Baranof Island has receded from my sight but not from my mind. At the ferry terminal several kind friends made the trip to the tip of the island to send me off—complete with snacks, hugs, and even a few tears. My heavy heart was lightened by our silly antics and their teasing of my bulging food sacks. During my stay in Sitka, I could often be found at the water’s edge listening to the waves or marveling at life below the surface. The water always felt healing, a refuge where the expanse seemed endless. Yet, a few hundred miles south from this island, the lower 48 awaited.
On the other side of my apprehension to leave lay the excitement of new adventure: the three day ferry from Sitka to Bellingham, Washington. Known as the poor-man’s cruise along the inner passage, most everyone waiting to board The Columbia—touted as the nicest ferry in the Alaska Marine Highways fleet—carried their own bulging food sacks along with dogs, kayaks, bikes, and more than a few brought tents. While I have not been on one of the big cruise ships, I imagine no one there boards with their own housing arrangements for the deck.
Day One on the ferry…. Helping me carry the food sacks was my friend Angie from back east who came to Sitka during my last week. While in Sitka, Angie took on her own adventures—hiking up the steep Vestovia trail made all the more challenging by doing it with young Coast Guards who used the excursion as a training run. We kayaked along the Sitka Sound and she saved a neighbor’s pet duck from an eagle attack.
As the ferry pulled away from the dock, I knew I would need Angie to get me out of my head and onto the deck for sun, reading, and yoga, not to mention plenty of laughter. For someone who perfers to get lost in the woods as opposed to being sequestered on a boat, the ferry felt very confining, even laps around the entire Columbia did not help me unwind—just made me look a little crazy by the other passengers who watched me pass by again and again and again. When I wasn’t circling like a caged bird, Angie and I set ourselves up on the Solarium deck, making new friends and hearing other travelers’ stories.
Day Two: Ketchikan lay over When we boarded the ferry in the late afternoon the sun was still high—versus the evening when the sun is also still high in the Alaskan summer sky. By morning, which technically comes with sun up at 3:30am, we had traveled roughly 103 nautical miles to Wrangell. Our quick stop gave no time to disembark, but an engine issue did delay us for a bit. We were entertained by the black tailed deer on the beach. We were alerted to this sight, as it would be with all other wildlife viewing opportunities, by the purser’s annoucement over the ship’s intercom.
Purser Steve is from Juneau and looks like a regular guy as walks the decks on his time off wearing sneakers with white socks and a pull over rain jacket, but honestly all I could think of was Gopher from the Love Boat. And, this caused Angie and I to wonder where the term Purser came from anyway. We were out of range to use Google—the WonderBuster—so we were left to wonder about a term that seemed a bit outdated.
Our second stop on day two was Ketchikan. Steve tells us that there will be no more stops after Ketchikan. This news suddenly fills Angie and I with a need to buy every last food item we even think we may desire in the next year…and of course it’s only 36 hours until the next stop.
Never mind the last detail, the possibility of being hungry had Angie and I setting off from the ferry terminal at a break-neck pace for a two mile walk into the tourist town of Ketchikan. Our two, one track minds had goals: find a bottle of wine and enough greens and fruit to keep us alive for a month…even though we only needed a day’s worth. Setting off on Tongass Street, we paused outside the Queen Burger—a tired white stucco building with plated glass front and walk up stairs. Another sailor had raved about the halibut burgers. We passed on the burgers, but I felt Ketchikan pegged me with the advertisement for pies. I wonder how good the Independence Day pies might be. Another time.
Ketchikan is a hub for the extra large tourist boats. Population-wise Ketchikan is about the same as Sitka, hovering around 8 to 9 thousand full time residents. Both islands once produced enough work through logging to economically rival the the strong hold of the fishing industry. When logging was stopped more than two decades ago, Ketchikan put in a deep water harbor to lure the cruise lines. Sitka argued about doing the same for years but the decision remained unresolved. Almost two decades later the decisions of each island is sociologist’s field of discovering on what happens when….
When Ketchikan put in their deep water harbor and attracted the large cruise lines, the people came off the boats to capture the real Alaska in a three or four hour port call. Local businesses were replaced or moved for shops like True Alaskan Souvenirs. The Fish House attracts tourists to their two story edifice and charges a premium price for a bowl of chowder. The polished restaurant could be in Gloucester, Maine as likely as Alaska. A town of eight thousand swells to almost twice its population as three boats the size of New Jersey drop anchor. The money is lucrative, I imagine, but it feels sold out.
I know I am partial to Sitka, having been there several months but because, or in spite of, not having a deep water harbor, the big boats are rare and when they do come, they anchor outside the harbor and the passengers have to be ferried into town. It is a town that still has a supply store downtown and where the coffee house remains along with the Ben Franklin. There are plenty of places to buy that authentic piece of Alaskan art, and those pieces stamped with Made in China on the bottom, but there is also something real about the place, about the people. It’s a place that has a soul.
Day Three: Full Moon Rising The moon hung heavy on the edge of the water as our ferry headed into British Columbia. Steve–the purser–cautioned that all cell phones should be turned to airplane mode to avoid international roaming charges. Angie and I were having our nightcap hot tea and dark chocolate and being regaled by another passenger, Don, who just turned 60. He built himself a tree house for a home in Oregon. Don likes to talk. I wanted to ask him for the stories behind some of his tattoos, but I wasn’t sure my eyes would stay open for that dissertation.
By morning, I sat for a long while on the solarium deck. This is where the folks without a cabin set up their tents or hammocks or commandeer lounge chairs and homestead the ferry ride. It is obvious that many have done this before. Their provisions are stacked neatly: books, cans of beans, and containers of oatmeal, while headlamps, towels, and hats all hang from the handrails. Next ferry I will try the solarium. But cabins allow for all that food stash to be laid out even if it is akin to sleeping in tin can. The best spots on the boat for me were the side decks. Few people seemed to venture. Here the engine is the only hum, otherwise there is a deafening quietness.
The final passage…
As we headed into the open waters of Queen Charlotte Sound, the white caps kicked up to cause the boat to sway. Hardly rough seas, but I would not want it any rougher. The salty mist hid the outcropping of islands that felt close, but miles and miles away. The passage follows Queen Charlotte Straight and weaves into the Strait of Georgia and then passes the San Juan Islands before reaching Bellingham. The landscape is new and I enjoyed the slowness after I settled in; however, when someone on board told me the ferry’s consumption is 600 gallons of fuel an hour, I got more than a little sea sick. Comparatively, a commercial plane is said to burn around 60 gallons an hour.
Arrival Bellingham… Steve, the Purser, announced that walk-off passengers exit from Deck One now that the platform at the terminal has been fixed. The repair was necessary after an operator forgot to unlock the hinges before pulling the ferry deck from the terminal dock. She is still recovering from injuries sustained from the huge metal edifice that fell atop her. I think about this as I walk the bridge–my last tangible connection to Alaska. Life changes in a moment. So I walk and think about a woman I do not even know and hope she is healing. I think about the people I do know and look north along the water, the healing water.