“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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
“Vintage harbor seal,” the tag said. “$14.95.” He was tucked into a glass showcase, the only one of his kind among lots of knickknacks in the huge antique store in Gruene, TX. How did he get there? He’s beautifully made with the right neck angle and big, warm eyes. What is his story? Alaska? Canada? How did he end up here? I walked away, ready to leave the story and the seal behind. But, I just couldn’t. He seemed so lonely in his little corner. I went to the counter to get the clerk to unlock the case. A young Texan, chatty and helpful, but no idea the origin of the little guy. I bought him and brought him back to our current spot in New Gruenfel . And now he’s perched right next to me and seems a little happier, even though he doesn’t even know he’s going home to the North.
We drove into Maob “the back way” which is almost the best scenic byway I have ever been on. A sunny, warm day enhanced the experience. This is our 2nd visit in year, but a big part of the plan was rest. We love the Grey Panther, but seem to drive around too much. So we booked into a well-rated economy hotel for a few nights. Since leaving Sheridan, I had continued to knit a few rows and noticed a couple of very large errors. Keep them? Or visit the local yarn shop for help?
The door to Desert Threads, was open on the warm day and I went in. I wandered around a bit as customers were being waited on. Yarn shops have their very own ambience, and Desert Threads was no exception. Beautiful yarns, samples of knitted items and specialty items such as a handmade leather needle cases, felted book marks and stunning felted scarves filled the small store. I approached the counter and was greeted by Cathy, one of the co-owners. Her warm welcome eased my anxiety. As she looked at the knitting, she decided the two big mistakes needed help, which she graciously started to correct.
In the meantime, I met 2nd grader Danny playing with complicated lego vehicles he had made. He also told me he had knitted a scarf with other people who came into the shop. Rosalie, his little sister, was having a snack in the little back room. Danny graciously asked if I would like the last apple/honey bar. When I declined, he helped himself. Soon I was holding Rosalie (once a grandmother, always a grandmother) while Cathy continued to work, nonplussed, on the sweater. Rosalie wanted to sit on the counter where she often sits. Meanwhile Cathy continued to fix the sweater while refereeing sibling spats—“Use kind words” she told them. Finally the mistakes were in better shape. She wanted to knit a few rows of the sweater and calmly added length to Jim’s sweater.
Cathy told me it was “stitch night” when the local knitters came together to knit in the shop at 7pm. She was sure many of them would love to knit a few rows. Too often in our travels, we don’t stay long enough to get to know the people of a community. I welcomed the opportunity .Not sure of how they would react to a stranger, I was the first to arrive and sat in one of the folding chairs arranged in a circle. Soon other people arrive, including one man who stated he was a “privileged white male”. He liked to knit while he watched football. An atmosphere of friendship and easy talk filled the room. I relaxed. So many different projects—a mermaid blanket, socks, hats, a reluctant afghan for someone’s mother, still in progress for a year, warm colorful mittens, scarves.
Cathy’s sister, Rosie, sat next to me. She is a teacher and a co-owner of Desert Threads as well as responsible for some of the beautiful handwork for sale in the shop. Conversation topics changed from local issues and asking questions of the mermaid blanket knitter about her upcoming move to be closer to her friends in the Society of Creative Anachronism.
I felt so comfortable. I only meant to to stay the first hour, but I suddenly noticed two hours had zipped by.
Most of the knitters wanted to knit a row or two and the sweater was passed around the circle as knitters put down their own project and without missing a blink, nor stopped chatting, knit a row and passed the sweater on. Cathy was determined that the Maob knitters would add inches to the sweater. And they did!
The little grey panther had come along and hung out in the usual places, helping when necessary. Unfortunately, the little panther slipped away from me, staying in the shop. Cathy emailed me to let me know she would keep him safe for the night. I picked the panther up the next morning, a little anxious as to what havoc prevailed (think Night at the Museum) during the night, but there was still a warm smile on Cathy’s face as she handed over the little panther.
We said goodbye and I left with the spirit of the time spent in the Desert Threads held close to my heart after spending time with new people whose kindness is woven into Jim’s sweater.
“Welcome home,” said the Canadian border guard as she examined our passports. “Welcome to Canada,” she said to Jim and told him to remove his sunglasses.
I’m always a bit happier when I’m back in Canada and happy to be headed to Whitehorse. It has changed dramatically from when I first came through in 1990—far less eclectic and frontier but still fun to visit
Jim was very tired of driving, but claimed he would be even more tired if he let me drive. It was early evening and the beautiful golden light enhanced the rich brown hides and white antlers of a small elk herd grazing by the side of the road. I checked the “allstays” camping app for a place for The Grey Panther. Several provincial campgrounds, but many closed. I hesitated on Wal-Mart, normally taboo for my snobbish ways. However, a comment praised its off-the-highway location as quiet and safe with free Wifi. I knew there would only be a few campers in October. We selected a quiet spot and put up the makeshift curtains we normally do without. We had a couple of errands and Jim went to Canadian Tire for batteries for the Sprinter keys (“They sell more than tires, Jim”). Two of the three had just failed. Yikes!. Jim started the Wallis stove/heater and I made our first dinner chicken cacciatori on rice. The built in-tile inlaid cabinet with fridge, stove, and sink is wonderful along with the great views, except in parking lots. An unplanned bonus is the warm air blown by the Wallis fan while I cook. We snuggled into our soft, warm bed with Jim quickly falling asleep. With my nerve-damaged painful feet, sleep comes slowly.
Morning and the sun came, the Wallis had kept the temperature around 40 degrees. This is a temperature that would, in previous years, been welcomed to both of us crawling out of a tent in Alaska. But, now, our bones crave more warmth. Next year it will be insulated.
I was ready to prepare tea and coffee on the Wallis, but Jim, the converted American, was ready for Tim Hortons.
Raisin tea biscuits
Oldtimer packing up his Toshiba laptop
We drove past the almost empty Starbucks into the crowded TH parking lot. Tim Hortons is more than a fast food restaurant, it is a gathering place. It is the same in any Canadian city. I can’t think of a chain in the U.S. this is similar, not Starbucks, not McDonalds though both are present in Whitehorse.
I have always enjoyed the courtesy of opening and having opened doors for me. The man coming out of the restaurant went a little further, gallantly holding open the inner door with his back foot. Fresh raisin tea biscuits in the case! Breakfast sandwich menu with one side devoted to healthier choices. Brewed half and half for Jim—half coffee, half half and half, hot steeped tea for me with milk. Ahhhhhh. After eating, I sat back with my tea to people watch.
It was a mix of people in the crowded restaurant—First Nations, Indians (from India), white, Chinese, old, young, single, couples, groups, construction workers and well-dressed retirees. With the exception of one parka -clad wizened old timer who sat at his plugged-in ancient Toshiba taking advantage of the free Wifi, most people were just talking to each other in happy, morning voices. Two singles at adjacent tables had phones in hand, but then put them down to chat with each other. A bank official in logo fleece, came in, got his drink and began greeting people as he headed to his table and chatted with former strangers around him. The murmured sound of many voices felt warm and friendly.
We left with raisin tea biscuits in a paper bag and went across the road and railway tracks to the small park to watch the mists rising on the mighty Yukon River– the lifeline for so many frontier people in Canada and Alaska, still providing millions of salmon each year. The air was deliciously crisp and clean. We crunched across the frosty grass to the bank of the swiftly flowing river. It was hard to image that this is the same river that flows 20000 miles to the Yukon Kuskokwin Delta in Alaska where Jim taught school for many years, and then out to the Bering Sea. When we continued driving, we would see the headwater rivers at the start of the Yukon.
Off to the Superstore for a few Canadian supplies. I love new grocery stores; Jim hates most stores and shopping. Sigh. I agreed to meet him in the bakery……the likes of which do not exist in Alaska—even in Anchorage—from plum pudding, stollen and fruitcake for the upcoming holidays to croissants, reasonably-sized single whole wheat hot dog buns, bagels and breads of all types (including a package of square triangle cut crustless white bread ready for tea sandwiches)…..to a grinning Jim with a big box of butter tarts in hand.