Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Floating home from Alaska

Our trip home on the Alaska ferry started in Skagway; Alaska, which punctuates the top of the picturesque north-south Lynne Canal. Standing on the deck of the MV Leconte (one of the original Alaska ferries), mountains towered over us to both the east and west sides. As we moved away from land on our way south through the Inside Passage, even the four cruise ships we left behind were dwarfed by the setting.

The Leconte is overshadowed by the cruise ship
and the mountains.  Notice Harding Glacier
at the upper left.

I was excited to be moving out onto the water. I left Lynne in the comfortable observation lounge and ventured out on the deck. The wind picked up my hair and billowed my jacket. As the land receded, the sky revealed itself, filling the space above and beyond the islands and mountains. In the coming days, from the ferry, I saw endless vistas of mountains receding into clouds, shorelines overlaid with early morning fog, and trees blurred through mist, the atmospheric conditions softening the steady, slow passage south.  In that way, all four legs of our trip on the Alaska ferry were similar, although each offered a view of a lighthouse, a glacier, or a narrow channel to define where we were. Then, the appearance of houses, piers, cruise ships, and marinas signaled that we were approaching our destinations.

The back deck of the MV Fairweather

Lynne and I took three different Alaska ferries, embarking first from Skagway, stopping for a couple of days in Haines, one night in Juneau and two nights in Sitka. I loved watching the coast diminish quickly each time we pulled away from the dock.

I felt safe and also connected with my ship community, the passengers and the crew. Occasionally, the ferry sailed past cruise ships or fishing boats, but mostly, we were alone on the rolling water. I got used to the feeling of the deck moving slightly under my feet. I had to pay attention as I walked the halls.  I held onto the railings as I went up the stairs.

Travelling on the ferry through southeast Alaska gave me a visual context for how sparsely populated this part of the world is, how much of the land is uninhabited or uninhabitable. Mountains and water separate the human holdings. Each town operates in its own sphere, claims its own part of the shoreline, apart from its nearest neighbors. “Near” is a relative word when the towns are separated by icefields or steep impassable mountains rising sharply from the sea. What ties these southeast Alaska communities together is the water, the water which provides vital transportation and livelihood to the residents.

A view of Haines, Alaska as we head south on the ferry

Each of the three ferries (the Leconte, Fairweather and the Matanuska, all named after glaciers) had comfortable indoor observation lounges with ample windows for those absorbed in the passing beauty. I brought a book to read, but hardly got a page read.  I saw some people doing jigsaw puzzles, or knitting, but most were gazing out the windows or just leaning on the railing and scanning for wildlife. With no Wi-Fi on the ship, people passed much of the time talking to each other. 

Lynne and I had fun meeting new people, like Donna and her husband Joe from Georgia. They are as old as we are (depends on your perspective how old you think late sixties is), so we were surprised to learn that they were sleeping in their VW Golf as they traveled across the lower 48 and up to Alaska. Their claim to fame: bragging rights for getting 50 mpg with their diesel engine.  We made friends with Lexie and her husband from Oregon.  They trek up to Juneau to fish in Excursion Inlet each summer. This year they were returning with 1300 lbs of halibut that they caught. Lexie is originally from Juneau, and has memories of smoking fish with her Tlingit grandmother at the family’s fish camp.  Her husband gave me good directions for gathering huckleberries on Mt. Adams.

At night, I experienced sleeping on the boat, the bed gently rocking. I had the feeling of motion and simultaneously the feeling of deep relaxation that came with leaving the navigation and driving to the crew, covering distance in the dark as we slept. In the middle of one night, extra turbulence in the water awakened me, swaying me back and forward in my bed, but I soon fell back to sleep.

A deck hand prepares the ropes for landing

At breakfast, the purser made a quick announcement over the loudspeaker, alerting us to look out the window.  Standing up to see better out the wrap-around dining room windows, we watched about eight humpback whales fishing near the ship, their breath spewing up water, their fins slicing through the surface, their broad dark flukes (tails) flipping up as they dove. Before our food could get cold, they were gone.

The food was fun. The ship’s white jacketed cooks offered up their food cheerfully.  The kitchen was open most of the day.  It was a classic cafeteria line with trays that you slid down stainless steel rails, the heat rising from steam tables with oatmeal, soup or chili. Specials were listed on a white board for every meal.  After ten days of eating our own (very healthy, well planned) cooking while we were camping, both Lynne and I indulged in the kitchen's cooking.  The last morning, I had enough huevos rancheros to feed a ranch hand, and I enjoyed every bite.

Throughout our trip in Alaska in early August, we wore long pants and long sleeves, occasionally pulling on raincoats.  Southeast Alaska is in a rainforest, so we had expected the foggy weather, the showers, the cool air.  We had prepared for this weather and actually welcomed it after some hot days driving through southern BC. We heard occasional reports that the rest of the country was having a heat wave. 
Navigating the Peril Strait on the way to Sitka

The large boat that we were on for 36 hours was the MV Matanuska. It moves at approximately 19 mph (16.5 knots), day and night, carrying about 200 passengers and their RVs, cars, motorcycles, kayaks and bicycles. We traveled on it for 36 hours, from Sitka to Juneau, Juneau to Petersburg, then on to Wrangell, Ketchikan and finally our destination, Prince Rupert. For us, distances were measured in time, not miles.  Juneau to Sitka is about 110 miles as a plane flies, but took 4 ½ hours by the fast ferry MV Fairweather), or eight hours by the larger Matanuska. 

One lane of RVs being loaded on the ferry in Skagway.  Notice the smallest RV.  That's ours!
 Lynne and Winnie are standing in front.
Two cruise ships block the mountains behind the scene.

Tracing our route on the map, the ship went south from Juneau on the Chatham Strait, then east, slowing down to negotiate the Peril Strait and ending up south again on the Neva Strait to Sitka. You could skip all this cruising and instead get there in 40 minutes by plane. Instead, we returned to Juneau on the Matanuska. Our ultimate destination was Prince Rupert, 318 miles from Juneau.  We left Juneau at 5:15 am on Monday and traveled 29 hours south on the Stephens Passage to Frederick Sound and Petersburg, through the Wrangell Narrows to Wrangell, through the Clarence Strait to Ketchikan, through the Dixon Entrance to Prince Rupert.  We arrived at 10:45 am on Tuesday.

Approaching Juneau on the ferry, with a view of the Mendenhall Glacier.

I am an insider of the Alaska ferry system, because my job is to provide shoreside support to the ships which dock in Bellingham. Each week, I get to help the Alaska bound passengers through the boarding process. I chat with retirees who are taking their RVs to Alaska for their once in a lifetime trip. I answer questions for young military families who are relocating to Sitka or Kodiak or Anchorage. I help young people who are going up to Petersburg to process seafood for the season, men sending their new boats up on the ferry, homeless people who are pinning their hopes on Alaska, and Alaskan residents who came down to shop, to visit relatives, to buy a new car, or have a medical issue addressed.  I have coached young people who are pitching their tents on the top deck. I have relayed messages to the ship from distraught drivers who are caught in Seattle traffic or behind an accident and are late for the ferry. 

In the process of helping passengers, I have gotten to know some of the crew, from the watchman to the stewards to the pursers to the captains and the able bodied seamen and seawomen. It was fun to see them again in Alaska, and to meet more people who work on the ferry. 

When I was first hired, in 2010, an immediate bonus was that my training included a trip up to Ketchikan on the ferry for training.  I wrote a blog about it at the time, telling the story of going up to the bridge to see how the ship is steered, and in Ketchikan, donning a lifejacket and walking the scaffolding to learn to tie up a ship.  I was on an adventure then, although not exactly a relaxed one, as a new employee.

I am no longer new to the Alaska ferry system, yet the experience of being on the  ferry as a passenger during our recent trip was still an memorable adventure.

I came across these words from “The Blue Boat Home” by Peter Mayer this week, and they express how I felt about our sea journey:

 I give thanks to the waves upholding me,
 hail the great winds urging me on
Greet the infinite sea before me
Sing the sky my sailor's song 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I really liked reading about the ferry food, the other passengers, and the different ways the passengers occupied their time. So lovely to be able to read about what it is like to travel and sleep on the AK Ferry.