Sailing to the frozen north

We lined up for the ferry: the M/V Malaspina from Bellingham, Washington to Haines, Alaska.

Opening to the Malaspina cardeck

Opening to the Malaspina cardeck

The Malaspina

The Malaspina

The wait was so long that little communities formed along the lines of waiting cars.  We were supposed to board at 3 and depart at 6.  We actually got on the boat at about 5:30 and sailed shortly after 6.    While we were in line we watched police dogs sniff for drugs – they sniff the wheels.  Other bystanders told me drugs are sometimes hidden in wheels.

A lady a couple of cars in front of us had a dead battery.  A young man in line helped out with a portable jumper.  We chatted with an odd couple from North Dakota – a tall white haired man in late middle age traveling with a young Asian fellow whose English was fluent but hard to understand.  The tall man seemed to be in charge and it turned out that he was unaware that Fairbanks (where he was going) is a long way — about 750 miles — from Haines (where the ferry terminates) and that most of the drive is through Canada.  The young Asian man was in the military, transferred to Fairbanks.

A couple in the next line over had two pit bulls which their two children were walking on leashes around the parking lot. Their father was also in the military, traveling to Alaska from Texas for a new post.  The couple worried about whether their children and dogs would adjust to the 4 day ferry trip.  They drifted off to talk to another couple from Wisconsin whose trip was to deliver an open all terrain vehicle to a friend in Haines.  The man from North Dakota grew excited when he noticed the pit bulls, declared them dangerous, said people should not be allowed to have them and that the children were in danger. He said many pit bulls were shot in North Dakota.  The owners didn’t hear him, but when he began to shout in the direction of the dogs and children I started talking fast as a distraction about the drive from Haines to Fairbanks.

Down the line a woman wearing bright red lipstick locked herself out of her car.  She was thin and blond, dressed in a black stretch suit. She puffed hard on a cigarette as she paced up and down the line of cars, sometimes accompanied by a policeman, always followed by a barefoot little girl, about 4 years old with shaggy pale brown hair.  The child, completely unaware of her mother’s predicament, skipped and frolicked beside her.  The woman who owned the pit bulls spoke disapprovingly of the child’s bare feet.  An hour or so later a small crowd gathered as a policeman prised a wire over the car window’s edge and, after many efforts, succeeded in unlocking the car.  The woman with the pit bulls commented that thieves can do that in less than a minute.

Finally we were waved on board.  The trip lasted 4 days. As we roamed the ship, from the cafeteria to the observation lounge to the bar to our tiny cabin, we greeted the people we had met waiting in line.

I talked to the couple with the pit bulls.  Their dogs managed pretty well, though the trip is difficult for dogs which have to stay in the car on the car deck.  The car deck can be quite hot or quite cold. There are long periods when it is closed if the ship is not in port.  About every 8 hours passengers are allowed on the car deck for a half hour so dog owners can let their dogs out of the cars to pee or poop on the floor.  Of course the owners have to clean up immediately.  Jerry and I didn’t take our dogs because I thought it would be too hard for them.

The children of the pit bull people did well, except that the elder, a boy of about 12, developed a fever of 103 during the second night out when rough seas caused the ship to pitch and roll, then thud at the bottom of swells.  He was given antibiotics at an emergency clinic on board.  The next day he had recovered enough to walk the pit bulls around the parking lot in Wrangell which was the first stop.

The odd couple from North Dakota were everywhere talking to everyone, having their picture taken together, sharing a camera shooting the scenery.
It rained most of the time, but still the Southeast Alaskan landscape has a wild and remote beauty of mists floating through the fiords, gulls gliding along the waves and porpoises leaping.  If whales were sighted in the water or moose in the woods announcements were made from the bridge. I, too, took many photos.

along the way

along the way

along the way

along the way

a lighthouse in Canada

a lighthouse in Canada

The second night out Jerry and I decided to have a drink in the bar. We were warmly greeted by Tony, the bartender.  The blond who had locked herself out of her car was sitting at the end of the bar talking to a couple of men.  She was clearly very drunk.  Tony, a man in his 50’s, tall, thin, bald with a sudden, wide, face transforming smile, was concerned.  He seemed to know the blond, whose name was Heather.  She asked him to play his own CD, which he did.  I asked him what instrument he played and he replied, guitar.  As the music played a woman’s voice began to sing a song about stone soup and I knew I wanted to buy the CD.  When I held it in my hand I learned that Tony had produced it, had written all of the songs and sang some of them.  The CD is called “How Excellent and Civilized Are We,” and the band is called “The Preserves Festival Band.”



Heather was becoming troublesome.  She announced in a loud voice that some of us are lesbian and gay and transgender.  A man at the other end of the bar got up in disgust and left.  To change the subject Tony asked her the ages of her children.  She recited their ages, 5 of them, 27, 25, 23, 13 and 4.  She grabbed the beer of the man sitting next to her and downed it.  Tony quietly told her she was cut off.  He made her a cup of coffee, came around the bar, gave her a hug and gently sent her on her way.  She staggered out of the bar.  I remarked that I was concerned about the welfare of the 4 year old little girl.  Tony said he understood that Heather was traveling with a co-parent, another woman.

In a little while a pleasant, middle aged woman came in. She told Tony she was worried about Heather’s drinking because she was baby sitting the child and would leave the ship in Wrangell while Heather would go on for another 2 days to Haines.  Tony said he had thought that Heather was traveling with a partner, but the woman said they had only just met and Heather had asked her to babysit.  A few minutes later a man came in who said he had caught Heather just as she was about to fall down the stairs.

The next evening when Jerry and I stopped at the bar again I remarked to Tony that I had not seen Heather.  He said, “She’s not allowed in here any more.  I went and had a talk with her.  I told her she would lose her children if she kept this up.  I was very, you know, avuncular.”

At Petersburg the Purser called over the loudspeaker for Heather to meet her older daughter at the Purser’s office.  Jerry and I were in the cafeteria. We saw Heather there and a few minutes later a slim dark haired young woman came up to Heather and said, “Hi, Mom,” and they hugged each other affectionately.  Then she hugged the 4 year old who was warmly dressed and had pink, fur trimmed boots on her feet.  From time to time after that, until we ended our trip at Haines, we saw the dark-haired young woman with the 4 year old.  I hope all three of them are well and prosper.

There were lots of native people on board, traveling within Alaska for a few stops.  They chatted to each other about cousins and uncles and grandparents in each place the ship passed and I thought about how many generations of these people had lived in Alaska.  Jerry’s grandparents were all immigrants from Finland, and my mother was a naturalized citizen from New Zealand.  We don’t have the same kind of roots in the land that native people have.

The only stop where we could walk about on land was Sitka, not a usual port for this ferry.  That day the sun came out.  It shone brightly on the Russian Orthodox Church and the marina where many fishing boats were moored.

Church in Sitka

Church in Sitka

the Sitka marina

the Sitka marina

Sitka was the original capital of Alaska and boasts a statue of Alexsander Andrevich Baranov, the chief manager of the Russian American Company and first colonial governor of Russian America.

Colonial Governor of Russian America

Colonial Governor of Russian America

The next morning we disembarked in Haines, where we began our 2 day drive to Fairbanks.

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16 Responses to Sailing to the frozen north

  1. Marja-Leena says:

    Wow, that’s some journey! I followed your lovely photos and story with the atlas beside me. Was this your first ferry trip to Alaska? How do you like it compared to driving the whole way there and back? We have often thought of a trip like this where we’d take ferries there and then drive the whole way back – instead of a fancy cruise. Hope you have good weather while there and for your return trip – no snowstorms!

  2. Tabor says:

    Alaska is a rugged land and it is interesting the ‘rugged’ folks that you met on your cruise. I like people watching and talking to strangers. So sad about the alcoholic mother and the little girl. I fear that may not end well. Lovely photos.

  3. Hattie says:

    You are so adventurous. Wild places and wild people still exist.
    I would really like to take this trip some day,and maybe I will.

  4. Kay Dennison says:

    This sounds so interesting! I envy you this adventure!

  5. Islandcat2u says:

    Glad to hear that you have made your way up there. Sounds like the crowd was as interesting as the scenery! We’ll look forward to seeing you when you return to the island… C

  6. What incredible descriptions of the interior scenery, Anne. I’m hoping to make this trip sometime.

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    Oh Anne, well told and photographed. I am a ferry familiar (Newfoundland to mainland Canada) but 4 days!
    I would love to make that trip!
    Good luck on the drive.
    The photos are marvellous!

  8. Tessa says:

    I’m glad the trip has turned out to be as interesting as you had hoped, Anne. I’ve already talked the husband into the idea of taking that ferry, based on what you had said about it. But I am sorry to hear you had to leave the pooches behind.

  9. Lucy says:

    What a wonderful, vivid account, and what an adventure. It felt like I was watching a film!

  10. So much appreciate your fulsome description of the journey, one I’d never make. Feel all tripped-out myself which makes me especially appreciative of traveling along with you.

  11. pauline says:

    What an excellent accounting. I agree with Lucy – it was like watching a documentary. I was sorry when it ended – what happened next?

  12. annie says:

    Love the story of the trip and the photos. I have a pit bull, she is the most wonderful dog ever and loves people! She even has her own website 🙂

  13. Roberta says:

    Two thinks strike me. One, I had no idea that ferries were so large. I always imagined them to be much smaller. And I didn’t know that a ferry trip was ever more than a day. I thought they just took you on a short little trip across a relatively small body of water. I enjoyed your story. You have a way of bringing things to life.

  14. Natalie says:

    Anne, you bring all these characters to life – you should make a movie of this story! I got very concerned about the little 4-year old girl but maybe her older sister will look after her. I hope so. Enjoy the rest of your journey.

  15. Dick Jones says:

    It’s a riveting account, Anne. You must have been taking notes as well as those photos! I look forward to the next installment.

  16. Arlene says:

    This post is wonderful! The descriptions of the people, the settings, and the terrific photos–very enjoyable.

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