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.
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.
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.
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.
*name of a book by Johnathan Raban