Monday, August 22, 2016

Riding the Alaska Marine Highway: Chillin' along the Inside Passage


 This is the first of two posts about riding the Alaska Marine Highway down the southern part of the Inside Passage from southeast Alaska to northern Washington. There are just too many pictures and stories to share for one blog post! Check back in a few days for part two.


Lumbering under the weight of my backpack, I hustle onto the mv Columbia with a mission:  Dash straight up to the open-air solarium on the upper aft deck and claim a lounge recliner. This will be my “campsite” for the next three nights as I cruise home on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Sitka, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington.

After huffing up several flights of stairs to Level 7 (I didn't notice the elevator in my haste), I burst through the solarium door to a sea of colorful camping gear and sleeping bags, many containing humans, covering every visible recliner. There’s a quiet hush, like I’ve entered a library where I need to whisper.


Over by the side, I spot someone upright and awake—a bearded youngish man who has the air of someone recently emerged from months in the bush or meditating in a cave—and scurry over to him, my anxious city manner following me like a bad aroma. 
 
“Do you know if there are any more recliner chairs?” I blurt out, as if the urgency of my words will make one suddenly appear.






“Um…I don’t know, I don’t think so,” says the bearded man, whose name is Blake and who actually did just spend the last few months in the bush, so to speak.  He’s returning to Washington after rowing his homemade dory solo from Tulalip, Washington, to Juneau, Alaska, the last two months. But I don’t learn that for a couple days.

Eventually I grab an open patch of Astroturf and drop my pack. A little later someone removes a jacket slung across a recliner, and I’m there in a flash with my sleeping bag, claiming the territory.

After the ferry pulls away from Sitka about 3:15 pm and I’ve taken a zillion photos of the thickly forested mountains and tiny islands we pass, I drop onto my recliner and finally start to unwind. Because unwinding and not doing much of anything is my primary goal for this bucket list trip.

Leaving Sitka
Unlike the huge cruise ships that ply the Inside Passage every summer with thousands of passengers and activities, on the Alaska ferries there's not that many people and not much to do. I'm looking forward to three nights with little cell coverage and no wifijust sleeping, reading, watching the view, maybe talking to people. 
And a lot of this:



 First of all, it's very relaxing on the ferry. While sitting on the deck facing the receding panorama, it's easy to be lulled to sleep by the low rhythmic hum of the engines, the ship sometimes gently rocking, all that fresh clean air, and the warmth of heat lamps overhead in the solarium. 

The first night I watch a spectacular tangerine-colored half moon appear and drop slowly below the mountainous horizon. And there's virtually zero light pollution, so when it's not raining, about to rain, or just stopped raining, the sky is brilliant.

 
Of course, that first stop at 3:15 a.m. in Petersburg wakes me up briefly with the announcement over the speakers. But I manage to fall back asleep quickly. 

About an hour later, I awaken in the predawn light. (Didn't we evolve to awaken with morning light?) There's something dream-like and magical about the shadowy, still-forming day. I'm the first up, camera in hand. When a few others get up, we don't talk, as if we're still not fully emerged from our sleep cocoons

The water...


 By the time the sunrise sets the sea and sky aglow, most of the solarium community (and it is becoming a commmunity) is up snapping shots with phones or long-lensed, fancy cameras.
 


My first and primary buddy on the trip is tall, lanky Kayla from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Kayla looks every inch the Rocky Mountain woman, with her plaid shirt, fitted jeans, turquoise earrings, and weathered skin from many years outdoors. She also has done this trip numerous times and is a good source of knowledge. At our 15-minute morning stop in Wrangell, several of us follow her to the nearest coffee stand in town.
The mv Columbia during our short stop in Wrangell, Alaska.
Before the trip, I thought the solarium community would consist of me and a bunch of backpackers in their twenties. But instead there seem to be more older retirees, with a few youngsters and middle agesters like me thrown in the mix, which changes a bit with each stop.

Today the rain returns, although thankfully it's not raining during our 4-hour afternoon stop in bustling Ketchikan. (It's bustling because a big cruise ship is in port too.) I follow Kayla again until she hops on a bus to the library, then I continue walking along the ragtag, slapdash waterfront in search of a meal with fresh vegetables. (The food on the ferry is NOT a highlight of the trip.)
Nobody has accused Ketchikan of being too charming.
I wander into the Bar Harbor restaurant close to downtown and order a pricey blackened shrimp salad to go. For balance, I cross the street and order a milkshake at the Burger Queen, a local institution burger shack.

By the time I get back to the ferry, I'm jarred by the traffic and concrete. After retreating back up to the solarium, I collapse on my recliner to dine al fresco

Just as we're pulling away from Ketchikan, the drenching SE Alaska rain kicks up again. With the wind and spray, we need to pull our recliners farther back under cover to prevent sleeping bags from getting too wet. 

For the next 39 hours we'll be chugging south with no stops. Now the unwinding really begins.

  
 Check back in a few days for part 2 of this journey. Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go

The Alaska Marine Highway runs year-round, although the schedules vary with the seasons and tides. Although it's less costly than most cruise lines, it's not an inexpensive trip. To sail from Sitka to Bellingham, even with no cabin, cost me $384.00. There's a so-so restaurant and a less expensive cafeteria-style snack bar, but lots of people bring their own coolers and food for snacks. Tip: The best/most healthful food is the big pot of fresh oatmeal each morning in the snack bar, with raisins, nuts, and brown sugar toppings. Or supplement with little packets of honey, jam, peanut butter, and other condiments at the counter just beyond the register.