Stories along the Way: Aboard the Malasprina ferry, Bellingham to Ketchikan

Cold, rainy Bellingham. Last minute errands before mandatory 3 hour line wait for ship boarding. Feeling rushed. In Target an agile 70+ Japanese man motioned me to his line and began scanning my items. Suddenly he started to softly sing “oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day” from the musical Oklahoma. We sang it together. He knew all the words I hummed the parts I can’t remember. “Thank you,” I said as he handed me my receipt and I walked out with happy spirits. Thinking back, he had probably been interned as a child during WWII, a shameful event.

Scheduled to sail at 6pm from Bellingham, WA, we arrive the mandated three hours prior to departure and line up in the vehicle staging area glad we aren’t the dogs sniffing cars or working in the cold, driving rain. We’re sailing to Haines, AK as we head home to Nikiski. There is too much winter on the Alaska Hwy to drive all the way. We will still drive about 1,000 miles through some of the coldest areas in Alaska, e.g. Tok (-25 degrees) stopping at friends along the way. The ferry is not cheap–$2400 for a simple, 2 bunk, windowless, no refrigerator room, the Sprinter (camped on the car deck), Jim and me. That’s with the winter and senior discounts. Haines is as far north as the ferry goes until late spring when a trip across Prince William Sound adds another $1000 to the fees. But we are adventurers so we look at every part of our trip as exciting. It gives Jim time to rest from driving. He realizes that he doesn’t like to drive long trips as he did before cancer (B.C.) and when he was younger. My little bouquet of flowers adds a dash of colour to the drab cabin with the traveling pearls draped over them at night.

The Malasprina, named for an Alaska Glacier, was launched to great excitement in 1963. It still makes the trip through the Inside Passaage in Southwest Alaska carrying vehicles, people and goods to destinations along the way. In 1997 it was supposed to be retired, but it is still sailing faithfully. They are large dated paintings of Alaska’s wild animals in 1960’s style hung during the Malasprina’s early years.

It holds 450 passengers but only 79 travel on this trip. When you live in Alaska, you learn flexibility and patience quickly. If the ferry needs repairs the day before your departure, there are no options. The fare is returned and rescheduling is attempted, but “no guarantees”. There is no optional transportation when traveling with a vehicle until spring clears the highways of snow.

During the winter, Alaska residents are the main travelers. They know the Alaska Highway is too dangerous and welcome the time to sit back and watch the stunning scenery along the way or wander the decks, read and sleep There are strict rules about where you can and can not sleep for the traveler with a sleeping bag and lacking funds for expensive cabins. During late spring, summer and fall the ferry is packed with passengers traveling to the Last Frontier. Limited vehicle space requires reservations months in advance. Deck space is at a premium when tents are set up and the lounge is littered with remnants of “tiny living”. The ferries are a chance to do stopoffs at ports along the way continuing your trip another day when the ferry travels its regular route.

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I feel a little like an airplane traveler when an announcement is made that “we are waiting for a part and it should be here any minute.” Harry Chapin’s “Dance band on the Titanic” starts playing in my head. Two hours late we leave Bellingham…..without the part.

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We muster for the life jacket presentation in the café with it’s primarily meat and potatoes menu. When it launched in the 1960’s, an exquisite dining experience was part of the trip. It’s a ball-cap-plaidshirt-bluejeans-Carhart crowd with more men than women. As the saying goes, in Alaska the odds are good, but the goods are odd. Tattoos, sloganed-tshirts add to the mix. A couple of small families with young children, solo travelers and a few couples make up the passenger list. It’s easy to spot the occasional “old timer”. With his scraggly red beard, worn ball cap and semi-fingerless red gloves he represents the image of mining, logging and fishing Alaskans. The gloves are not to use his smartphone but as a result of long years of use. But then again, he might be a rocket scientist. Only 29 passengers attend the safety demonstration to the annoyance of the presenter.

Other passengers include a nicely dressesd couple reading NYTimes recommended books; a man wearing a plaid golf type hat and Northface Scandanavian sweater with two pairs of glasses around his neck—obviously a reader; a young couple with toddlers and singles in all adult ages.

Pets must remain in the vehicles on the car deck. Four times a day a 15 minute vehicle visit is announced. Dog owners rush to the car deck to feed, water and walk the barking dogs happy to see their owners. Several signs remind passengers to clean up after their dogs. One man gets out his dog’s dish and smells it ??? while holding his energetic dog on the leash.

We are soon in Canadian waters and a sign warns passengers without international cell plans they will face large charges. Luckily, I have a Canadian plan. However, for much of the trip there is no cell coverage and no wifi at all adding to the need to just…PAUSE.

There is no handout of a written schedule and the current schedule is posted at the purser’s station. I understand why when Hoonah is suddenly added to the schedule and Sitka says “To be Announced” Different signs pop up periodically including: tentative times for rough waters, a large group of high school students will board the ferry in Ketchikan bound for the basketball championships in Juneau leaving the ship in the wee morning hours, and movie titles and times.

Travel is tame now compared to the 1960’s and the 1970’s when the bar was the central meeting place filled with booze and smokers trying to “out tell” Alaska experiences. Joel McGinnes’ book Going to Extremes represents this Alaska well.

We fall asleep in our little cabin to the rhythmic sound of the churning engines with occasional swaying. We brought tea and coffee supplies in from the Sprinter last night and Jim makes our morning drinks

Leaving the cabin, a blue sky, sunny morning with a few cloud puffs and anthropomorphic white clouds in the sky greets us. After breakfast we go for a walk around the decks, breathing in the beautiful Alaska and Canadian air—cool, clean with touches of sea and forest. The ferry winds it way through narrow passages lined with tall evergreens and open seas. Very simply, it is beautiful in the most natural way. It’s too early for the whales’ journey from Hawaii to Alaska but the passing landscape is breathtaking.

A couple of women walk the decks around and around with a brisk pace, a man expertly jump ropes in the sun, a bar-hard woman expertly flicks her cigarette ashes on the deck since smoking is banned inside the ship. Jim heads for a nap, I realize how stressful driving in Seattle is for him and now he relaxes, or maybe it was my IKEA trip? I head outside and sit on a sun-warmed red life jacket container soaking in the peace. I forget the draw of the North until I come home again.

The day passes quickly with naps, reading, scenery gaping, and knitting. Jim keeps his binoculars handy to check out the surrounding waters and land.

A young woman dressed in black Mountain Hardwear gear on the deck outside the fore lounge happily boogies to her music with a cigarette in one hand and a water bottle in the other hand. The way she raises it to her mouth makes me suspect that it is “flavored” water. She chats with other smokers as they come by. A man walks along the outside deck with his cane and cigarette. A curly long haired woman sitting outside turns her book over to talk to a man who stops by. It’s windy now and the temperature is falling.

We pass the first communities we have seen, the Canadian Old Bella Bella on the left and New Bella Bella on the right. There are no roads and so float planes and boats provide the only access to the communities. A tall totem pole stands next to a dock.

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The fore deck is set up theatre style, with “no sleeping” signs posted. The ongoing movie that is offered is the finest National Geographic special. People gather for the 2nd film of “Sun Rise. Sun Set” as darkness ends the day. They linger to see the last bit of light surrender to the night.

Tomorrow morning we arrive in Ketchikan for a four hour stop after a 36hr trip from Bellingham. We’ll welcome excited high school basketball players as they casually travel on the ferry to Juneau. They are used to flying or taking a boat to their games.

We sail at 1130 hours.

Stories along the Way: Aboard the Malasprina ferry, Bellingham to Ketchikan

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