One of the things I've always loved most about Southeast Alaska is the Alaska Marine Highway System. When most towns are on islands unconnected by roads, it only makes sense that the Inside Passage of intertwining waterways would become our road system. On this most scenic of all highways, our ferries--more like small cruise ships--locals and tourists alike travel.
When we were kids, nothing delighted us more than when our entire tiny bush school would go on a field trip to somewhere in Southeast Alaska or to Canada, traveling on the ferry. It was an adventure none of us will ever forget.
Here's the story of a visitor to Alaska who also got to enjoy our unique marine highway during her Alaskan adventure.
When I was on Top of the World by Carla Kirkland
It was a clove of seasons when I boarded a train in Thunder Bay, Ontario and rode through some of the most breathtaking natural sites in Canada with the overstuffed backpack I had lived out of, in Minnesota all summer. When I walked onto a ferry in Prince Rupert, BC, it was the closest thing to a cruise ship I had ever been on, then or since. I’d had a magical year at Touch of Nature Environmental Center in Carbondale, IL, and summer at the Environmental Learning Center in Isabella, MN as an intern. When they ended, I was looking forward to fall in southeast Alaska.
I walked off the ferry in Petersburg, Alaska, and for the first time in my life I wasn’t a student. I was 24, full of wanderlust, and free. I wasn’t worried I had no job or place to live. Heck, I couldn’t see past one day at a time. When my boyfriend (later husband), Jim, of five years met me at the dock and told me he had secured a friend’s small 1940s style houseboat for three days before we embarked upon the 33-mile trek along the historic Chilkoot Trail, my problem was solved. Temporarily, anyway.
Jim did seasonal surveying with the U.S. Forest Service for the last three years and had government-issued housing. I couldn’t stay there. I supposed I could always set up a tent in Tent City, where the town’s cannery workers lived, but I’d face those issues when we came back to town from the backpacking trip.
First things first, though. I went down to Hammer’s (Hammer & Wikan) Hardware and bought myself a pair of brick-colored rubber boots known by everyone in the fishing town as red rubbers. The only sure bet about the weather was that it would rain and knee-high red rubbers with pants tucked into them, were a constant fashion staple. By the time I got back to the boat, Jim ran down the hill from the Forest Service office saying someone had quit and they were looking to hire a replacement on a recreation crew. I didn’t know what it would really entail, but since I had just completed my bachelor’s degree in outdoor recreation, it seemed like an answer to a prayer. I went as fast as I could up the hill, afraid someone else would beat me to the job.
The day after I arrived in Petersburg, I had a position on a recreation crew and government housing. I would begin when I returned from the Chilkoot. There were three good months left in the work season and I was on top of the world. Since Jim and I were going to be working on separate crews, it was going to be common to only see each other occasionally.
When I came back to town, I met the other two people on my crew: a Vietnam Vet named Jimmy and our crew boss, Doug. We were given the task of building a new recreational cabin at Kadake Bay and doing maintenance at several other recreational cabins within the Tongass National Forest. We traveled by helicopter, ferry, or skiff to the various locations, but most trips were to our camp at the old Kadake Bay Cabin by skiff, loaded with building materials, tools, and groceries. The cabin had bunks, a wood stove, a table, and benches. Jimmy and I stayed in the cabin with no electricity or running water, while Doug preferred to sleep in his own tent outside the cabin.
We worked hard building the cabin, clearing trails, and chopping wood by day and reading by candle or flashlight at night. Jimmy did most of our cooking and I cleaned up the dishes while Doug brushed up on his Spanish in preparation of spending his winter in Mexico. On our days off, we would fish or go back to Petersburg when we could. The fishing was the most incredible I’ve ever experienced. When we were able to smoke the fish, we did. We ate and lived, worked and played together, and became family in some of the most beautiful wilderness I’ve ever seen.
When Jim and I and friends boarded the ferry to leave Alaska to go south at the end of the season, it was Thanksgiving Day, 1983, during the first snowfall. I remember peering into the distance as the town of Petersburg grew smaller and the snow fell harder. I felt confident we would all be going back the following season, not knowing it would be the last time we ever worked and lived in southeast Alaska with the wild abandon that only youth exudes.
NOTE: All photos courtesy of Carla Kirkland. Carla is a uniquely compassionate and insightful writer who considers the crossroad moments in life in a way that resonates with people who care about the world and each other. Check out her wonderful blog at carlakirklandwriter.com.
All during the journey coming home it was beautiful sunny weather right until the last few hours on the ferry when the clouds enclosed the mountains and dropped the ceiling. Rain ran down the tall windows in the observation lounge obscuring the view of the Inside Passage and, while the other pasengers grumbled, I smiled.
"I'm almost home."
I stepped outside into the fresh, rainy wind and watched as the point of land where I live moved sternward. I could easily imagine my parents in their floathouse, tucked out of sight of the stormy strait. My mom would be coloring in her rocking chair while my dad battled the poor signal to check or order something online. The house would be cozy with a wood fire in the stove. In my floathouse behind theirs my Maine Coon Katya would be hunched in a ball, grumbling to herself because I wasn't there to start a fire, or tuck her up, or generally make her feel like the center of the universe, which she knows is her due.
The rain lifted a little as we entered Tongass Narrows and approached Ketchikan. We passed close by the shipyard where my brother Robin works and I took pictures, hoping I'd get a glimpse of him. But as I was taking pictures a woman stopped next to me and asked if that was a ferry and what it was doing up there on land.
I explained that it was indeed a ferry and that the shipyard more often than not had one of the Marine Highway System's ships in dry dock to repair and paint all year around.
"Do you know someone there, is that why you're taking all those pictures?" When I explained she said, "Shouldn't you wave?"
I duly waved and got in trouble for it within minutes. Robin texted me. "You are blinder than Dad. Lol. I was nowhere in the vicinity that you were waving to!!!! Lmao."
"Just for the tally books," I texted back, quoting a favorite family movie that we re-watched a million times as kids, "where were you?"
"I will show you in your camera! You took a picture of right were I was."
Which he did as soon as he picked me up from the ferry terminal, which was right next door to the shipyard. In the picture there's a blue building about in the center with a red spot in the row of windows. Robin was the red spot. He'd unfurled a San Francisco 49ers flag to catch my eye. He said the people around him wondered what on earth he was doing, but he didn't let that stop him.
The floatplane ride home was direct with no stops along the way, which is unusual. I asked for ear plugs since there wasn't an extra headset and the engine, as anyone who's ridden in the cockpit of a small plane knows, was deafening.
On my side was Cleveland Peninsula which had, in the last few years, been massively clear cut by a logging operation. The mountains were naked and scarred by logging roads, but already I saw that the roads--only a few years old--were overgrown with shrubs of new growth, or washed out by streams, or blocked by landslides.
When we'd first moved to Alaska, logging was a booming industry and everywhere you looked you'd see such naked hillsides, but now they were rare.
I ticked off the familiar points on the chart in my head as we flew north toward home: Niblack, False Island, Ship Island, Three Islands--and then there was the communications tower standing incongruously amidst miles of evergreens that marked Meyers Chuck.
The pilot circled above the village and I looked toward the north, toward the point of land where I live, and saw the white scar my dad's skiff was cutting through the water as he headed for "the Chuck" as it's known locally, to pick me up.
The pilot came in from the south, his pontoons splashing onto the water just past the island my sister had bought and will be building on later this summer: MAD Island, as it's now known.
As we taxiied toward the dock it was possible to speak again and the pilot pointed out Cassie, the village's post mistress, at the dock. "I wonder what she's doing? It's not mail day. Steve's in Wrangell, working on the boat," he added, mentioning Cassie's husband. It made me smile to think how up-to-date he was on all the local gossip, even though he lived in Ketchikan. It just showed how small SE Alaska's world was.
My dad picked me up and Cassie opened the post office for us to pick up last week's mail. We stopped back at my brother's floathouse and gave him the shopping he'd asked me to do while I waited for my plane to leave Ketchikan. Then we headed home.
It had taken days for me to travel from Juneau to our tiny little outpost, but there it finally was as we turned the corner into our little bight.
This is just a brief notice to let everyone know that I'm going to be away from home for the next two weeks, going even further into the wilderness than I am now, where there's still no Internet at all.
Direct all inquiries, questions to Katya, she'll be taking care of the place in my absence. Just to give her a human to boss around my dad has agreed to spend some time with her at my house regularly and keep her food dish topped up.
When I get back I'll have lots of new adventures to blog about! See you then.
Tara (A Daughter of the Walrus)
Tara Neilson (ADOW)