STORIES ALONG THE WAY: THANKSGIVING IN GILA BOX

 

ON our first Thanksgiving  Day as partners, 2014, Jim was fighting for his life at the Seattle Cancer Center while I rested at my daughter’s house in Portland, OR on my way back to Seattle from a Mayo Clinic Rochester, MN pre-surgery appointment for a back tumor with surgery scheduled for December 31. In 2015, I was recuperating from a 2nd 10 hour surgery in less than a year at the Mayo Clinic with Jim by my side.

It’s Thanksgiving Day and, though neither of us mentions it, we want a traditional turkey dinner. It’s not just the food; it’s the memories of families and friends, cousins and aunties and family time. We drive through the small town of Globe in eastern Arizona and stop at an open grocery store. In a front display, under a heat lamp, there are mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing in take-out containers and a turkey breast!! I add a can of cranberry sauce to the cart. Salivating with anticipation, we search for a camping spot, following directions on the ALLSTAYS app.

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We drive through Staffford, AZ passing fluffy, white cotton fields on both sides of the road in the flat countryside. Jim stops by the side of the road and I pick up stray cotton just to feel its softness. It’s sunny and unseasonably warm in the 60’s.

We turn left off the highway towards Gila Box. It’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land managed jointly with Arizona State Parks. A flat road stretches through barren land. There is no campground in sight. Hmmmm. Then the road turns hilly, and narrow.

IMG_2683  White-knuckled Jim drives the single lane road around cliffs with a huge drop-off. What am I getting us into? What if the campground is filled? What if there ISN’T a campground. Will we have to drive all the way out? Jim is already tired from driving. We cross several washes with warning signs about flash floods. The scenery is gorgeous—big and primitive. fullsizeoutput_7de

GILA BOX, RIPARIAN NATIONAL CONSERVATION AREA– Historically, riparian habitats within Arizona constituted only 2% of the state. Within the past 200 years, 95% of this acreage has been destroyed or altered due to clearing, channelization, over-pumping, improper livestock management. But in the Gila Box, cottonwood, willow and Arizona sycamore thrive. Mesquite trees form large woodlands, an increasing rare habitat type in the US.  

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IMG_2643Finally, we reach the small, 13-site campground. Each spacious site is near the edge of a cliff looking down to the river hidden by deciduous trees. The picnic table has a metal roof over it and a water spigot is close. There are rustic, but clean toilets. The camping charge is $5 per night–$2.50 for us with our senior national park pass. It is a beautiful, clear late afternoon. I sigh with the happiness that comes from knowing a peaceful, beautiful time stretches before us

Jim sets out our folding loveseat for sunset viewing while I transfer our Thanksgiving dinner to plates, gather silverware and napkins, and set the picnic table. After a few minutes pause to give thanks, we dig into our grocery store dinner, laughing with the joyfulness of an enchanted natural setting and better health. It’s filled with the tastes, smells and laughter of Thanksgivings past and the hope for future Thanksgivings. It feels that all is right with the world—our world at least. 

It is hard to get Jim to settle and relax and not move to a new spot every day, but he does in Gila Box. We stay three nights. We watch the sun rise each day through the large window at the foot of our bed and feel the warm sun filling the Sprinter. Jim gets up to make tea and coffee and slides the big side door open. I stretch and luxuriate in the feeling of being in a fluffy, warm bed outside in the clean air.

Eventually I get up and make breakfast, always enjoying my changing “kitchen” view of a new location.IMG_7003

 

There are vague paths that we follow down to the river one day. We both use walking sticks to traverse the large rocks leading down to the river. From there, the ground is a little flatter and scattered with cacti.fullsizeoutput_262

But, oh, the rocks, so many colors and shapes. We continue carefully down the hill. We hear the river, but can’t see it, hidden behind large trees. We walk over small, dry washes to the riverbank and sit down on the grassy slope. The river runs quickly down small rapids and smooth stretches below us. Across the river are giant clay coloured cliffs. One looks like a windowless castle. The Gila River is well known for float trips and there are strict rules to the size and type of boats depending on water levels. No rafters pass us this morning. We explore a little more and head back up the hill, my pockets bulging with rocks.

Each night as the sun goes down we enjoy turkey leftovers, sitting in our loveseat watching the magnificent desert colours unveil an hour before sunset. We climb into bed, our solar reading lamps recharged, enjoying the quiet and the peacefulness during our reading hour. Since we are both reading books about the area, sometimes we felt the need to read each other a section that touched us. And we sink into bed, happy, and so much in love.

The days are warm, the nights cool, but we don’t need the heater. The rising sun soon spreads its warmth through the windows. The stars “put on a show for free’ that we watch fromthe big window behind our pillows.

We read, meander, talk, laugh, eat and relax in the peaceful setting. We take short walks and two-hour hikes, two days in a row!! It feels so good to hike again. Granted, I am really slow, but TWO HOURS!! The hikes are important for both of us. Jim’s cancer treatment neuropathy in his feet and my various numb, paralyzed body parts and poor balance makes even walking a challenge.

We won’t soon forget Gila Box and how good a grocery store Thanksgiving dinner tasted on a picnic table in the great outdoors. Another wonderful Thanksgiving memory.

The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value. Theodore Roosevelt

 

 

STORIES ALONG THE WAY: THANKSGIVING IN GILA BOX

Stories along the way: I Have to Try.

Today is the memorial service for Anne P. Lanier, MD, MPH in Anchorage, Alaska. She was 77 years and died from a stroke suffered during the Gold Nugget Triathalon. No ordinary woman, she thrived on challenges including making her way in the mostly “good old boys” Public Health Service in the 1970’s. In Alaska, she foresaw the coming cancer crisis among the Alaska Native people, and established a registry to track data to better prevent and treat cancer. She was ahead of her time and as Dr. Greg Marino said, “her death is the end of an era”. Dr. Steve Alberts who came from the Mayo Clinic for her service said “Its so hard to try to put her accomplishments in a single paragraph,” as he contributed to her obituary. Retired colleague Jim Williams sent a message, “I was so surprised, I expected her to live to be 100.” We all did, especially her three children.

I met Anne when I worked at a remote hospital in Dillingham, AK. When I moved to Seward to work at the Alaska SeaLife Center, we kept in touch. I provided her with whimsical anecdotes about life at the Center, and she providing financial support. Knowing that I missed working with the Alaska Native People, she, along with Dr. Greg Marino and Dr. Kevin Stange finally wooed me back to Anchorage to develop a cancer program with the promise I could develop, along with it, a statewide palliative care program…my passion. At the time, Dr. Lanier, retired from the Public Health Service, headed up the Office of Native Health Research and it was staffed mostly with women researchers who knew of her dedication and willingly gave up other more lucrative career paths and uncertain funding to work with her. I spent the final 10 years of my career at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC). We also had some fun “not work” times together.

This past week, Emily Read and Ellen Provost, former colleagues, and I talked and texted ourselves through the shock of Anne’s death and planned to meet at the memorial service. Since I am retired, this is the only chance to celebrate Anne’s life with friends and colleagues and her family that I know from her stories. I planned to drive 4 hours to Anchorage on Saturday morning and back the same day or next morning. I no longer have a condo in Anchorage.

As body challenges arose two days before the service, Jim decided to take me. Then that plan became a challenge. I had spent too much time working in the uneven gardens, not using my poles enough, and my thrice surgeried knee complained….loudly. Rosa the stoma and the colostomy raised more protests and worst of all, the nerves in my lower body, as a result of the removal of the sacral hemangioma , poked my lower body at the most unpredictable times causing me to yelp or wince in pain….often. The more anxious I got, the more my 2 times Traumatic Brain Injury and 1 brain tumored head with it’s one sided hearing, kept telling me, “DON’T GO.” Even my bicycle -accidented facial muscles started twitching.

It’s Saturday morning. The service is at 2 pm. I simply can’t risk it. I feel vulnerable. It’s time to be sensible. I let Ellen and Emily know I won’t be there. Perhaps I’ll spend the beautiful day down at the cabin on the water thinking about Anne. But it doesn’t feel right. Am I being too conservative? Would it be foolhardy to try to get there? How do I balance needing to go to be among many people who loved and worked with Anne with not over- challenging my body?

A memory pops into my head. When Jim and I were in Seattle for his cancer treatment and I was recovering from major back surgery at Mayo Clinic, and learning to manage lower trunk paralysis, a problem appeared a week before we planned to head back to Alaska. I called the UW appointment line and a bright young voice answered. I explained the problem. “One appointment came open,” she said. “Today in 20 minutes.” “I can’t,” I said having just transitioned from a walker to a cane. “Yes you can,” she said with the courage of the young. “You can arrive 10 minutes late. Hang up now and get a cab. You can do this!” And I did it.

After trying three times to manage an online flight reservation system, I finally book a flight to arrive in Anchorage at 2:02 just after the service starts. A 20-minute flight is manageable. The four-hour drive is not. I can turn back at any time. I have a safety net.

I text Emily and ask her to save a seat in the back. I am nervous about the church being full and I would have to stand for the whole service.

“I’m flying,” I tell Jim who is ready to support me. I get ready for the 1:30 flight, about 25 minute drive from home: I take cannibus oil and Alleve; change my colostomy bag and put on my hernia belt; put on support stockings in case my ornery right lower leg decides to swell, add unattractive wide-heeled sandals for better balance; put on Depends; add a heavy pad and self-cath—I don’t know when a bathroom will be available. I pack extra supplies of everything in a large handbag including my knee brace. Life is not simple any more.

Waving goodbye to Jim down at the lake, I ask the street name to the Kenai airport. “Second light,” he calls. “I love you,” we say to each other. We say it often because we don’t know how much time we have together. Cancer and tumors and six decades make us aware of how fast our limited time flies by.

It’s a beautiful day and I’m on my way. This feels right. Suddenly fog surrounds me and stays as I near the airport. Will the flight take off? On the road to the airport, a new mother moose and her gangly-legged calves walk across the road.

I park the Mini and head into the terminal to check in. Note to non-Alaskans. Small planes, small airports in smaller cities and no TSA mean quicker trips…if all goes (rarely) according to schedules. Only one flight went out today because of the fog. I head to the restroom, I have time to cath one more time and limit fluids. Of course, stress makes me want to drink more water.

Time to board the Dash B-100 for the short flight. We walk outside, and up the stairs into the plane. The robust flight attendant dressed in black, including a logo miniskirt is efficient. We leave early and arrive early. Hopefully if I can get a taxi, I’ll arrive in time for the service. I calm myself with contingency plans. If the pain worsens I can find a hotel and fly home. Or I can go to the ER. But I have to try. If I don’t try, to me it means I give up more of my mobility freedom. “You can do this,” the words of the UW student echoes in my head.

Happily the plane arrives on the same level as ground transportation. I walk as quickly as I can, my cane clacking along the tile. I try to be careful–it is so easy for me to tumble. I reach the taxi stand with its brooding drivers lounging on their cabs. It’s a minivan for me and my handbag. I provide directions and since it is a short distance from the airport I give the driver a little extra as we pull up to the door. He thanks me and grumbles that he was in line for 90 minutes at the airport.

I made it. No.. …. I MADE IT!!

In the lobby, I gratefully chat with friends and acquaintances and move to the seat with Emily as the service gets ready to start. It’s unplanned, but our row is all my former colleagues at ANTHC. Gratefully, one woman hands out tissue as the service begins. The church is full of people that have worked and loved Dr. Anne Lanier as colleagues, friends and family. It is one of the most beautiful services I have attended and good to share grief with others. From her new place, I know Anne loved it.

I tried and made it. Everyone would have understood if I didn’t. But not me. I don’t like the phrase “It is what it is.” It should be “It is what you make it.” The young UW woman will never know how she inspired me.

Photo: Emily Read, Anne Lanier, Christine DeCourtney off work.

 

Stories along the way: I Have to Try.

The New Normal

“Used to be’s don’t count anymore. They just lie on the floor til you sweep them away.”

Today I celebrate a victory. Inconsequential for the world, uplifting for me.

I started running in the early 1970’s and it quickly became my “cup of coffee and cigarette”, my solace, problem-solving and “calmer down”. Two surgeries on one knee over two years slowed me down, but I was ever so grateful when I could return to running and carefully planned my runs. I ran mostly alone, just for me. An early riser, out the door for a run, back for a shower and at work before 8am with a big smile on my face to the groans of colleagues who weren’t so inclined.

Moving to Alaska’s remote community, Dillingham, made running very challenging, little pavement, no shoulders and…….bears. It wasn’t until “The Women who Run with Salmon” started training together for the “Klondike Relay” that I started running again and my 13 mile run that started at 11:30pm was glorious with the sky filled with shooting stars and the Milky Way. For many reasons, especially health issues my running commitment fell off until I have settled in Nikiski.

I delayed starting an exercise well-being routine, including walking, meditation back/spine Qi Jong. Recently I started meditating again, but I didn’t make walking a priority and was too tired in the afternoon.

But today that changed, Determined to make it a priority I got ready this morning. I did a few stretches, noting thatmy right leg did not respond to calf stretches, but my left one did so I know I was doing them. I wore boots for support and the muddy road. Off I went, even timing my one mile planned walk. Along the way, my right leg started whining and complaining, but I did not listen and insisted that it come along. By the end my toes wouldn’t bend correctly in rebellion but I made it!! Funny, a mile in 23 minutes feels just as grand as a 13 mile run in the middle of the night!! A shower and grateful meditation followed. Who knows maybe sometime, I might even be able to slowly jog that mile!!

 

The New Normal

Stories along the way: Malaspina Ferry Sitka to Haines, Alaska

 

The Sitka ferry dock is seven miles from downtown and, in the Alaska way, the taxi charges “per head.” Downtown is icy, a plague of the freeze/thaw Alaska cycle. Thankfully I have my walking sticks with me. We see the Fearsome Four from the ferry, whose ages I have downgraded to mid-20’s. We’re going to a Lounge,” they say. I think I am a mother figure to them, maybe it’s the traveling pearls or the red silk scarf.

We slip and slide to the Highliner Coffee Shop, a favorite of mine. With purchase I get my own special Internet code for 90 minutes. Jim enjoys a hot chocolate (with whipped cream) and a warmed blueberry coffee cake while I type away silently cursing the lack of high speed Internet in Alaska. I get spoiled in Portland and Salem.

Jim and I taxi back to the ferry just in time.  As the elevator door closes, I see my glove on the ground. A burly arm reaches out and stops the elevator door from closing so I can fetch it. The passenger list now exceeds 300 with the addition of more happy athletes from Sitka and Mt Edgecumbe (which is a respected boarding school for primarily Alaska Natives but open to all). It’s lasagna for dinner, which Jim can never resist and so we find a corner of the cafeteria as the din increases with the new passengers. Juneau is 10 hours away and I can’t imagine the teens will sleep.

On the way back to our cabin, we encounter the Fearsome Four who have commandeered the no-wi-fi-no-sleeping-no-sitting-on-the–tables computer room, sleeping bags already on the floor and the lights out. “We are so tired of kids,” says one of them. Ironically they have left that age group just a few short years ago.

We retire to our “stateroom” for the night as it is the only corner left uninhabited. During the night we hear “call-outs” for Hoonah and Juneau. In the early hours we feel the ferry moving more and we sway in the beds. Squeaking noises appear around the cabin as the strain of the increasing seas rock the ship. Jim makes tea and coffee (a must) carefully pouring the boiling water over the coffee in the strainer. He’s much better at it than I am.

Jim heads to the deck anxious to see what is going on with the weather. He comes back quickly. “You have to see this,” he says. The ferry is eerily quiet now as the teens left in Juneau and we head to front row seats in the forward lounge. The wind whistles through the ship.

The seas are wild with huge waves and whitecaps everywhere. The front windows are covered with sea spray and it is hard to see through them. There are only a handful of passengers in the lounge and everyone is watching the ferry bounce in the violent seas and wind. The ferry’s engines never quaver and it proceeds forward. Suddenly I see a black hooded shape moving outside the windows trying to get to the bow. He has a hard time, buffeted by the waves and turns back. Sometimes a crewmember goes to the bow and so it’s really bad when he can’t get there.   He has hard time pulling the door from the deck open and comes into the lounge. It’s one of the Fearsome Four, the redhead!! “I couldn’t make it,” he says.

A stocky, balding man in a t-shirt sits in one of the chairs casually watching the ferry’s progress and laughing at the Fearsome One. He is obviously a frequent ferry traveler. The stocky man doesn’t change his relaxed position and laughs quietly.

“I keep thinking of Harry Chapin’s Dance Band on the Titanic,” I tell the Fearsome One. “ I realize the blank look means he has no idea what I am talking about. “Your’re too young.” I turn to the stocky man, “but you do.” He nods and smiles. “Ok now you will have it stuck in your head for the whole day,” I tell him.

We pack the “stateroom” consolidating as much as possible to make one trip to The Grey Panther then go back up top to watch the ferry plod forward. There will be a two-hour delay as the captain searches for a different route to avoid the worst of the high seas. Jim and I have both been in smaller boats in high seas and they are not pleasant memories, but it’s fun to watch now. No one panics about the delay—this is Alaska and delays are part of life.

What shall I do with the little bouquet of flowers that has made me so happy in the cabin? I know the young woman in the lounge has too many things to handle with her baby. I walk down the hall and see a dark-haired youngish crew woman seriously studying her clipboard. “Would you like these flowers?” I ask. “You don’t want them?” she asks surprised. “I’m leaving the ferry,” I said “and want to give them to you.” She looked from me to the flowers. “I love them!” she said. “I’ll take them to my cabin.”

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Back in the lounge Jim and I sit near the young woman with her baby and we chat in the casual Alaska way. The happy baby has a beautiful quilt and crocheted blanket made by her grandmother and great-grandmother. She is traveling to Haines where her husband is running their heli-ski operation from February to May 1. Until the baby arrived she was his partner. He has not seen his daughter for a month now and she reflects how much harder it is being in total charge of this little life. Their home is in Montana. She admires my black lowtop boots wanting to know the brand. It makes me feel a little younger. She points out a spot on the coast, “We had a house there until last year,” she said. “But it was so hard to get water. When girl friends came to visit and constantly flushed the toilet, I kept thinking, that’s 2.2 gallons!” I decided not to tell her about my stay at the Buddhist temple in Santa Fe that does not allow you to flush unless absolutely necessary. I notice a tiny bottle of nail polish on the window ledge–from the teens. Jim said that there will be a pile of “left-behinds”

I watch an old man sitting near us. In Sitka while we were at the dock he struggled to the bow and took some photos. I am curious, he’s not a novice. Now I watch as he studies the ferry’s course and goes back to sitting near us in the front row. Finally he puts on his scarf and eventually his worn jacket. I know he has a story but time……..

Shore call, time to go and we head down to the car deck and to The Grey Panther. The Fearsome Three hug each other. Surprisingly the black pick-up truck in front of us from Virginia belongs to one of them, while the long-curly haired man climbs into the Sprinter beside us. It has a Utah license plate. We wave goodbye and drive off on to the dock passing a truck with a rocking chair and skis. The Third member, in a white car pulls up with a Texas license plate next to the pickup truck and wait for the Sprinter—not quite ready to say goodbye to their new friends in the Alaska Frontier. That’s just the way Alaska is……..

We drive around Haines a little and eat at the Chilkook Bakery and Restaurant that serves Thai food. And has British soap in the washroom. Awww Alaska. We notice a Tiny House for sale

We’re getting close to home now, spending a night in a hotel before we tackle the 1,000 miles and plan to leave early for the 400 mile drive to Tok where the temperature is expected to reach -35 degrees. Then onto Grandview overlooking the Matanuska Glacier to see friends we never get to see often enough. We will reflect on our ferry ride as we absorb it as another wonderful adventure.

The Shooting of Sam McGee

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,

And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;

With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,

A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;

While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —

Then you’ve a haunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.

Robert Service

Stories along the way: Malaspina Ferry Sitka to Haines, Alaska

Stories along the Way: Malaspina Ferry, Ketchikan to Sitka

The quiet calm of the ferry changed in Ketchikan as 200+ high school athletes, coaches, teachers, chaperones and fans boarded the ferry to Juneau for basketball tournaments. It’s Alaska’s version of “March Madness”, a tribute to the NCAA basketball playoffs. It’s the highlight of the year for Alaska’s hundreds of small communities not connected by roads where basketball is king. Wrestlers, dance/cheer teams are part of the mix. Extended family members come along to support them including grandparents, aunties, parents, siblings and small children.

 

They take over the ferry and can be found in every nook and corner draping their flexible bodies over chairs, tables and the floor. The air is filled with excited chatter showing their happiness to be with friends and on the way to the much anticipated tournaments. Alaska teens are at home in boats and small airplanes as their mainland counterparts are in school buses.

In the forward lounge, adults sit near boxes of Costco food, fruit and vegetables. A teen happily munches on a red pepper as she walks down the aisle. But the vending machines receive constant visitors.

 

They take over the non-functioning bar with large blow up mattresses and sleeping bags (in the old days, when I traveled to the villages, we were lucky to get a smelly gym mat on the floor). They manage to get video games on the TV.

Like teens everywhere, they dress in jeans, sweats, hoodies and logo t-shirts proudly proclaiming past tournament victories. The local fashion touch is x-tra tough rubber boots folded down to the height of ankle boots.

They lounge in the computer/study room even though there is no wifi. Sitting on tabletops next to “do not sit on table” signs, their happy chatter is nonstop.

I admire their casualness with each other and between the sexes, far different than my ‘60’s high school days. Though, in general, it’s still groups of girls playing cards together and groups of boys playing cards and games like Risk.

Its not all fun though. Periodically, an announcement is made requiring a certain school to gather in a location for a study meeting. Teens periodically complete assignments by themselves. I see an advanced Trig book on top of a pile. Good grades are a requirement for sports.

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A boy sits reading a paperback, ignoring the chatter around him, a girl sits on the floor deep in homework, a tall young couple tries to find a private corner to no avail and resort to sitting next to each other in the corner of the cafeteria (I simply can’t call it a café) his arm around her trying to coach the practiced pout from her face.

They seem to fill every inch of space– in the lounge with reclining seats where sleep is allowed, favoring the floor beneath a row of seats. The tail of a camo sleeping bag moves like a sea lion; a fully clothed couple squeeze into floor space sharing a sleeping bag. Up front girls pointedly blow up their giant mattresses that only fit beneath the front windows. The navigation rule is lights off at sunset and the darkness deepens. A couple of cabinless passengers manage to find places to sleep, the three across seats providing a little comfort. They curl up in their clothes to sleep, covering themselves with a coat.

As girls jump up and down on the bench seat in the cafeteria joining and leaving the card game and conversation, retired high school teacher Jim, says “I retired from this.” But surely sitting next to a bouncy dance/cheer team is not all bad.

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These are a good bunch of kids, and it does my heart good to see the upcoming caretakers of the world. They are smart, fit, happy and boys and girls both play sports……and never stop talking. More schools will join the ferry in Kake, Petersburg, Hoonah and Sitka. There are weary eyes this morning as sleep was short, but soon they perk up and the chatter picks up speed. Even the ferry crew is delighted to have the enthusiastic teens join the trip.

And now the passenger update, though we lost a few in Ketchikan including a snorting, rattlely truck and semi truck that carefully left the car deck with its load of goods for Ketchikan. Jim received a PA call to move our Sprinter on the car deck, so now it is parked next to a Sprinter of the same colour.

  • plaid flat golf cap is wearing the same outfit and has had a hot dog and fries for dinner for the last three days that he eats with relish (ha ha). I have not been able to catch the title of his book
  • The attractive couple lives in New York and left Alaska three years ago, originally from Biloxi, Mississippi. She was a nurse at ANMC, Providence, and Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. They miss Alaska “Who travels to Alaska in the winter?” he laughs. They will leave the ferry in Juneau and fly to Anchorage for a few days, talking about the city they love.
  • Ms booging -black -Mountain –Hardwear-coat still steps outside regularly for a smoke, but is alone and looks sad.
  • A threesome, husband, wife mother help the bright crocheted hatted mother and her cane as the ferry rocks. We are now on regular greeting status. They get off in Sitka
  • The smartly black dressed flat golf hat man walks around the ferry. I did notice that he slept on three-seats amongst the teens and doesn’t have a cabin. He wears his NorthFace back pack.
  • A table of four late 20’s-early 30’s men sit at a table in the noisy cafeteria next to Jim and me. Two joined the ferry in Bellingham, –I recognize the dreamy-eyed long curly haired man, but the other two came aboard in Ketchikan and quickly found new friends. A stocky knit capped man T-shirt says “dark seas” while the fit red-head next to him wears a hoo doo T-shirt. There is no alcohol sold on board so their laughter and talk is pleasant.

 

We stop in Wrangell for departing passengers and pick up another school team. There’s little snow compared to Ketchikan’s fresh foot of snow and a little blue peeks through the clouds. Like most of the small SE towns and villages the houses are near the water that backs up to the forested mountains with some climbing a small distance in the hills behind them.

Walking back to our “stateroom” from the cafeteria, I pause again at the painting of an Alaska Native woman and child by the well known artist Claire Feyes that is a gift to the captain and crew for her “safe journey” aboard the ferry. There are many items around the ferry that tell of its decades of service and there’s plenty of time to search them out—including this 1969 nuclear accident warning. Next to the purser’s desk, there is a handout of the ship and its mechanical makeup. Jim is quickly absorbed in it—“it burns 5gallons of fuel a minute.”

Jim and I head back early to our “stateroom” missing the peace and quiet of the ferry yesterday but also a little caught up in the excitement of “March Madness.”

Monday morning dawns bright, cold and windy with Jim reporting back to me in the cabin where I am enjoying a second cup of tea. The nice hammock rocking of the ship is also a little brisk. Jim said the teens are out running around on the decks in the wind, as only teens will do. I see a few pairs of shorts and flip flops in the cafeteria. The port side windows are covered with salt spray. This morning’s passenger count is 254 though it seems like much more!! I sit on a couch next to the purser’s station, (a quiet spot) and love the sound of the brass bell chiming on the quarter hour and watch it being wound again this morning.

A girl stops at the station concerned about the lack of wifi so she can consult a dictionary. “Don’t you have an app?” he says but gets a loaner dictionary for her.

Sitka is up next, one of my favorite places and we have a 3-hour layover. Who knows who will join the ferry there! My favorite walk in rain or shine, is the Totem Forest, a national park. I always walk it when I come to Sitka with it’s beautiful totem poles and tall, tall trees that were here when the Russians invaded the area. But, I don’t think I can make the walk this time. Next time for sure!!

 

Ferry sails from Sikta at 1615hours

 

Stories along the Way: Malaspina Ferry, Ketchikan to Sitka

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

Jim’s Love Sweater 6 and Alberta Arts

We’re off again shortly heading to Astoria, OR and ever north moving closer to home in Alaska. It’s been a great few  days with Andy, Jennifer, AbbyTabby and Daisy the dog.

They live in the Alberta Arts district of Portland and right around the corner of  their early 1900’s house is a street filled with small shops, all kinds of food and murals. I so love seeing the young women entrepeneurs and their success ful little shops!

Resale items are always interesting and Portland is no different, Why, I think looking at an halibut tail and a uh um hat rack? How about your ATM. Boring? This one lights up at night.

Jim did a little home improvement with Andy’s help. I like to keep him entertained so Jen and I can go play.

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Today we walked to the waffle shop and then I went on to the knit shop, Close Knit for some desperate help to finish the back of Jim’s sweater.

I figured Monday morning would be light but I was wrong, the little door bell tinkled constantly. I waited while she helped two older “Pussy Hat” supporters, gathered some yarn to continue on with my blanket whichis 6 inches long but Jennifer’s is almost done. Inspiration comes in many ways.

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Finally my turn and she quickly ripped out (gasp) the offending two rows and then showed me how to shape the armholes to finish the back. She loved the story of the sweater and invited me to attend the Wednesday night knitting group, but alas it’s time to go.

I walked back to the house taking little shots of the Alberta Arts District, so lively, so supportive of all people. Even the pest control for the attic squirrel “Nature First Pest Control only hires vet, retired police and fire fighters.

Jim’s Love Sweater 6 and Alberta Arts