Wrangell

We only spent 30 minutes in Wrangell.  Given another few days for our trip, I would have stayed at least a night here.  It was Sunday afternoon and very quiet, but I imagine Wrangell is always pretty quiet.  I’ve been told they have a good selection of restaurants (compared to Petersburg, that is).  Here are some pictures.  

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The Ferry

Mom and I took the M/V Malaspina from Bellingham, WA to Petersburg, AK.  Here she is leaving Petersburg.
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We were originally scheduled on the M/V Columbia, which is apparently bigger and faster, but the Columbia was still down for winter repairs, so the Malaspina it was.  We’d reserved a 2 berth, outside cabin (with a window) but ended up with a 4 berth indoor.  This is the state ferry system, not a cruise line, so you take what you get. You can’t tell from the picture, but just to the left of the door was a small closet and a sink/mirror, and just to the right was a bathroom with toilet and shower.  The extra bunks came in handy since I had so many bags, prepared for 4 months in Alaska.

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The Malaspina had four decks-car deck, cabin deck, the main deck with cafeteria, observation lounge, bar and movie theater, and a smaller top deck with the solarium and recliner lounge.  Travelers who opted out of a cabin had the option of pitching a tent outside the solarium (a covered but open portion on the back of the upper deck, with heaters and lounge chairs) or sleeping in the solarium itself or the recliner lounge.

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Recliner lounge.  This guy really wanted to be in the picture.

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The bar was open from noon to 11.  I noticed the same people at the same stools the entire trip up from Bellingham, mostly young-ish single men.  Probably fishermen.  I was unsurprised.  The bar was pretty much one kind of Alaskan beer on tap, and a line of Crown Royal bottles, although Mom did manage to get a glass of white zinfandel.

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The forward observation lounge where Mom and I spent most of our time.  It was comfy and quiet and there was an outdoor deck in the front for watching for whales and bears (we didn’t see any).

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The cafeteria.  We brought along a cooler (there was an ice machine on our deck) and only ate dinner in here.  The food was good enough… nothing special, much the same as the food at the cannery I’m headed to, basic food cooked in large batches and kept under warming lights.  It was surprisingly inexpensive, about $30 total for each of us to have an entree with vegetables and share a piece of pie.  The view out the windows as you ate was, of course, lovely.

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There was ‘Alaskan’ art, maps, and quirky seafood/fishing advertisements and slogans everywhere.

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I didn’t get a picture of the ‘movie theater’… it was a small room with theater chairs and two large flat screen tv’s.  They played Alaska-themed documentaries during the day and feature films at night (Oblivion and Fast & Furious 6 on our trip).

All in all, the 48 hours on the boat was enjoyable, though I was starting to get antsy by the second day.  It was really cool to go up the coast so slowly, watch the land change from Pacific Northwest coast to Alaska mountains instead of going abruptly from one world to another in an airplane.  I think we paid about $800 for the two fares and the cabin (without cabin it would have been half as much)… not bad for a two day no frills cruise.  I highly recommend!

Coming Into the Country

Sometime early in the morning on the second night, as we slept the deep sleep of those on vacation, the ferry crossed over into Alaskan waters.  Hurrah!  

Mom woke me at 6 a.m. with the news that she could see Ketchikan in the distance.  I hurried up to the deck to watch as we came into port, looking for the Trident Seafoods cannery along the shoreline, where I spent a season working in 2001.  I’d been in Naknek earlier in that summer, my second year in the cannery there, and when the season ran down I transferred to Ketchikan, where the season was just getting started.  I remember flying in on the jet from Seattle after a 12 hour layover, and my astonishment at the lovely green islands between which the jet weaved gracefully as we came in for a landing over B.C.  Naknek is a flat, brown place of mud and mosquitoes, and I’d never been anywhere else in Alaska.  It felt like a gift and an extravagance, that beauty.  The bunkhouse in Ketchikan was a barge permanently parked along the channel.  It rose and fell with the tides and at night the cruise ships would sound their warning horns as they passed.  I started out in the patch line there, standing at a conveyor belt in the cannery picking bones and blood clots out of the cans of salmon before they were lidded and cooked in the giant ovens, 16 hours a day hunched over a table made for tiny Filipina women, cold and miserable and lonely.  After a week they transferred me to the egghouse, where we were shrouded in rubber from head to toe, only our eyes showing above face masks.  We picked tiny pieces of I don’t even know what out of baskets of salmon roe.

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I made friends there, my three roommates all young American girls like myself, and another girl named Sarah who became my instant best friend, loved intensely for the duration of the season and never spoken to again afterwards.  We would dance to Madonna and mariachi music while we worked, tell jokes, learn Spanish and flirt with the teenaged Mexican boys.  At night we would all gather in the ‘boneyard’, a desolate expanse of broken down pallets, boats, old buoys, ripped up nets, and rusted out shipping containers between the bunk-barge and the cannery.  We’d dance on an abandoned boat trailer and drink tequila and raise hell.  I was 19 and I remember vividly my first ever hangover, going to work at 7 a.m. after 3 hours sleep feeling like a million dollars and smug about it until 10 a.m. break when the drunk wore off and I had 13 more hours to go, picking little bits of salmon innards out of tiny red eggs, small baskets of jewels, one after another after another all day, head pounding and hands shaking. Many nights the Mexican ladies would throw raucous dance parties in the narrow hallways of the barge.  I’d go out in stocking feet and yell at them over and over until finally I broke down and began to dance as well.  

 

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In the mornings I’d come out of the bunk-barge onto the gangway and look up the channel where the cruise ships were docked, my back aching from three months of factory work, and think… you bastards.  Every other Friday we’d strip off our rain gear at lunch time and RUN the mile into town on our 1 hour break, weaving our way through tourist throngs and standing in long lines at the bank to cash our paychecks, the building filling up with the stench of fish that was, by that point, embedded in our skin and clothes and hair.  I remember one afternoon wandering around Ketchikan town for pleasure, the only afternoon we had free, walking up Creek Street and getting a t-shirt at the Ray Troll store.  “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”…  I’d been involved in a hopeless love affair before coming to Ketchikan, up and down the coast from California to Portland to Seattle and carried into Naknek and when I got to Ketchikan I thought my heart was broken but something had happened to me there, all on my own for really the first time in my life, an adventure it turns out when I thought it would be nothing but drudgery and loneliness and work.

 

 

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Mom and I had an hour and a half to wander around Ketchikan before the ferry left again, and I was excited to see the town with older eyes.  We took a cab down to Creek Street and had breakfast where a very young waiter talked dreamily about moving to Seattle after the season while I talked dreamily of moving to Alaska.  He had floppy Bieber hair and tattoos on his forearms and I wore Xtra-Tuf boots.  Two dreamers passing each other in opposite directions, searching for a home over the horizon.  We wandered up Creek Street, a row of houses built half on the banks of Ketchikan Creek and half perched out over the water on stilts.  In the summer the smelting salmon run up the creek and the neighborhood used to house a thriving red light district.  Prostitution wasn’t outlawed until 1954.  It was Sunday morning and everything was closed, but the hordes of cruise ship tourists were as I remembered.  We didn’t have time to go visit the Trident cannery but I guess those memories are best left as they are, half horrified dread and half longing for a much younger, much more innocent version of myself and the vision she had of the world that seemed both wider and scarier than the world I see now.  

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The ferry left Ketchikan at 9 a.m. and we had a long, hot, itchy day on the ferry, anxious to get to Petersburg.  Thirty minutes layover in Wrangell was more than enough to see the town, a sleepy Sunday afternoon drowsiness in the air and nothing open, the mountains sharp and snow-peaked on the horizon.  Only forty miles to Petersburg and our next leg of the journey.  To be continued!

*Coming Into the Country is a book about Alaska by John McPhee.  I haven’t read it yet.

Silently Scuttling on the Ceiling of the Sea*

The first night on the ferry, I woke at 3:30 a.m. Alaska time to the feel of the ship rolling heavily side to side. I couldn’t see out, as we’d been given an inside cabin. Claustrophobia got the better of me and I couldn’t go back to sleep without seeing what was going on outside, so I got dressed and went up on deck. The ship was quiet – no one around but the cleaning crew and the galley staff, prepping for breakfast. Outside I was surprised to find we were sailing up a narrow channel in calm water – the rocking created, I suppose, by currents. No wind, no waves, just the silent ferry cutting through the still black water, leaving barely a ripple. The islands were silhouetted black against the pre-dawn sky, close to both sides of the ship. No signs of habitation but an occasional buoy. The land was ghostly still, the shore as wild to my senses as it must have seemed to the first white ‘explorers’ coming up the channel. All was silent yet palpably alive and I breathed into the quiet presence, the anxiety I’ve carried all winter in the city finally starting to fall away. I went to my bunk and was rocked back to sleep by the motion of the sea.

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We steamed up the Inside Passage all day, in various channels and sounds between Vancouver and Prince Rupert, B.C.  The islands surrounding us didn’t seem much different from Whidbey and the San Juans near where I lived on and off as a child.  Beautiful, but familiar.  In the afternoon we passed Bella Bella, a small predominately First Nations village, subsisting on fishing and logging.  On one beach was a small cluster of cheerful, red-roofed buildings fronted by a tall totem pole, what looked to be Raven on top, presiding with wings spread.  We crossed Milbanke Sound, rolling drunkenly across the open water, and into Princess Royal Channel and here the country began to feel different.  The mountains on the islands higher, topped with snow.  Waterfalls coming down vertical cliff-faces and tumbling into the sea.  All of us looking for the flash of white along the shore that could be the Kermode or spirit bear, but no wildlife sightings except some porpoises playing off the bow and a variety of birds skittering across the top of the channel in small flocks.  

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I spent the day writing, napping, snacking, and reading. Point of Direction by Rachel Weaver, about a woman on the run from grief and guilt, who meets a fisherman while she hitchhikes north on the Alcan Highway. They move to a lighthouse on a tiny island where things happen. Passage to Juneau, part memoir and part history, about a man who takes his sailboat up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau on the same route as us. A bit too verbose for me (435 pages could easily have been 300) but lots of commentary on the land around us and the history of the area, both Native, European, and geological. And finally started The Plover by Brian Doyle, sequel to Mink River (fav. book ever) about Declan’s voyage West from Oregon into what he calls the continent of Pacifica. 

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It was a good day.

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*”silently scuttling on the ceiling of the sea” is a quote from The Plover

Passage to Juneau*

Today my Mom and I leave on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry, bound for Petersburg, Alaska. The trip takes just about 48 hours. I’ve been wanting to take this trip for 10 years. Besides the perk of not having to be on an airplane, I suppose I’ve romaticized being on the water. All those years in the cannery and the office, watching the fishing boats pull anchor and head downriver to places I’ve never seen. And even further back… I remember watching the Everett harbor out the window of our house near the Mukilteo ferry, my eyes glued to the binoculars for hours. Stories my whole childhood of my parents, aunts, grandparents shipping out on airplane carriers with Navy. My Uncle Darrell deep sea fishing off the coast of Florida. All the stories of the beauty of the water, and the scary things that can happen. Although realistically, dying in an airplane would be ‘better’- in the event of an airplane crash, you’re probably gonna be dead before you know anything has happened- even going down on a boat seems more romatic. Being taken into the arms of the mother and all that. We have an entire mythology about the sea- not so much about the gods of the air, machines (explosions). Going down with the ship has a long, familiar, and strangely comforting history.

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I’m pretty sure we’ll make it to Petersburg, though. We boarded the ferry in Bellingham, WA at 4 p.m. and cast off at 6. Yesterday, my stepfather Jerry said we seem very calm, considering what we were about to undertake. I do feel calm, but in the sense that it doesn’t seem real, because I want it too much. Too good to be true. I spent close to 6 months in Alaska last year- away from roads, traffic, billboards, chain stores, strip malls. I didn’t watch TV and for half the time, had no cell phone. I was cut off from a large portion of modern society and in it’s place was just – Alaska.

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In Bristol Bay it was the tundra, a flat brown land stretching to the horizon, lakes and ponds everywhere, the Naknek river, the Bay itself. A place more water than land. The sky above an arched dome deeper than the sky in the south. The river, tidal, dancing in once a day and rushing back out again, 25 feet of water down to the mud. Bears on the way to the bar, red foxes on the way home, eagles and ravens scavenging low tide for scraps. In Petersburg, coming in on the airplane from Juneau we broke the cloud cover and below was a jeweled land of blue water, underwater ridges creating phosphorescent green swirls on the surface, and the islands rising gently from the water, green tree cover from peak to shore. It was sea lions swimming parallel to me as I walked the docks on the way to work, and a murder of crows in the alder trees along the harbor where I ate lunch. Icebergs in Frederick Sound and kayaking through a forest of bull kelp. And the Aleutian Islands, a cold, wickedly magical land where the mountains came straight up from the sea, a sparsley inhabited chain of snow and ice belying it’s name as part of the Ring of Fire. Wild horses on a beach, eagles everywhere, the water a moody creature, the wind a living thing. A quiet there like I’ve never experienced.

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I could feel something coming alive within me in those places, in that quiet, in the closeness to the World, without the insulation of noise and movement and people. Going back to Portland in December felt like a kind of death. The noise cutting me off from a belonging that I’d just started to feel. It got so bad that one night in March I left my apartment at 10 p.m. and drove to the Sandy River and jumped in. The water was cold. I wanted it to be a revelation, a baptism, a cleansing, but it wasn’t enough. I started to acclimate to the noise and the concrete, even against my will. I suppose I’d like to find a way to feel that belonging even in the City, but today all I want is to get back to that quiet place. We are on the ferry now and as everyone boards I feel a swelling, tearful, from the soul gratitude. This boat is going to take me Home.

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*name of a book by Johnathan Raban