The Wilds of the Inland Passageway

By Ernie Witham   |   September 12, 2019

Cold?” Jackie pointed at the overhead heaters in the solarium ceiling on the back of the Alaskan ferry, Columbia. “With those things on the other night I felt like a French fry.”

We had met Jackie earlier at breakfast. It was so crowded we had to sit at the counter. A young construction guy beside Pat told us: “All the dignitaries are here today.” We looked around at a sea of denim and far-from-new fishing caps. “Everybody who’s anybody is here on Sunday mornings. Good place to make connections.” We took his word for it.

Jackie had taken the ferry out of Seattle on her way to Haines, Alaska, where she planned to retire after her long career in Hollywood. “Trained animals for movies. Worked with dogs, wolves, bears, and big cats. Only time I ever got hurt was from a dumb horse.” Jackie and the young man then exchanged some rugged back country hunting and fishing stories, many involving grizzly bears. Pat and I told them how wild and crazy Santa Barbara was during events like Solstice. “Face painting. Beads. And Brazilian dancers everywhere!” They were wide-eyed.

Now we were taking the overnight ferry to Juneau. We had a berth the size of a telephone booth with a porthole that overlooked a hallway and a constant flow of heads. People who didn’t want to spring for a berth could sleep under the French fry warmer solarium like Jackie had been doing, or they could pitch a tent under the stars on the fantail. One guy, who strung a hammock in the far corner of the boat, was reading a book. Probably: “How to survive a moose attack.” You meet the most interesting people in Alaska.

Pat and I were traveling with her sister Sally and husband Bob. We grabbed four seats in in the front observation deck on the seventh level. It was like being in an iMax theater with icy blue water and snow-capped peaks all around us and the occasional sea plane or eagle flying by. There are only a few ways to travel the Inland Passage. Fly, drive through Canada, take a chummy little cruise ship with 5,000 tourists, or ride with the locals on the ferry. The locals sacked out, read books, or played board games. They probably already had the 500 photos I was now taking.

“We’re going to be coming to The Narrows soon,” Bob and Sally told us. So, we bundled up and headed out on deck. “Yahtzee,” someone yelled behind us. I waited to hear the game being swept angrily from the table with yells of “Cheater!” But maybe that just happened when I lost.

Going through The Narrows is like an extremely slow, perfectly flat, slalom race. There are gate-like buoys and blinking channel markers and the ship has to head to port to go through two of them, then head to starboard to go through the next set, then repeat. I’m not sure if we got disqualified if we missed a gate or not but there was a spotter in the bow watching for rocks and sleeping whales. Several times we were so close to small islands I could almost touch the trees.

“No hanging off the side of the ship,” a booming voice said over a loudspeaker.

After The Narrows, we watched the sun set several times behind the mountains. “There she goes! Oops, notch. There she goes! Nope. Another notch. This time for sure! Nope.”

Boating makes one thirsty, but they only allow the consumption of alcoholic beverages in the dining room or in your private berth, so we chose the dining room. Bob and Sally quickly ordered, but Pat and I weren’t hungry. “You have to order food to get booze,” the waiter told us. So, we ordered a cup of chowder and eleven glasses of wine.

After dinner, Bob and Sally retired to their berth, reminding us we had to disembark at six am. We said good night, then grabbed a couple to-go coffee cups, filled them with “berth-only-wine” and sat outside as the Columbia pulled into the town of Petersen. It was ten pm. Dusk.

“Why do you suppose people move to Alaska?”

“Just for the halibut?”

Pat groaned and headed off to our berth.


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