The journey offers amenities in just the right doses. The 400-odd foot long M/V Matanuska has three levels above the car deck, all served by multiple stairways and a single elevator. Kids range freely, the sporting do laps on the deck. If you pay a modest bit extra for a cabin, you get a berth with proper linens on good mattresses and your own hot shower. If you’re traveling with your own gear, you stretch out on deck chairs in the heated solarium or pitch your tent on the deck. Or you leave your stuff in a locker, sleep wherever you like inside and then freshen up in one of the public shower rooms. Why can’t we live this way on land?
This is the classic American journey everyone should take. Public transportation through the wilderness. The highway through roadlessness. Part pajama party, part hootenanny. The dreamers, those weary from work, the hopeful unemployed, ordinary folks going home or leaving home all in the same boat. In how many places in America do you find yourself traveling alongside locals, particularly locals who can spot a grizzly on a far shore or predict exactly when the humpback will dive right under your nose?
For an overview watch our slideshow. Music is Jack’s composition Petersburg from the CD North to Alaska.
A DIY ethic seems to be built in. As you pull through the setting sun beyond Bellingham, Washington’s pretty little harbor the Purser kindly asks nurses, doctors and medics to introduce themselves. After supper, the First Mate plays his banjo and other musicians join in; by the third evening they are a five-person orchestra. The pudgy guy with the unruly mustache in a fisherman’s faded plaid shirt shows up on Sunday morning in a clerical collar as its announced that Episcopal Reverend so-and-so will lead a non-denominational service in the cocktail lounge at 9 am.
The food is spectacular. Halibut burgers with mountains of french fries. Platters of fresh spinach topped with mounds of shrimp. A pair of huge pork chops, fresh vegetables and mashed potatoes that barely fit on the plate. We learned to order one meal and cut it in half. There’re daily specials, a very long a la carte list, a deli counter with soups, salads and made-to-order sandwiches, a hot table with too many choices and, best of all, old-fashioned short order cooks at the ready.
There is no Internet.
Every night is briefer than the one preceding it so you don’t miss much. You sleep through Seymour Narrows on night one, the border crossing through Dixon Entrance on night two and Frederick Sound on night three. But the route often dips far inside the Inside Passage, closer to the route Aurora took last summer than anything a cruise ship could manage. To our surprise and delight, our Captain heads into Klemtu Passage, greeting the inhabitants of one of Canada’s most isolated First Nations villages with three stately blasts of the steam whistle and giving us a look at their spectacular long house. He also navigates the shallow winding Narrows – which boast 62 buoys in ten miles – between the towns of Wrangell and Petersburg, which the cruise ships never visit.
But the best routes of the Alaska Marine Highway are the local ones. Our final stretch takes us on the three-and-a-half hour ride from Juneau to Hoonah on the much smaller M/V LeConte.
For breakfast I go for berry pancakes and Jack for the eggs, toast, hash browns, and bacon. The short order cook fills me in while I wait. Yes, the LeConte sometimes fills up with all 300 passengers for the Hoonah route. It did a couple of weeks ago, before the summer schedule kicked in bringing three runs a week. “On sellout days we just hope it doesn’t rain so people can spread out on the decks.” I ask how they manage to plan for meals and keep the wonderful short order service which slows any food line. “We just know,” he says. It seems enough people show up with their own copious meals – which they warm in on board microwaves – so everyone eats well and enjoys the trip.
When he flips my hotcakes I notice they’re still berryless and chid myself for yakking away and distracting him. Then he flips the first one onto a plate, tops it with a soup-ladle full of marion berries mixed with raspberries and blueberries, and puts the second pancake on top. As I admire the sandwich, another helping of berries is ladled on top. Oh my, delicious!
After breakfast, I stay in the dining area. The dreamers on the ferry are up in the bow quietly gazing out on the ocean, the convivial sorts are in the starboard lounge, where curtains are drawn to create the movie house the village otherwise lacks. But the dining area is the part of the ship where the industrious ones are: the accountant with a tabletop full of chits, an artist with a pad, a couple of folks with laptops, and people working on crafts.
A young woman sits fashioning a Tlingit quilt/ceremonial robe spread out on a four person table at a window booth. A little girl crawls onto the seat opposite, admiring and inquiring why she’s chosen bright turquoise bound with the broad black band instead of the traditional red. “It pops out. You notice it.” she says. As an employee passes her table, cleaning up after the wave of hungry breakfasters, she asks his name. They link up in mutual recognition when she introduces herself as the payroll clerk for the ferries. The man with the mop then strikes up a conversation with a bight eyed boy who’s just finished his sophomore year in high school. Taking a break from his work, the older man puts pen to napkin to share “the very cool way” that the early Greeks – “or maybe they were Arabs,” he says – used to come up with the mathematical concept of Pi. How good it is to see this: Elders claiming their space and kids joining them in it. In Alaska, the village raises the kids.
Finally, we round Icy Strait Point and the old cannery that has been lovingly restored by the native corporation. We disembark, grab our 42″ rolling duffel with the new nautical charts and set off through the village to the harbor. Everything is as we left it except for the early spring flowers and the snow on all the peaks. Heading down the ramp we see the fishing troller Happy Hooker still tied up beside Icy Lady, whose skipper busy getting her ready for the opening of the season. And there’s Aurora, looking beautiful and remarkably clean and dry.