Monday, August 29, 2016

Riding the Alaska Marine Highway: A Whale of a Trip

This is the second of two posts about my recent excellent adventure riding the Alaska Marine Highway ferry home from Sitka, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington. Read the first post here.

On this, my third day on the Alaska ferry heading south to Washington, the rewards of the sea and sky are abundant. 

As I awaken in the dim predawn, I look up and see we're in a narrow passage (Grenville Channel) bracketed by forested mountains. While I'm in that just-awake-but-still-fuzzy state, I wonder why the ferry is stopped because it doesn't seem like we're moving. But we are indeed.

"Would you like some tea?" asks Art, a retired salmon fisherman camped on the recliner beside me here on the upper back deck of the mv Columbia, since he's headed down to get coffee. Sweet. I hand him my tumbler and a tea bag for hot water.

The view at 4:30 a.m. Grenville Channel.
Soon I'm up on the deck, barefoot, camera in hand, snapping shots of this splendid day just beginning to unfold. Then I retreat to the warmth of my sleeping bag on the recliner to drink in the view, sipping tea and trying to be Zen, fully present for these magnificent moments.

Later down at the snack bar for my morning bowl of oatmeal, I ask Paul, the friendly cashier with the goofy laugh, what his favorite part of the ferry trip is:

"Ketchikan to Bellingham, when we're in Canada and out of cell range, and people aren't glued to their smartphones." Amen!

Amiable Paul laughs at my lame jokes.
Yesterday late afternoon we left Ketchikan, and we won't stop again until we arrive in Bellingham tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. So all day today we're cruising through the Canadian portion of the Inside Passage in B.C. I can't stay inside and away from the top back deck long, so I take my oatmeal back up for breakfast.

"Whale!" says fellow solarium camper Blake as he heads quickly toward the port bow, camera ready. We watch a humpback whale chasing a salmon, just barely surfacing and blowing misty little geysers. This is the first of many whale sightings today. (Apologies for the image quality, but this is my best shot, taken hastily.)

By now, our temporary floating community is coalescing, and I'm charmed by the intriguing people along for the ride with me. Among my compadres are Karen, CEO of family-run JimBoy's Tacos chain; Leigh, retired software engineer and meditation teacher; Troy, Hollywood film guy/photographer; Joe, retired school principal traveling on his motorcycle; Hannah and Rodney, fresh-faced outdoor guides who just kayaked from Bellingham to Skagway, AK; and Blake, college math instructor who just rowed solo up the Inside Passage

I could go on, there are so many interesting, friendly fellow travelers. Our common thread seems infused with a particular adventuresome spirit. While it's a beautiful, scenic journey, the human dimension really makes the trip memorable.

Blake Miller, rower extraordinaire, rowed up the Inside Passage solo.
Rodney and Hannah just finished a 3-month journey kayaking the Inside Passage.
By about 9 a.m. we've cleared the marine layer of clouds and for the first time since I left Seattle last week, it's blue skies baby. A lot more people from the cabins down below have joined us, and the atmosphere is increasingly cheerful.

Sunshine, whale sightings, and no smartphones will do that.

For a while it seems like every few minutes someone says "Whale!" as we're nearing a stretch of sea exposed to the open ocean. At the back starboard railing several people shout in excitement, and I dash over to see a juvenile humpback explode straight up out of the water and crash back down with a huge splash. Then again. And again. I counted over 10 breaches by this little guy (or gal).

"There's a whale at two o'clock tail slapping," says the voice over the ship's speaker. Everyone hurries over to the other railing, lots of zoom lenses ready. I don't have a good enough zoom, but Blake shares some of his shots with me. (Thank you Blake!)

Tail slap. Photo courtesy of Blake Miller.
By midday we enter the passage on the inside of Vancouver Island, passing small islands in pockets of mist, until we enter much narrower Johnstone Strait in late afternoon. Memories of the gray, damp first two days are dimming in the brilliant sunshine of today.

Vancouver Island

For years I've read about kayaking trips in Johnstone Strait, which has the largest resident pod of killer whales (orcas) in the world. Sure enough, when Blake points out Robson Bight, an Ecological Reserve famous for drawing orcas to its protected waters, we spot about a half dozen orcas swimming close to the shoreline. We're just a little too far for any decent shots, but it's always a thrill to see orcas.

Tonight I splurge on a sit-down dinner in the dining room (my first and only visit there in three days) with Karen and two lovely women from B.C. My wild Alaskan salmon and baked winter squash dinner is tasty. But as I'm finishing my meal, I realize it's SUNSET time and I'm not on deck with my camera!

So I dash up, a little too late, but still, I think the waning light is lovely on the surrounding sea and mountains.

And for an extra special treat, I've been reminding everbody that tonight the Perseid meteor showers will be peaking.  As the evening twilight fades to dark somewhere just south of Campbell River mid-Vancouver Island, several of us pull our recliners out from under the solarium to lay under the open sky on the deck and wait for the stars to shoot.

And "shoot" they do.  Although I can't stay awake past midnight before falling asleep, I see some spectacular color-infused blazes across the sky.

When I awaken about 5:30 a.m., I know instantly I'm in my home waters of the Salish Sea Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island is coming into view to the south, and Mt. Baker is visible on the eastern horizon.

Mt. Constitution ahead.
Mt. Baker to the left above the clouds.

It's a beautiful early morning, with the promise of another bluebird day. Too soon this journey will be over, in just a couple hours.

So I pack up and collect all my gear spread out in my little patch of the upper back deck, say my goodbyes, exchange cards and emails, and then enjoy the last stretch around the southern tip of Lummi Island and on into Bellingham Bay.

To commemorate the trip, I'm inspired to compose a haiku:

Churning southward home
Through mountains, rain, sun, and stars 
It's all just perfect

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 you can pay for a private cabin, I along with many others chose to "camp" on the upper back deck under the covered solarium, with overhead heat lamps. While often people pitch their tent on the back deck, no one did on my trip, which was nice because they didn't obstruct the views for those of us on recliners in the solarium. There are showers, outlets around the ship to charge your electronics, movies shown once a day (I didn't watch), a snack bar with sandwiches and hot food, a pricier restaurant, and of course heated clean bathrooms. ALSO next summer Blake is going to row solo again up the Inside Passage as a fundraiser for a hospital. I'll pass along the specifics about how you can contribute in due time.

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! Read part two here.

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.

 Read part 2 of this journey here. 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.