The three of us were standing on the metal walkway laughing. We were suspended 40 feet above the harbor and ten feet from the side of the ferry vessel, the Malaspina, which looms over our heads. It has just sidled up to the dock. We are decked out in red winter- weight life vests; their bulk provides welcome warmth against the wind and the rain of this early June day in Ketchikan, Alaska. Our job at the moment, explains experienced Jen to the two of us newbies, is to toss the weighted end of the rope, the “monkey claw”, high over our heads to the top deck of the ship. The crew is waiting for the two monkey claws that we are holding in our hands. Moments before, the deck hand had thrown two monkey claws down to us, and Jen had pulled on the ropes attached to them until the heavy loops that moored the ship was in her hands. She dropped each loop over a cleat to secure the ship to the dock. Our job was to send it back to him.
How is it that I am standing here in Ketchikan’s harbor, with these new acquaintances, trying my hand at throwing monkey claws? I who have been land locked in Kentucky for 32 years and have made my home on the coast of Washington for just the last 11 months? I coil the rope and apologize in advance for my poor throwing skills. “I throw like a girl,” I had just admitted a few minutes before. Youthful Lauren, 37 years my junior, had tried to throw it on board, but missed on her first try. On her determined second try, she succeeded. My turn next. I hesitated to try but Jen, who had been pressed into service as our trainer all week, encouraged me. I focused on the railing high over my head, and gave it my best underhand pitch. The monkey claw arched over the bow of the ship and landed on deck. I cheered, and we all laughed. It was a suitable end to my first week employed as a terminal agent for the Alaska Marine Highway System, which operates ferries that transport cars, trucks, RVs, dogs, motorcycles, kayaks, bicycles and all manner of people to points along the coast of Alaska.
This is the vessel that took me to Alaska.
The only place to board the Alaska Ferry in the lower 48 states is in Bellingham, and I beat out 200 applicants to be hired for a part-time position selling tickets and lining up vehicles for the ferry. One of the outstanding perks of the job was that a week after I was hired, they sent me up to Alaska on the ferry for training.
I was thrilled to get this part time job, in part because it meant that I could quit substituting. I reasoned that 500 people who are about to depart for a sail up to Alaska are bound to be more pleasant to deal with than the students who didn’t want to be in school. The Alaska ferry arrives every Friday morning at 8:00 a.m. in Bellingham, and departs north again at 6:00 p.m., so basically, I work one long day a week. The ferry terminal is in Fairhaven, a picturesque part of Bellingham with early 20th century houses lining the hills overlooking the bay. From my vantage point when I'm lining up cars, I can see the activity at the Community Boating Center and the Amtrak train station which surround the ferry terminal. For someone with traveling genes like me, it's fun. So far, my prediction about dealing with the ferry passengers has proved to be accurate, but there is one difference. As a teacher, when the students misbehave, I send them to the principal’s office. As a terminal agent…I am there to serve the public, and I am sometimes the brunt of their frustration, anger, or general grumpiness.
Kids in their tent on the top deck of the boat
Here are a few pictures of my trip up to Alaska on the ferry. Because I was a new hire, I was invited up to the bridge and they gave me a chance to steer the boat. Note the people who pitch tents on deck, the bargain way to travel for anyone who has camping gear and duct tape to secure the tent to the deck!
This blog has been neglected during the last month only because summer and visitors have arrived. We are having fun and I have more to tell soon. Greetings from Bellingham, where the one day that the temperature was above 80 the newspaper published heat advisories, warning people how to take care of their pets during this extreme weather. The sky is indescribably blue and the cool breeze reminds me of why we chose to moor here. Hello friends!