Travel Writing Awards Entry
“Which terminal was that again?” the driver asked as he slowly pulled away from the stop just made. It was now him and us. The sun was fading. And the prospect of us ever making our ferry to Juneau, Alaska, along the Inside Passage, was fading too.
It was our fault entirely. As had become fairly typical during our travels, we’d decided the day before on a “must have’ change in plans. Not that we weren’t enjoying what we were doing at the time as we were. It was just that Alaska – the last frontier – was so tantalisingly close.
We had already dismissed the idea at least three times before, for a lot of seemingly sensible – and still applicable – reasons. It was mid-March and freezing in Alaska. The Inside Passage remained vulnerable to unpredictable weather. Most towns along it were shut to tourist traffic. The ferry only goes once a week, on a Friday evening. The ferry terminal is in Bellingham, 90 miles north of Seattle. Seattle was our – and the closest – available rental car drop off point. We were way south of Seattle. And without a car, the only feasible/cost effective way to get from Seattle to Bellingham is by carefully timed bus. Get the timings wrong, and all you will be in time for is to wave good-bye to your (non-refundable) ferry.
We made the bus. We got to it just as the driver was boarding. We had been – he told us – on his list of 13 “paid but no shows”. And so we made it too, to Bellingham, in time to catch our Alaska Marine Highway System ferry, the M/V Matanuska. A fabulous journey that would take us 2 full days and nights, and stay etched in our minds forever.
If you are looking for the cruise experience (the gyms, the porters, the nightly “fine dining” and entertainment), this is not for you. The Alaska Marine Highway System does not do cruises. It is an invaluable ferry service, linking parts of Alaska inaccessible by road to other parts of similarly inaccessible Alaska, and to the United States mainland. It plies the Inside Passage route all year round, in all weathers (they’ve not lost one yet!), and because of its expert crew and smaller ships, it can go where most cruise ships can’t.
Check in at the modern Bellingham terminal was smooth and slick. Then it was onto the ferry and to the purser for the cabin keys, bantering excitedly all the way with the friendly knowledgeable crew, most of whom had been on the ships for years with the stories to prove it. Our “outer berth” (no balconies but a nice size window) was spacious and spotless, the linen white and crisp, the shower room roomy with a shower pressure better than in many hotels.
There are no gyms. There is though, a popular deck circuit and, according to the Captain (with whom we held around 16 very enjoyable, albeit very short, conversations in passing on the circuit), 8 circuits make a mile. And with this open air gym comes truly fresh air and sea otter sightings.
The dining is fine (very fine indeed), but it is not “fine dining”, just a good value clean cafeteria open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the hours of which seemed to blend into one continuous service. All day long chefs busily prepared fare from burgers and bangers to daily seafood specials; wild Alaskan seafood of course.
Entertainment? Well there are regular latest release film showings, a bar open nightly, a children’s playroom, a small gift shop. Oh, and the most spectacular, serene, clean and ever changing world you are passing through
We became hooked on “observation”. Although wildlife sightings are rare in March, the slightest possibility of one had us scanning the water and the coastline. We were not alone either. Even the hardened Alaskans who’d done the route many times before were at it too. It only took one yelp of “is that a whale?” to have everyone in the room jumping to their feet, binoculars in hand, excitedly scanning the horizon.
Most of the passengers were Alaskans returning home following either short breaks or “winter hibernation” on the mainland. They were a truly friendly bunch. And as one of few “foreigners” onboard, we benefited hugely from that friendliness. How else would we have known where to head during the short port stops along the way? How else would we have known about the locals’ nature trail just behind Juneau’s airport where, against the backdrop of the vast Mendenhall Glacier, we were able to observe bald eagles? How else would we have known to look out for the glacier’s resident black wolf, affectionately named Romeo by the locals? Seeing the magnificent creature so close to us, its howl piercing the air. Now that’s the Alaska we were hoping for!
As if that wasn’t enough, there was the “human element”. Like the guy who was clearly alone and lonely. He’d been a fisherman all his life. You could tell. He looked battered, around 50 but looking 60. He had been living in Ketchikan, but it had gotten too big and impersonal for him (population 14,000 or so). So he was moving to Haines (“population 2,400, 1897 dogs, 400 eagles in the fall and 260 species of bird”). Yes he was anxious about the move since he knew nobody in Haines, but – he went on to reason – “I knew nobody on this ship either, before I got on”.
Then there were the two old boys sharing their love of hunting. One told the story of the moose he’d killed the previous season that had made “good eatin’”. The other told the story of his son who, having only ever eaten Caribou, refused to eat his prime sirloin steak on his first trip to the mainland, finding it tasteless! Go figure.
And so that there is the story of how we got to live our long held Alaskan dream.