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Inside a stout grey building, passengers queue at the ferry terminal in Skagway, located at the northern end of the Lynn Canal on Alaska’s south coast. Today’s crowd is a mix of just who is drawn here during the long Alaskan summer days. A tour group composed of retired couples takes up most of the seats inside the terminal, while clusters of young, rain-soaked adventure seekers are scattered about the floor, trying to get some dry sleep, heads rested on their backpacks.

The crowd seems small but this is just the first port on a route that will take their ferry, the M/V Columbia, south from here to Bellingham, in Washington State. During the trip’s four days, the faces will change and numbers will grow as locals, tourists and wanderers trade wheels for water at ports along the way.

The Alaska Marine Highway System – a fleet of 11 ferries that plies Alaska’s waters – is the primary mode of transport, along with Alaska Airlines, that keeps the cities and settlements strewn across the state’s rugged, vehicle-inaccessible and weather-challenged archipelagos connected. As novel as the name might sound, the “Marine Highway” as locals call it is simply considered a highway that floats.

The state of Alaska makes the finances of the 50-year-old Marine Highway public and it’s no secret the ferries don’t turn a profit. In 2012 the service generated almost $54m (€40m), but spent nearly $171m (€128m). A mix of state and federal subsidies make up the difference. Marine Highway spokesman Jeremy Woodrow says, “It’s well understood that for many communities and residents across Alaska, the Alaska Marine Highway System serves as a vital link for social and economic activity.” Fiscal issues aside, these ferries are part of life here and most Alaskans see it as an essential service like police and fire departments.

The people who work at the Skagway ferry terminal fill many roles. One minute they might be checking you in and the next they are dashing across the dock to tie up an arriving ferry in just about any imaginable weather condition. On this drizzly July day, terminal agent Drew Tronrud is tasked with securing the lines that Columbia will use to dock. He says his job is easier in the summer but that the weather is a wild card any time of year. “You could have weather where you can’t fly for weeks but you can always get on the boat and make it,” Tronrud says.

Once the Skagway team secures Columbia’s lines, down comes the loading ramp. Soon a procession of travellers, cars and lorries disembark. A crew of 60 will need the next three hours to ready the ship for her trip back south. “I lower myself to scrub public toilets just to ride the ferry,” jokes Anne Marie Van Wart, a retired software engineer, who says she loves her new seaborne job as a steward. Public toilets are a funny, yet appropriate, way of looking at it. After all, this ferry and others in the Marine Highway fleet (toilets included) are all public property, owned by Alaska’s taxpayers.

But employees such as Van Wart clearly have out-of-the-ordinary state jobs – they’re often turning down beds and scrubbing down heads (boat talk for loos) in the wee hours of the morning, as these ships can make port at any hour of the day. From stem to stern everyone knows their role. Soon passengers, vehicles and cargo are loaded and Columbia heads south on a 1,610km journey to seven ports between Skagway and Bellingham.

Built in 1974, Columbia is one of the better-known ferries in the fleet. The biggest of the lot, she stretches 127 metres, holds 600 passengers and can transport 134 vehicles. A heavy-duty machine, she was built with Southeast Alaska in mind – her shallow draft means she can clear some of the most treacherous and shallow waterways around. But don’t let her sturdy build fool you, for she is as much beauty as she is brawn. Her lines are on a par with the elegance of Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, the Christina, or the original Pacific Princess (made famous on TV’s The Love Boat). While the vessel has undergone numerous interior overhauls to stay current, many of the design elements have been meticulously maintained.

Just behind the forward observation area, hidden by one-way mirror glass, the cocktail lounge is a time capsule. It even smells like a musky old bar one might expect to find on an ocean-going vessel. Original velveteen paisley panelling lines the walls and an archetypal bust of a seagoing beauty greets patrons at the door. The ceiling is adorned with hundreds of large vanity light bulbs. Standing on the dance floor, head angled to the ceiling, chief steward Emelie Karline says, “We clean the bulbs one by one when we are in the yard.”

“I know, it’s so gaudy,” she says, but the smile on her face implies that the kitsch is what makes this boat so special. Karline, originally from the Philippines, devotes much of her time to this ship. “I spend more time here than home,” the 18-year Marine Highway veteran says, explaining her two-week-on, two-week-off schedule. That’s a normal rotation for most of the crew onboard, including the ship’s officers steering Columbia from the bridge deck.

Today Columbia nears one of the more dangerous parts of the trip: the ominously named Peril Strait. This stretch of water on the run between Juneau and Sitka is known for its precarious position and folklore about stranded parties on the beach who were poisoned by shellfish and never rescued. In 2004 a ferry in the Marine Highway fleet ran aground on a nearby reef. While a good samaritan ship rescued all passengers and crew, it’s a vivid reminder of what those who steer Columbia face on a daily basis.

The names around Peril Strait say it all – “Deadman’s Reach” and “Poison Cove” are a few of the designations on the bridge’s navigational chart placed in front of Columbia’s Third Mate, who feeds the captain real-time information. Up ahead, the Sergius Narrows can be almost impassable in the wrong tides. At its narrowest point, the waterway gives ships about 90 metres. Couple that with a ripping tide and the margin for error is hair-raisingly small. Remember Columbia is longer than the narrows are wide.

“We should have been here 20 minutes ago,” says Captain Ken Grieser as he stands at the helm with a watchful eye forward. Columbia was late leaving Juneau earlier in the day and the lost time means the tide and currents aren’t optimal.

Above the captain a sign taped to the varnished wood window frame reminds those at the helm: “Constant vigilance is the price of safety.” The mood on the bridge isn’t tense but all appear attentive. Grieser, flanked by his senior officers, has done this passage many times. “Left five rudder; left 10,” he commands as the ship winds through the narrow channel. The waterway soon widens and the officers on the bridge breathe easier. “Take a break,” says the skipper; they’ll do a similar stretch again in 20 minutes. Grieser, 43, a soft-spoken yet confident Juneau-born ship’s master, spent five years in the US Navy and piloted frigates in the Persian Gulf before coming to the Marine Highway 13 years ago.

Pilot Gabriel Baylous, 29, is a sharp navigator who grew up in a port on the Marine Highway. At the helm for the arrival in Sitka, Baylous docks Columbia – longer than a football pitch – at the ferry terminal without batting an eye. Although an accomplished seaman, he says his father still sees him as the excited young boat enthusiast he once was. “Dad’s surprised they let me drive this thing. He wouldn’t let me drive his Bayliner,” the bright-eyed officer remarks. Deck cadet Meryl Chew, only 19, also grew up in one of the small towns served by the Marine Highway and knows these waters well. “They like hiring kids from Alaska here, so you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting a job,” says Chew.

At the ship’s aft, the solarium looks more like a campsite than a boat deck. Backpacks, sleeping bags and even tents are strewn about. A dynamic mix of locals, tourists and commuters pass the hours between ports, gawking at the misty-green fjords as the ferry sails by. These views are the stuff of legend, and they captivate onlookers scanning the water for their first look at a humpback whale or a bald eagle.

The wildlife viewing is punctuated with a thermos of coffee, a good book and even an impromptu game of cribbage between new friends. “If you come here, it would be a shame to not see Alaska this way,” says Swiss traveller Ramona Zehnder, seated on a solarium cot, as she eats her picnic lunch. “There really is no other option.”

This is a truth for Zehnder and the others who’ve forgone the staterooms for the cheaper, more scenic option of slumber in the solarium. While Zehnder is on the trip of a lifetime, her fellow passengers are just taking part in a routine voyage. This underscores a simple fact for Southeast Alaska’s residents: options to get around these parts are expensive and limited. “It costs us $100 each way to fly to Juneau, which makes the lower cost of the ferry more reasonable,” says Gustavus resident Karen Platt, bundled in her sleeping bag. This summer the one-way ferry tariff from Gustavus to Juneau is $33.

Platt and her nine-year-old daughter, Yarow, are on summer holiday, but most of the time their ferry trips are a means of survival. “We load the car and do dentist, eye and doctor visits all in one trip to Juneau,” says the mother.

There is calm on board these ships. Maybe it’s the fact they cover great distances and passengers have to be OK with the “slow boat”. For extended periods mobile phones don’t work and there is no internet. Behemoth cruise ships with their glitzy shows, buffets and gymnasiums dwarf Columbia as they pass by. These big luxury liners, with all their pomp, don’t make for the more organic experience found on this ferry.

If crunchy campers, picnic lunches and throwback lounges aren’t your thing, Columbia does have an indulgence or two worthy of world-class travellers. Inside the aft dining room, passengers sit and wait for a fresh piece of Alaskan salmon or local spot prawns. This evening’s meal service is much like one on land, with one seemingly un-American exception: tips are against the law.

And, as one waiter soon discovers, people don’t always remember that the law says tipping a state employee is a bribe. “Aw man, these people left a tip again,” he exclaims, as he dashes out of the dining room, hoping to return the gratuity. It’s yet another reminder of how unique this experience is.

It’s the afternoon of monocle’s last day onboard. As Columbia navigates the narrow channel leading to the port of Ketchikan, fishermen passing by in gillnet and seine boats turn and wave at the people observing from their perch on the ferry decks high above.

The air is almost electric when the ferry comes to town. Alaska’s flag – eight stars of gold arranged in the shape of the Big Dipper – is emblazoned on Columbia’s smoke stack. For locals, these ships are symbols of a state that has made the effort to keep its people connected. But when these big blue ships sail south, beyond Alaska’s waters, the flag they bear reminds onlookers of the unique and enchanting 49th state and the people who keep it moving.

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