ABOARD THE M/V COLUMBIA, HEADING TO ALASKA — The sky: a promising cerulean blue. Bellingham Bay: calm. The passengers: swarming the decks of the M/V Columbia, thrilling to that landlubber’s hey-we’re-on-a-boat! novelty — the kind that sometimes attracts amused eye rolls from regular, workaday riders of state ferries.
And the Columbia is a state ferry — the largest in Alaska’s fleet — but pretty much everyone seemed kitted out for summer vacation up the Inside Passage with real cameras, crisp backpacks and Patagonia all-weather cargo shorts.
Nicknamed “the poor man’s cruise,” some tourists ride the Alaska state ferries for thrift and (relative) solitude from the cruise-ship casts of thousands, plus a touch of that riding-the-rails ambience. You can smell the engine grease; see smaller, more remote harbors; feel a little closer to something like a daring expedition.
Camping on deck is cheaper than getting a cabin, and those staying in the Columbia’s 101 staterooms watched us couple dozen outdoor sleepers with mild curiosity as we settled in on deck: some (like me) repurposing plastic reclining chairs as cots in the covered solarium, others pitching tents and exhaustively taping them to the deck.
A few hours later, the crowd evaporated, leaving the rest of us to do what humans do in new habitats: establish individual territories, then turn outward, congealing into an ad hoc community, asking each other where we’re from and what we’re up to.
I was there to recreate an early-adolescent voyage, announced by my parents after I, allegedly, threatened to run away and follow the Grateful Dead.
That’s the way my dad tells it, but his version doesn’t exactly match my memory. I recall something more romantic: a restless twitch, a yearning to be torn thousands of miles from where I belonged and begin exploring.
Or maybe that’s just the poetically aggrandizing version I tell myself because I’m appalled that younger me would stoop to such a dumb cliché.
Either way, my parents decided that summer was an opportune time to pack up the kids (10th-grade me, 5th-grade brother, 4th-grade sister) and take the ferry. My parents and siblings took a cabin. I got to sleep outside, free to talk to whomever and do whatever I pleased. But, you know, on a boat. How much trouble could I get into? (Answer: a little.)
“The idea seemed just interesting enough for you,” my dad, a retired Coast Guard captain, says. “Controlled freedom — more apparent than real!”
Which sums up the feeling of riding those ferries, sacking out on deck again, 25 years later.
It sounds adventurous on paper. And it is, in its way: sleeping among strangers on a working boat; the sea and wind doing their thing; meeting fresh-faced backpackers and stubble-faced ramblers; drifting off in a sleeping bag with the comforting thrum of the engines below; maybe waking at 3 a.m. to walk to the rail in your shorts and long-john top, the breeze cold enough to crystallize your brain, and stare, ice-faced and still, at the moon and its rippling path of silvery light, a celestial highway on the water between you and the hulking silhouettes of glacier-laden mountains that look improbably close. When you get back to your pallet, your neighbor — perhaps the owl-shaped Texan who’d squirmed on his cot earlier that night, moaning: “the sun still hasn’t set?” — snores gently into the blue-black night.
This time, I’d push past the 10th-grade route a little further, heading up the Inside Passage and past Juneau through open ocean to Prince William Sound, with half a dozen landings along the way.
But the survival corner of your brain knows there’s a 24-hour crew, that some deckhand with a flashlight is on her night rounds and the Coast Guard can see right where you are. Probably.
It’s still adventure — just controlled adventure, with brightly marked life-jacket bins and plastic dispensers labeled “sea sick bags” hanging on the walls, but nevertheless an excellent tonic for those times when you feel itchy and stifled but haven’t gotten desperate enough to throw a dart at a world map and buy a one-way ticket to wherever it sticks.
Riding the marine highway
The ferry network, also known as the Alaska Marine Highway System, is 3,500 miles long with 11 ferries landing in 35 coastal cities and towns, including Juneau (pop. 32,113) and Chenega (pop. 76). If you have the inclination (and the ferry schedule allows), you could ride them for a couple of weeks, watching the landscape unfurl like a prehistoric scroll, from the gentle hills of Vancouver Island to the humbling glaciers of Whittier to the wilds of the Bering Sea.
“There’s no right or wrong way to use the ferry,” said Danielle Doyle, of the Alaska Department of Transportation. “Hop on or off wherever you want — we’re long-haul ferries hitting port after port after port, just a bus system on the water.”
While the “just a bus system” comparison has the tinny ring of technical truth, it dramatically undersells the experience.
In seven kaleidoscopic days, I rode the marine highway from Bellingham to the small fishing town of Cordova (known for its coveted Copper River salmon), a little more than halfway to the end of the line.
The trip involved three vessels: through the famously gorgeous Inside Passage on the stately Columbia (418 feet, coin-operated laundry, table-service restaurant), up the Gulf of Alaska to Whittier on the sturdy but pleasant Kennicott (382 feet, one of the fleet’s two oceangoing vessels) and across Prince William Sound to Cordova on the homey Aurora (235 feet, where many passengers and crew seemed to be on a first-name basis).
The obvious vacationers thin out the farther you go, while the ports of call become more functional — and stranger.
In Ketchikan, the first Alaska stop after chugging past the southern half of Canada, thousands of cruise-ship passengers corralled themselves through the town’s former red-light district, built on pilings above the banks of Ketchikan Creek, where brightly painted brothels have become tchotchke shops and a famous sign cheerfully glosses its probably not-always-cheerful history: “Where both men and salmon came upstream to spawn.”
Three mornings later, I woke to Whittier, a stunningly peculiar-looking place, where the mountains abruptly meet the sea and the human skyline is two incongruously huge, blocky buildings — the remnants of a short-lived, Cold War-era military outpost. One, the 14-story Begich Towers, now houses so many of Whittier’s roughly 250 residents it’s called “the town under one roof.”
The other, the Buckner Building, has been crumbling and rusting for decades, standing like a mammoth cenotaph (and tetanus farm) wedged into the wilderness. You can pass it on the way to town trailheads, appreciating the accidentally intricate, Gothic aesthetic of decay, like a negative architecture, and the evocative graffiti scrawl: “Oct. Nov. Dec. Til the revolution 2012.” Who wrote that? Whose revolution? And what did they do after 2012?
Maybe an hour’s hike away, up the Horsetail Falls Trail, you can stand far above town, looking across Passage Canal at glaciers that seem to glow, even at midday, like they’re hiding florescent-blue, Buckner-Building-sized light bulbs beneath their curved and corrugated slabs of ice.
Show me another “just-a-bus” route that can bring you to a juxtaposed place like Whittier and then set sail into Prince William Sound: whale country.
Yes, I saw whales, but mostly just spouts. Nothing too dramatic on the cetacean front, unless you count porpoises leaping and zigzagging alongside the Aurora between Whittier and Cordova — which were glorious to behold, so I certainly do.
Meeting other passengers
My dad says he liked to play a game when the ferry was in port during our trip a quarter-century ago: “I’d watch the people coming aboard, pick out the weirdest-looking ones, and you were usually talking to them minutes after leaving the dock.”
Was I buddying up to wild explorers and rugged fishermen? (Note: On my recent trip, even fisherwomen referred to themselves as “fishermen.”)
“No, mostly just hippies — people who looked like they didn’t know what they were doing.”
Again, not exactly the way I remember it. Yes, I recall hippies, but also cannery workers, a guy who’d recently been incarcerated and another guy from the Caribbean with a few joints. But, given my age and roiling mind at the time, I trust my dad’s recollections as much as, if not more than, my own.
This time brought zero ex-cons (or at least any who declared themselves) but plenty of people to talk to.
There was Ed Czlapinski, a gangly, white-whiskered, former alt-weekly journalist, up from San Mateo, California, with his obvious conversation starters: a brass spyglass and a small patch on his hoodie of a fist punching a swastika with the words “gegen Nazis” (“against Nazis”), an icon in the European punk scene. He was quick with the literary references — Orwell, Pynchon, Raban — and headed to Juneau for no other reason than he’s “heard interesting things.”
Over to starboard, Pip Hartle and Jacob Sumner, a vibrant-looking couple, had come from London to ride to Haines, then drive around. He grew up in Oregon and, after some prodding, shyly admitted he’s the director of European operations for “a restaurant company.” Which restaurant? “Um. Chipotle. But she has a much more interesting career!”
Turns out Pip is a ceramics artist, originally from Birmingham, England, and has work for sale at the Tate Modern in London. “I keep taking photos and thinking: ‘This does not do it justice!’” she said, gesturing out to the terrain, which has gotten wilder as we’ve cruised north, now with near-vertical rock slopes covered in cedar, some seeming to grow straight out of the saltwater.
“It’s magical,” Jacob said, smiling. “There is nowhere else to be.”
One deck below, Jeremy “J.B.” Burns leaned against the port rail, smoking and drinking coffee. He’s a landscaper and seasonal worker, lives “in Juneau and Petersburg, mostly” and is headed home after a few months in the Rocky Mountain States, having threaded his way to Bellingham by Greyhound. He’s been hearing ominous news about Alaska’s ongoing budget battles, with severe cutbacks to many state programs, including the ferry system — the last newspaper we saw on land reported a thinned-out schedule with potentially months-long service blackouts for some communities, like Whittier and Cordova.
“It would suck to not have the ferry to Bellingham,” he said. “Not having them could hurt small towns — I ain’t down with that.”
Invited to the bridge
“It’s like a little city,” said Capt. Scott Macaulay, describing what it felt like to be responsible for a ferry. “It’s never peaceful and quiet, though we pray for that. There’s always something going on.”
As we’d gone up the coast, and news about Alaska’s state budget grew more dire, I’d asked crew members if I could interview them. Word got to Macaulay who, to my surprise, invited me up to the bridge. Being a state employee, he said he “couldn’t talk politics” but offered a kind of consolation prize: watching the Columbia pick its careful way through the Wrangell Narrows — one of the most treacherous parts of the voyage — from the ship’s nerve center.
Once a muddy slough, the channel was dredged for bigger traffic in the 1930s. Cruise ships still can’t get through and even small boats run into trouble. Macaulay pointed as we passed a wrecked fishing vessel, much smaller than the Columbia, just its masts and pilothouse sticking above the waterline. “Been there a couple of weeks,” Macaulay said. “How much water is under us?” he asked, anticipating the question. “Eight feet. A basketball rim. Not much.”
The Narrows were choked with navigation lights — plus floats marking crab pots where nobody on the bridge thought crab pots ought to be. (“Scoop ’em up for dinner!” somebody suggested.) The room went silent and the captain watched intently as navigation officer Tammy Giezentanner called out rudder angles (basically steering by voice) to helmsman Vance Catron, who’d repeat to confirm. Giezentanner: “Left 10!” Catron: “Left 10.” Giezentanner: “Right 15!” Catron: “Right 15.” And so on.
On the other side of the Narrows: The night lights of Petersburg, the stage for one of the most-repeated stories from my family’s mid-’90s passage.
It was past midnight. I wanted to explore. So I tried to leave the boat with two other outside sleepers. A crew member stopped me at the gangway and asked for my ticket, saying I couldn’t get back on without one. I didn’t have it — my parents had kept it in their cabin to prevent me from doing exactly this.
I tried to bargain, saying I didn’t have it but would give him a couple of things as collateral for my return. I fished in my bag and stupidly gave him a book and my rolling tobacco. He took them, eyebrows arched, and let me go.
The town was dark and unrewarding — just good for a stroll up the main drag. Back on the gangplank, the crew member said my collateral was worthless. I had to have my ticket. The only options: start a new life in Petersburg or trudge up to my parents’ cabin with said crew member in tow and knock on the door to retrieve my ticket. I was busted. I couldn’t imagine feeling more hangdog.
The twist: My dad had been awake when we landed in Petersburg, watched the whole thing, then waited in his cabin for that agonized knock. If he was amused at the time, he didn’t show it.
Now, in 2019, I’d been looking forward to getting off in Petersburg, trying to relive that foolishness — but never got the chance.
Macaulay and I were still talking: about his years on the ferries (36), whether the video gamery of GPS has replaced visual navigation (“I’m old school — there’s the science of navigation, but then there’s the art”), a feeble poke at the budget crisis (“what’s gonna happen is anybody’s guess”).
Eventually, someone called Macaulay back to the bridge. Time to leave. I followed and watched Petersburg fade into the night for a second time. The surreality of it, the feeling of living in two dimensions at once, split me like a prism. I was the same person on the same boat, quite possibly skippered by the same captain. But instead of a busted kid cowering below with his heart in his boots, I was way up top, an invited guest on the bridge. It didn’t feel especially grown-up or special — just profoundly odd, borderline absurd.
About a week later, I fly back to Seattle and tell the captain I know best, my dad, the story of how I planned to get off the ferry in Petersburg but couldn’t.
This time, he is clearly amused.
If you go
Sailings from Bellingham: Through Sept. 27 of current schedule. Release of the fall/winter schedule is currently slated for the third week of September.
Tickets for Bellingham to Skagway (a traditional Inside Passage route) start at $504 for outdoor sleeping. Cabin reservations are recommended months in advance.