The start of the cruise ship season brings a new excursion from one of the oldest tour outfits in Southeast. Allen Marine Tours is set to run hovercraft trips to the Taku Glacier starting this week.
It’s been about 20 years since Allen Marine last brought visitors to the Taku Glacier, located near Juneau at the head of Taku Inlet. John Dunlap is vice president of Allen Marine Tours. He says the company used to go to the glacier with a large catamaran back in the 1990s.
“We would get as close to the glacier as we could, which at a low tide was several miles away and at a higher tide, we could maybe get within a few miles of the face of the glacier,” Dunlap says. “So it was kind of a pretty variable experience.”
So variable that Allen Marine stopped doing it after a few years.
“But we always thought, ‘Gosh, if we had the right kind of vehicle, we’d like to come back up here and do this better,’” Dunlap says.
Allen Marine bought a hovercraft from a Washington company last year and started experimenting with it.
“It doesn’t matter whether the tide’s out or not. You can travel with equal ease over water or if you’ve got to pass over shallow water and sand bars, that’s fine, too,” Dunlap says.
The hovercraft will soon start carrying paying customers. The 4-hour tour includes more than an hour on the hovercraft. Tourists leave from downtown Juneau on a jet-powered catamaran to lower Taku Inlet, where Allen Marine will have a larger ship staged that serves as the hover base. There, tourists will transfer into an 8-person hovercraft which will take them close to the face of the glacier, where they disembark for 30 minutes.
The whole trip costs more than $300 per adult. Dunlap admits it’s quite a bit more than Allen Marine’s established whale watching tours and Tracy Arm trips.
“For us, it’s a little bit more like having a helicopter tour which tend to be fairly expensive tours because of the equipment involved than what we’ve traditionally done with boat tours that have higher capacity and are a little bit more efficient to run,” says Dunlap.
Hovercrafts travel on a trapped bubble of air. Dunlap describes it as a small barge that sits on an inflated rubber skirt. Allen Marine hopes to have three running this summer. It has one now and has ordered two more. Each one is 22 feet long and about 10 feet wide. Dunlap says they don’t make any more noise than a boat of similar size.
Ron Maas owns 150 acres on the Taku River. He says he bought the property about 20 years ago because of its direct view of the glacier. He’s not excited about the new Allen Marine tours.
“That puts a whole different light on that property of ours. We consider it something very special but, Jesus, if we have to listen to this all the time, it’s not going to be much fun.
There’s so much traffic up there now that it’s a constant thing,” Maas says.
Maas acknowledges his role in the traffic and noise near the glacier. He’s the former owner of the Taku Glacier Lodge. Visitors to Juneau are brought there by float planes.
“I had 14 aircraft when I sold out and, of course, we made eight trips a day with each airplane, so I really can’t complain a lot about noise, but we tried to control the noise the best we could,” Maas says.
He also doesn’t like the idea of seeing people walk near the face of the glacier. Dunlap says Allen Marine has state and federal permits allowing people to walk in that area.
Juneau commercial fisherman Jim Becker is wondering if the hovercraft will affect juvenile salmon coming out of the Taku River. He’s been gillnetting for Taku River salmon for 40 years.
“The concern is we have outmigrating smolt coming out of the river and some fry, and I don’t know what the depth is in front of the glacier and what kind of water depth they’re going to be operating in, so I think that needs to be checked out,” Becker says.
Alaska Fish and Game biologist Leon Shaul doesn’t foresee any issues.
“In that area near Taku Glacier, I wouldn’t think it would have much impact,” Shaul says. “That’s a pretty open area and tidal influenced, so I wouldn’t imagine it’d be a lot different than a boat.”
Dunlap says Allen Marine will not be going up the river.
He says cruise ship passengers have already started signing up for the hovercraft tours. As interest grows, Dunlap expects Allen Marine to operate consistent tours within a few weeks.