk across ice that is still reshaping this great land. I have stood on that ice field, dumbstruck as I looked in every direction. Towers of black rock, carved by the movement of the ice, stand sentry over a vista that is both awesome and desolate. In my judgment, it is the ultimate experience in Alaska.

Almost as spectacular is an excursion by boat to Tracy Arm, about 50 miles south of Juneau. Tracy Arm is a classic fiord, its steep, granite walls punctuated by lush ferns and dense trees. Since the waterway is narrow, smaller boats up to about 65 feet in length offer the best way to see this natural wonder. The boats slip between bergs of blue ice as they travel up the fiord to the Sawyer glaciers. Tracy Arm is a more intimate experience than Glacier Bay (the popular cruise ship destination 50 miles north of Juneau), because everything seems so close.

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What you probably won't get close to --unless you make an effort--is Alaska's most famous native, the brown bear.

There are a few bears near the north end of Juneau's only highway, which ends abruptly about 40 miles outside of town, but sightings are rare. Yet only 15 miles from the city's South Franklin Street curio shops and art galleries is a place naturalists say could contain the world's densest population of brown bears: about one per square mile.

Admiralty Island, its jagged peaks covered with spruce and hemlock, rises from the waters just west of Douglas Island. There is a mystical quality to the island, which is part of the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, and it has always seemed foreboding as I cruised off its rugged shoreline or walked its trails.

The U.S. Forest Service has set aside a mile-long stretch of beach called Pack Creek for viewing the bears. Juneau-based tour guides know of several other areas on Admiralty where it is possible to see them, and sometimes these excursions can be filled with surprises.

Last year, two New York City executives hired a 19-year-old Juneau guide--an acquaintance of my daughter's--to "take them to the bears." The three traveled by boat to Admiralty, and the guide led the visitors on foot up a creek. When they reached a clearing, two brown bears suddenly charged them from a few yards away.

Brown bears have more of a taste for salmon than for tourists, and they rarely attack humans. A fleeing target, however, perks up a bear's interest. If the bear does attack, according to local lore, you are supposed to lie on the ground and play dead.

This approach did not appeal to the frightened young guide, who ordered his equally terrified charges to "run into the forest and climb a tree." He told my daughter later that he could hear the bears snorting as they raced toward him. By the time he reached the edge of the clearing, his middle-aged clients had scrambled to the top of two spruce trees and he clamored up a third.

After several hours, they climbed down and made their way back to the boat. Safely back in Juneau, one of the executives pulled out a fat roll of bills and began peeling them off to the chagrined guide, muttering that he had just had the most fantastic experience in his life.

They had learned something about Juneau: In the Last Frontier, civilization is still a thin veneer . . . and the wilderness is never far away.

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GUIDEBOOK: Juneau City Scene

Getting there: Alaska (year round) and Delta (May 1-Sept. 9) fly to Juneau from Los Angeles via Seattle; round-trip fares start at $522.

Thirty-two cruise ships will call at Juneau this year (an average of four ships per day), and the town is an important stop on the Alaska Marine Highway System, with 19 ferries calling each week during the summer. For ferry information, telephone (800) 642-0066.

Where to stay: Juneau has about 40 hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns, with rates ranging from about $50 to $150 per night, double occupancy. One of the most historic and atmospheric choices is the Baranof Hotel (127 N. Franklin St.; tel. 800-544-0970), where rates range from $129-$139 per night, double from May 16 through Sept. 15. Winter rates are $108-$120 per night, double.

Where to eat: The Salmon Bake, (1061 Salmon Creek Lane; local tel. 586-1424); about $20 per person. For breakfast, try the French toast (about $5) at the Breakwater Inn (1711 Glacier Ave.; tel. 586-6303) overlooking the Juneau boat harbor. Mike's Place on nearby Douglas Island (1102 2nd St.; tel. 364-3271) is a favorite of locals for its congenial atmosphere and large servings of traditional American fare; about $20 per person for dinner. Red Dog Saloon, 278 S. Franklin St.; tel. 463-3658.

Excursions: Tour-operator kiosks along the Juneau waterfront offer a wide range of trips to nearby sights. Era Helicopters (tel. 907-586-2030) and Temsco Helicopters (tel. 907-789-9501) offer flights to the Juneau ice field for around $150 per person. Loken Aviation (tel. 907-789-3331), L.A.B. Flying Service (tel. 907-789-9181) and Glacier Bay Airways (tel. 907-789-9009) offer fixed-wing charters for fishing, hunting and sightseeing.

Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises (tel. 907-463-5510), Bird's Eye Charters (tel. 907-790-2510), Wilderness Swift Charters (tel. 907-463-4942) and Adventure Bound Alaska (tel. 800-228-3875) offer daily boat tours of Tracy Arm from May through September or early October, depending on weather. Adult fare for a round-trip, eight- or nine-hour cruise ranges from about $125-$145. If available, smaller boats (about 30 to 45 feet) offer the most intimate look with only a slight reduction in comfort.

Shopping and sightseeing: My favorite store is Latitude 58 (170 S. Franklin St.; tel. 586-1770), which carries a wide range of Alaskan artwork. Authentic Native Alaskan pieces can be pricey but exquisite. Other good choices for Alaskan artists are Annie Kaill's (244 Front St.; tel. 586-2880), Gallery of the North (147 S. Franklin St.; tel. 586-1041) and the Waterfront Gallery (238 S. Franklin St.; tel. 463-3355).

The Alaska State Museum (395 Whittier St.; tel. 465-2901) charges $2 admission ($3 starting mid-May) and is open daily mid-May to mid-September, Tuesday-Saturday the rest of the year.

For more information: For Admiralty Island National Monument, contact the Forest Service Information Center, Centennial Hall, 101 Egan Drive, Juneau, AK 99801; tel. (907) 586-8751. For general information, contact the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, 134 3rd St., Juneau, AK 99801; tel. (907) 586-2201, fax (907) 586-6304.

--L.D.

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