Day 3 – 6
- Friday, June 24 to Monday, June 27
- Bellingham, WA to Haines, AK
- 916 miles (Paul, Jeff, Scott & Trev)
So what does one do when you find yourself on a boat for three and a half days with absolutely nothing to do? You relax. This is always a foreign concept at first due to the hectic, never-enough-time-to-get-everything-done nature of our daily lives. As I’ve mentioned before, the first signs of unwinding on a motorcycle tour don’t really show up until day three and after a fair number of miles. But as we had hoped, this boat travel concept triggers the onset of relaxation within hours of boarding and settling in.
The Columbia, the flagship of the Alaska ferry fleet, was launched in 1974 and its delightful 70s decor has been carefully preserved through several restorations. Unlike a luxury cruise ship, this is a working ship and a delightful poor man’s cruise. The hull is packed with vehicles of all kinds: cars, trucks, RVs, semi-trailers and motorcycles. A surprising number of amenities can be found onboard: a movie room, nature lectures by Forest Service rangers, a full service restaurant, a snack bar, a cocktail lounge, a video arcade, a solarium, a laundromat and a gift store. Wildlife sightings and upcoming sea conditions are announced by the Captain so one can plan accordingly. The cocktail lounge is like the cantina in the first Star Wars film while the restaurant is like 10-Forward in Star Trek – The Next Generation.
We meet an amazing cast of characters on our boat journey, some on vacation, some heading home, and some heading for new jobs:
- Abelardo, a tuna fisherman of Spanish descent, on his way to party in Alaska.
- Julane, the wonderful bartender in the lounge, who describes the 1 week on, 1 week off working schedule as the “honeymoon plan” and the secret to her happy 20 yr. marriage.
- “Patch” and “Rastaman” who took a train from Florida to LA and then hitched to Bellingham to catch the ferry in order to go backpacking in Denali.
- Chain Saw Chuck who entertains us in the lounge at night by superbly playing “Bad To The Bone” and “Locomotive Breath” on his acoustic guitar.
- “Tiny” and his fellow ship’s engineers who fill us in on the marine legends of working the ferry system.
- And many more, each with their own story and journey ahead of them.
Crossing the Queen Charlotte Sound, North of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, we are exposed to the open ocean for 2 – 3 hours. Nothing too rough but just enough of a swell to get this enormous ship rocking pretty good. I wonder what truly rough weather is like. (Later on in the trip, a taxi driver in Ketchikan tells us of riding the ferry across the Gulf of Alaska with 45 ft. waves and how terrified and ill she and her fellow passengers were.) I pass the tiny ship’s store on the way to the movie room and see a line of passengers at its door. The clerk comes out and announces that she’s all out of Dramamine which is met with groans of dismay. As I’m starting to feel a tad queasy myself, I plop into a big comfy recliner in the movie room next to Uncle Bob and watch a documentary about whales narrated by Patrick Stewart, followed by “The Incredibles”. Problem solved and a marvelous way to spend the afternoon.
Come midnight the first night out, I’m smoking a cigar on deck and marveling at how bright the sky still is. We feel like a bunch of kids who want to know why they have to go to bed when it’s not dark yet. I finally state that it isn’t going to get any darker and so we give it up and retire to our 4 bunk cabin and despite the lack of darkness, due to the constant throbbing of the ferry’s engines and the relentless vibration throughout the ship, we sleep like babies.
The ferry travels 24 hours a day at a constant 18 knots except for the narrower, twisty sections of the Inside Passage. The gentle hills of British Columbia finally give way to serious mountain ranges with glaciers in Alaska. Mount Quincy Adams between Juneau and Haines is especially impressive. Along the way, we spot orcas, humpback whales, dolphins, bald eagles, seagulls and seals. Back home, the mere sight of a bald eagle or two is a big deal. Up here, there are flocks of them everywhere and after awhile, it’s ho hum. Yeah, look more bald eagles. Big deal. How quickly one becomes jaded.
We get four hours off in Ketchikan and after a monster breakfast, worthy of a very hungry lumberjack, we stroll around. Since the gigantic cruise ships dock here, usually 4 to 5 ships per day resulting in 12,000 tourists being turned loose on this tiny town of 8,000 residents, the majority of stores are jewelry and fur shops. The locals complain about this at the slightest mention of it and talk of how this American town is now mainly owned by foreign companies.
The cocktail lounge turns out to be the best entertainment each evening. A guy plays some wonderful honky tonk on the piano. People hang out telling their stories. A group of us wine drinkers form the Cabernet Club and when we run out, Julane, the bartender, raids the restaurant for some more bottles. When Wally, the chief steward, comes to reprimand her, she stands her ground and reminds him to do a better job of ordering next time. She’s our hero.
We arrive in Juneau, Alaska at 6 AM of the last day of the trip. Once docked, the engines are shut off and a profound quiet settles in. As we’re 12 miles out of town, we decide to stay on board and sleep in. It’s a blissful slumber. During this trip, we all rediscover the joys of taking afternoon naps.
After breakfast, we pack up hours in advance of landing. We’re ready to ride and beginning to show signs of boat fever. The open road is calling and we are primed for adventure. Besides, we’ve polished off all the Alaskan Amber and the Cabernet on board. We are so outta here!
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