Monday, July 11, 2011

Riding the Alaska Marine Highway System: Glaciers, Whales, and New Friends

This is the last of my series of posts from Southeast Alaska, the northern edge of the Northwest Coast.

Rain is pelting the cabin windows and wind whistles at a constant high pitch as the ship rocks gently left and right, churning southward on the white-capped sea. About halfway between Juneau and Haines, steel-gray clouds hang in thick low tufts, obscuring the many spectacular mountains that line the Inside Passage. But every now and then patchy snowfields and glaciers that hug the mountains peek through the clouds.

Humpback whale at one o’clock!” cries the shipboard Tongass National Forest ranger who is giving a short talk here in the fore lounge. I glance over just in time to see a spout burst up out of the water and dissipate, not more than 50 yards off the starboard bow. Next a hulking, shiny dark back breaks the water surface, slowly rolls, and then plunges downward, leaving us with a flick of its wide, split fluke tail just before it disappears.

Welcome to Southeast Alaska’s Marine Highway System.

As I write this, I’m on the third and last leg of my ferry trips here. Today I’m on the 4.5-hour ride from Haines back to Juneau, and the weather is crap. Same for my 4.5-hour ride from Sitka to Juneau last week. But I was lucky to have sun breaks and views of the never-ending peaks and icy blue-white glaciers on the trip north from Juneau to Haines. It was an ahhhhh-some journey.

Up on the upper aft deck, a few hardy souls are camped out and asleep on reclining deck chairs, some headed all the way down to Bellingham, Washington. The ranger tells us that the whales, especially orcas, sometimes like to play in the ship’s wake, so I make occasional trips up there. I feel like I’m intruding on a private community, such is the camaraderie that develops amongst the through traveler campers.

Regardless, it’s easy to make friends on a several-hour ferry ride, when many of us are riding a vacation high. And it’s generally not the cruise ship set on these ferries. Friendly locals mix with those of us traveling from the Lower 48 and beyond. When I get up to use the restroom, I ask the German tourists to my left if they’ll watch my pack. They smile and nod yes. I do the same for them a while later.

On the first leg of my Inside Passage journey, from Sitka to Juneau, I sat beside Mark, a lean, soft-spoken teacher-photographer from California and a local doctor based in Sitka, a marvelous woman and font of information about Sitka and many other things. “Sitka is a very tight community, with lots going on. I love it,” she says.

While ferrying next from Juneau to Haines, I met up with Mark again and added a nice semi-retired couple from Maryland to my temporary band of traveling companions. I felt totally comfortable leaving my netbook and even my purse next to them while I went out on deck to watch the leaping porpoises, blowing whales, and gorgeous scenery. (Okay, I forgot my purse, but of course it was fine.)

When it was time to disembark at Haines and they continued on to Skagway, I actually felt a bit sad that I’ll never see these people again. But I’m happy to have shared a few hours with them, learning a bit of their stories and what brought them here. Here on a ferry boat on the Inside Passage, the adventurous spirit of Alaska infuses us all.

I expected beautiful scenery, but I’m just as pleased that the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries are full of interesting, good people who enrich my experience while I travel in the land of stunning mountains, breaching whales, and soaring eagles.

When You Go
Here’s a schedule and stops for the Alaska Marine Highway System. You can travel all the way from Bellingham up to Skagway, over 3 days, or just hop on and off like I did for shorter jaunts. The food on the ships is so-so, so many bring their own on board. There’s also a cocktail lounge and movie room for those not so concerned with the land and sea scapes.


Bob said...

Your blog's great so keep up the good work.

ML said...

Lovng your blog - the alaska stuff is great.

Betty said...

Your story makes me want to go back to Alaska. I was in SE Alaska about 14 years ago for a couple weeks. I took the ferry from Juneau to Skagway and saw a large animal (moose maybe - memory is fading) swimming across whatever body of water it was. The ranger said that was pretty unusual.

jill said...

Thanks Bob and ML for the feedback!

Betty, wow, that's interesting about the swimming animal, cool to see something unusual. Hope you get back sometime.

Mark said...

I enjoyed reading your blog and looking at your pictures. I'm glad you made it to Sitka.

You have a way with writing.

Mike B said...

I've always wanted to take an Alaskan ferry ride. Breathtaking scenery!