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Searching for Sister Sarah

Big-game hunting in Juneau, looking for the lair where Palin once lived.
Alaska's state capitol: domeless and Palin-less

Alaska's state capitol: domeless and Palin-less Sue Frause

The last time I was in Juneau was back in 2003, long before Sarah Palin was a popular character on Saturday Night Live. The thing that struck me most about the capital city was that the Alaska State Capitol was located right downtown. I guess it has to be, since Juneau is surrounded by Mount Juneau, Mount Roberts, and the Mendenhall Glacier — and even though there are roads within the capital city, you really can’t drive from Juneau to get anywhere else. You’re stuck.

I did the usual tourist stuff during my Juneau debut: riding the Mount Roberts Tramway; quaffing a beer at the Red Dog Saloon and taking in all the other gold rush era buildings; and going to see the Mendenhall Glacier. But this time was different. I had only one thing in mind: to see where former Gov. Sarah Palin used to work.

It was a weekday afternoon when I clomped up Main Street in the light September rain. It was the end of Alaska’s summer season, and outside of a few cruise ships docked in the Juneau Harbor and the subsequent passengers gongoozling in the streets, it was pretty quiet.

The capitol building itself is nondescript except for the four large marble pillars in the portico — the marble was quarried on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. The biggest difference between this and other capitol buildings is there is no dome. I learned later that they held a contest a few years back to design a new capitol in time for the state’s 50th birthday in 2009, but the idea was squashed due to lack of support, funds, and a viable design. So today, it remains the only state without a building designed specifically to be a capitol.

I walked into the building, which surprisingly had no security. There seemed to be some sort of reception/guard desk, but it wasn’t occupied. I headed down the hall to a sign that said CAPITOL TOURS emblazoned on an Alaskan flag sign, and the young woman said there would be another one in 20 minutes. I flipped through a color brochure about the capitol, and found out that the woolly mammoth is their state fossil and dog mushing is our 49th state’s sport of choice. Across the hall, a couple of casually dressed state workers were talking about some big animal they had recently encountered. This was Alaska, after all.

The tour was unscripted and informal, and four of us followed our guide up to the second floor to the legislative chambers. Black, cushy swivel chairs filled the room, with the various legislators’ names taped onto the backs. I guess they have their favorite seats. Several people had their pictures taken as they sat at the head of the long, glossy table. I didn’t think it would make such a slick Christmas card. The only thing strange about the place was a mysterious odor of stale cigars: it smelled like a private men’s club from another era.

We continued on up to the third floor, which is occupied by the Governor and Lieutenant Governor. And there, in a row of photographs in the Hall of Governors, was a smiling Sister Sarah — just to the right of her successor, Gov. Sean Parnell. No surprise that she was the lone female on the wall.

Sue Frause is a Whidbey Island freelance writer and photographer. You can reach her at sue@suefrause.com.


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