As I sit to write about my experience aboard the Alaska State Ferry up the Inside Passage, people are swarming around the windows, calling out as they see a fleeting whale fin or transitory tail before it settles back into the milky green waters of the North Pacific. It’s almost comical. If the boat were smaller, it would keel to one side then the other with the shifting weight of the gawking crowds.
Life aboard this ferry is so interesting. Such a variety of people frequent it, from retirees on vacation, families relocating to Alaska, young adults heading North to work at the fisheries on guide for the parks, and a few others like me, setting out onto long treks in Alaska’s wilderness. All of them seem to have interesting stories. My first conversation was with a retired marine who spoke 5 languages, has travelled to 137 countries and wrote a book about his life (proceeds of which were to go entirely to help his mother sick with Cancer), and was heading up to Ketchikan with a trolley to drive it for a tour company for the season. We spoke of living life without perceived limitations, and the value of sharing the goodness that people offer amidst all the violence and hatred portrayed in the media. There was another guy who was carrying a fully built skeleton of a real humpback whale in a large trailer for installation in an Alaska museum. The ship’s car deck is currently 3/4 full with vehicles from an exclusively Alaskan carnival that was touring the islands. Definitely not your typical cruise ship population (not that I’ve been on any typical cruise ships).
The setup of the boat is half local ferry, half cruise ship. There are many areas with lots of seats for hanging out and viewing the amazing sights. There is a small movie theatre that plays documentaries about Alaska. A cafeteria is open 24 hours and stocks quite a variety of comfort foods. A small bar opens at 1pm until the evening. But the gem of the boat is where I am residing: the solarium deck. This uppermost passenger deck is dedicated to those of us who are not staying in cabins, but are ‘camping’. Two large rooms with windows running their lengths are empty, all metal with no decorations, all painted raw white. The only objects in these two rooms are plastic reclining lawn chairs for people to sleep on. Some people set up tents and sleep inside them. Others just lay out blankets on the lawn chairs. The rooms are heated but cool down at night. Warm enough to be comfortable though. I hear that in the Summers, these rooms are packed with hikers and other budget tourists. My room has had no more than 3 people in it at a time.
The ferry took off from Bellingham just before sunset. It was a wistful moment of realizing this was the threshold I had been approaching for the last 3 months. I was leaving all I knew behind, and entering a different life. I was scared. I distracted myself by striking up conversations with various people about what they were doing and which stop they were getting off at. This ferry was to stop in Ketchikan, Juneau, Yakutat, Whittier, Homer, and Kodiak. First 36 hours were between Bellingham and Ketchikan, and felt long! I kept my body moving by finding every staircase I could and doing laps around the boat. I’d see a couple other people doing the same thing from time to time. I read and ate and slept and repeated.
The first stop at Ketchikan was a welcome respite from the incarceration of the boat. Despite the beautiful scenery in every direction, I am not meant for stationary life. I took the bike off of the ferry and with the advice of a ferry employee, rode North along the Tongass Highway (not really a highway, just a 2 lane road that went North for 15 miles then promptly ended!). It did feel great to feel my body move again though.
On the way back South I stopped off at a state park that featured many restored totems. Beautiful pieces in various locations of the forest:
I rode back toward downtown Ketchikan which was mostly a hodgepodge of touristy shops and restaurants. The town used to be sustained by a combination of fishing and lumber, but the lumber has been eliminated from the area. Tourism is what keeps the lights on for most people. Once I was quickly overwhelmed by the gargantuan cruise ships which were by far the tallest man made things in town,
I rode along a bike path to the Southern end of the highway, just 12 miles South of downtown. I had just enough time to stop off for groceries and make it back to the ferry.
Back on the ship, I was treated to a beautiful sunny day and stellar sunset:
The following morning, the ferry arrived in Juneau. Downtown was too far for me to ride, so I just rode up to the big local attraction: Mendenhall Glacier. It was laden with tourists, but still quite a sight to see. On the one hand, it was gigantic and beautiful. On the other, it was quite obvious how far the glacier had receded in recent years. Locals told me the large waterfall to the right of the glacier was not there at all only a few years back. This world is changing. It is scary to see the changes up close, but important.
After Juneau, the ferry pushed Northward. On the way up towards Yakutat, the scenery has been spectacular:
We stopped in Yakutat for a couple of hours. A quiet town whose big claim to fame is big wave surfing from some of the coves nearby. We walked off the ship and the only open business I could find in town was a store/cafe called Fat Grandma’s. Fat Grandma (self named) was actually riding on our ferry up from Juneau to pick up supplies, and drove off the ferry right to her little store and opened it for us. She told us all about how she keeps the store up and running and how hard it is to do that while in such a remote place, in terms of utilities costs, access to supplies, and more. All in all I didn’t have a strong feeling about Yakutat, but it was interesting to enter such a small community on such a large boat…
We are now headed for my final stop, Whittier. Located about 60 miles East of Anchorage, I’ll be off the boat tomorrow morning (5/29) and ride on into Anchorage. From there, the next phase of the journey will begin: Getting to Prudhoe Bay….