We left Bellingham on the MV Columbia, the flagship vessel of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. The Columbia aspires to a degree of elegance. At the stern of the ship there’s a formal dining room which has soft lighting, a view on three sides of the majestic fiord-like inside passage and tables with white linens. You can get a glass of wine with dinner. Our other ferry trips had been on the Malaspina, a ship with a more utilitarian ambience.
Jerry and I find that we like the Malaspina better. The arrangements on the Columbia tend to foster privacy; people are given space and can stay aloof from one another. One tends not to chat with fellow travelers. On the Malaspina it’s hard not to bump into other passengers. In the cafeteria you wait in line, crowded with others, while sweaty cooks man grills and steam tables, shout down the line to get orders, then slap food on plates, calling out: “Want potatoes? Want gravy?”
On the Malaspina the promenade deck circles the ship — 8 times around is a mile. The Columbia has only short stretches of deck punctuated by blocked accesses and stairs to other decks. Getting exercise is not so simple. The bar on the Columbia has only a few bar stools; it’s mostly booths so there’s not much opportunity to fraternize with fellow passengers.
This was the first time we had taken the dogs on the ferry. They hated it. Dogs have to stay in the car on the car deck where it’s dark and cold and the engine noise is deafening. There are no port stops for the first 36 hours of the voyage, so dogs can only be tended to at “car-deck calls” which occur about 3 times a day. Dog owners are allowed descend to the car deck to take their dogs out of the car and walk on the car deck for 15 minutes. This is the time they eat, drink and eliminate. Paper towels are provided to mop up the mess. Dogs want grass. They have strong inhibitions against using the metal decks. Our dogs ate, but some of the others wouldn’t touch either food or water. They retain urine until they can’t help themselves, and they look really miserable when they finally let go. Fluffy begged to get back in his truck.
I worried about the dogs most of the time. At the first stop in Ketchikan we took the dogs ashore for a few minutes in a howling gale and pouring rain. When we got them back to the truck they were sopping wet. I tried to dry them off with paper towels. Fortunately it wasn’t cold. After Ketchikan the stops were frequent and we were able to take the dogs ashore for their needs.
We talked to a few people on the voyage. They all belonged in the category of wandering men. Karl we met in the dining room the first night out. He was going to Alaska to visit friends. He was a small, spare man with a shock of gray hair. He was recently divorced. He wore a large cross around his neck and he told us he traveled about singing in churches. He spent a lot of time in the bar, where I believe he sang and played the guitar in the late hours, long after we had gone to bed. He did not seem to have any other occupation, although he gave us a business card which titled him “independent representative” but had most of the information crossed off.
We chatted with the bar tender. I like to sip a bloody Mary during the hour before dinner on the ferry; that’s a treat I allow myself aboard ship. The bar tender was an attractive young man with a wide smile– I guess in his 30’s. This was his first season on the ferry, but he had been a bar tender before that. He liked the job, but deplored the fact that he wasn’t allowed to accept tips. He had come to Alaska because of a girl, but didn’t like the winters. This was his next to last day on the ferry. Next he was going to Hawaii. But he said he would be back on the marine highway in the spring.
On the last day we talked to an amateur geologist. He was a retired fire-fighter, but he was still youthful and fit, probably in his early 60’s. He said that since retiring he traveled around the world teaching fire-fighting classes. His hobby was geology, and he was making a couple of trips to Alaska to study its geology. On this, his first trip, he was looking at the geology of the inside passage. Next year he would explore the interior. He said he had no family but lived with his mother. When he traveled he left her with one of his three married sisters. He showed us a big stack of geological maps.
I felt some relief when we drove off the ship in Haines. The weather on the 3 day trip had been mostly cloudy and the landscape, though lovely, was somber. As we drove northwest the sun was making brief appearances when clouds parted and the landscape was made golden by the autumn yellow leaves of the birches.
Forty miles out of Haines we crossed into Yukon. The scenery is majestic. The road winds through craggy mountains just beginning to have snowy peaks. We would drive for many minutes without seeing another car and the few dwellings beside the road were unoccupied, some closed for the season, some derelict and deserted. It’s a hard part of the world to make a living. At this time of year few places to spend the night are open. We headed for Destruction Bay on Kluane Lake where we know there is a comfortable year round motel and acceptable restaurant.
After we passed Haines Junction we suddenly heard a loud rumble in the back of the truck. We stopped to check the bed in case something had broken loose and was rattling about. Jerry found nothing, but tied down a few things. The noise continued and grew louder and more persistent. It began to sound alarming. It was like metal banging on metal behind the cab. We stopped more times as Jerry crawled under the truck to look at the drive shaft and some other bits that I don’t understand. He discarded one theory after another as the noise grew louder and angrier. But the truck drove along despite the ominous clanging. Jerry seemed mystified; he said he had checked everything and found no problem. He understands vehicles and their workings. He has never taken a vehicle to a mechanic. I said to myself: if it‘s something really bad he would know it, so I’ll chill out and stop worrying about getting to Destruction Bay.
After a while, Jerry said, “You know, there’s a piece of rubber gasket that attaches the canopy to the bed behind the cab. It’s loose, but it’s rubber and might not sound like that. I‘ll try to pull it off”
He stopped the truck and messed about behind the cab for a few minutes. He said he had managed to stretch the gasket but it was still there. When we started again the sound had changed. The mystery noise problem was solved. About an hour later we pulled into Destruction Bay. The lake was blue, there was a sharp, cold wind but the room was warm and comfortable. In the restaurant I had a little chat with the waitress about poutine, the Canadian national dish, which is French fries covered with gravy and cheese. The waitress spoke of it in ecstatic tones. She said it was heavenly, but not to be eaten when on a diet. She herself might have indulged too often. I thought my travel stressed tummy wasn’t up to poutine. Jerry and I split another menu item.
Destruction Bay is a truck stop, and by bedtime there were 4 parked flatbed trucks carrying oil drilling pipe. We saw trucks hauling oil drilling pipe all along the way.
The next day Jerry removed the loose gasket and we drove without incident to Fairbanks where we shopped for groceries and a few items from Home Depot to take to Manley.
The things one looks forward to sometimes disappoint, and the pleasures in life can come as a surprise. When it was time for dinner Jerry said we’d go to the Pump House! That’s Fairbanks’ high end tourist restaurant. It’s in an old mine pump house on the Chena River, decorated with rusty mining equipment and other souvenirs of Fairbanks’ past. We had an excellent dinner — crab cakes, prime rib with an ample glass of wine. We said sweet things to each other and held hands across the table.
The next morning we got up early, left the Golden North motel ($65 a night) and headed for Manley. That’s a 4 hour drive mostly over a terrible unpaved road. The scenery is vast and beautiful. We saw one moose along the road, the only large wildlife spotted on the trip.
The grass was knee high but our little house looked tidy and inviting. The dogs were overjoyed to be here. In only a few seconds they found their toys and began to pester me to throw things for them to retrieve. Fluffy brings the item back directly to be thrown again. Daisy, however, gets it and chews it while Fluffy looks on and whines. Jerry and I put stuff away. He started the Monitor stove for heat, turned on the water and gas, filled and started the hot water tank and uncorked a wine bottle. I cooked chicken for dinner. By 5 o’clock it was as if we had been here all along.