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.


Sis Anne said...

This takes me back to 2013 when I did a trip on Un-Cruise (yes, that's their real name) and since they are not a ferry with a schedule we had the freedom to stop when we had sensational sightings....we saw many whales perform, bears, mountain goats, the very smelly colonies of sealions who didn't seem to notice us as we crawled by them. I love foreign travel but we sure have a lot of things to see in the good ol' US of A, easy trips with no language barriers, foreign exchange, border crossings and that sort of thing to worry about.

Suezy Proctor said...

I’ve been waiting eagerly for Part 2, and it did not disappoint. I love that you began with one of my favorite pics…the hand reaching out into the Greenville Channel…it almost looks like it is grasping for a globe of some kind…see the swirling globe?

I really enjoyed reading about your “temporary floating community” – such interesting people. I hope you’re able to stay in touch with them…. perhaps meet up for a sea kayaking adventure in the future.

Your haiku was a beautiful ending to a great post!

Anonymous said...

Wow, have loved these two posts. Again, you've managed to take me out of Victoria, Australia and into your beautiful part of the world. I had no idea about this Marine Highway. Keep sharing your adventures. Sylvia

jill said...

Anne - I need to ask you more about your Un-Cruise. I remember you raving about it, but not the details. Thanks for your comments! xo

Suezy, I so appreciate your regular and inspired comments! I've traded emails with a couple people from the trip so far, will send these links to more and we'll see. Ha, knew you would appreciate the haiku. :)

Sylvia! I thought you were my Aunt Sylvia when you commented on the first of these two posts - that was you? That's why I called you a poet. Maybe you are a poet. :) So flattered to have a reader in Australia and to open some of my corner of the world to you. I have wanted to do the Alaska ferry since the 1990s, glad I finally got around to it, many friends have done. Cheers and thanks for your encouragement.

Anonymous said...

No sorry, that wasn't me that wrote a comment on your first of these two posts....but to think that two Sylvia's have made a comment (and I've met but a few in my day) is funny. I love ticks on a list so pleased for you that you finally did this trip. Cheers Sylvia (Australian Sylvia)