It’s Friday afternoon and we are at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, Washington, one hour south of Vancouver, waiting to board the M/V Matanuska. While waiting, we stroll around the terminal and decide to buy two pairs of anti-nausea wristbands. They will turn out to be the best investment!
Located in the Historic Fairhaven District, the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, completed in 1989, is the southern connection for the Alaska Marine Highway System.
The Alaska Marine Highway System began service in 1963 with three new ships named for Alaskan glaciers: Malaspina, Taku and Matanuska. The Matanuska Glacier is located in South Central Alaska and is the largest glacier in Alaska accessible by road, via the Glenn Highway. The name was derived from the Russian term for the Copper River people. The M/V Matanuska was designed by Phillip F. Spaulding and Associates of Seattle, Washington and constructed at the Puget Sound Bridge & Dry Dock in Seattle in 1963. After fifteen years in operation, the ship underwent lengthening and renovation at the Willamette Iron and Steel Company in Portland, Oregon.
The ship is 408 feet long and 74 feet wide, with a service speed of 16.5 knots. It is designed to carry 450 passengers. The onboard amenities include observation lounges with comfortable chairs, a covered heated solarium, a cafeteria-style restaurant, a movie lounge, showers, coin-operated lockers, writing and quiet lounges, and a child’s play area.
As the throaty horn of the Matanuska resonates through the Bellingham harbour, it’s impossible not to feel excitement. The massive blue-and-white ship eases away from the dock and we are on our way to the Inside Passage.
For more than a century, fortune-seekers, tourists, adventurers and returning Alaskans have leaned against the rails of ships headed for the Inside Passage and waved good-bye to the ordinary world receding with the wake. Naturalist John Muir predicted this northbound pilgrimage. While making his first Southeast Alaska expedition in 1879, he wrote, “Were the attractions of this north coast but half known, thousands of lovers of nature’s beauties would come hither each year. I know of no excursion in any part of our vast country where so much is unfolded in so short a time and at so little cost.”
That is the essence of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Long before statehood came in 1959, the territory began developing a maritime transportation service as routine and ordinary as a bus line. The first short link, between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, has grown into a chain of routes that connect coastal communities in Southeast Alaska, Price William Sound, Kodiak Island, and along the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Chain as far west as Unalaska. The fleet of eight “blue canoes”, as many locals fondly refer to them, call at 32 ports, including Bellingham and Prince Rupert (although not on this trip as Canadian and US authorities are in conflict over something or other and the ferries no longer stop at Prince Rupert). The service truly is an official highway system; federal highway funds helped the state build ferries and terminals as the system expanded.
This mid-October sailing begins under auspicious omens. Late afternoon sun warms passengers strolling around the decks. On the ferry’s cavernous car deck, deckhands have arranged cars, pickup trucks, container vans and motorcycles into sardine-like ranks. Foot passengers have come aboard lugging backpacks, sleeping bags, coolers and guitars.
One of the charms of the ferry system is the way people can fashion their own style of travel from the ship’s design. People who prefer beds and bathrooms (like us!) reserve staterooms months in advance. We booked a four-berth stateroom just before the trip, no doubt because of the time of the year, after the peak of the tourist season. Those who would rather rough it (so not us!) spread sleeping bags over lawn-chairs and across the floor in the open-air but heated solarium. Some people have brought along their own provisions. Others will eat all their meals in the cafeteria. Ferries are sometimes called “the poor man’s cruise”, but the view promises to be strictly equal opportunity and you have the freedom to create your own program.
As the Matanuska gains speed, the town of Bellingham and the state of Washington slip into a distant blue haze. The ship’s wake unspools like a ribbon, and before long, we wander forward from the bow to the stern. The ship is headed north, and we want to face that direction, to see where we’re going. The shadowed coastline glides by, homes giving way to unsettled landscape. We brace ourselves against the rails and take deep, rejuvenating breaths of cool, briny air. When the purser announces, “We’re on Alaska time now”, we set our watches back an hour and our minds ahead to the Inside Passage.
This is how Alaska should be approached – from the sea. Everyone who has ever claimed to discover it – as if a land already peopled by beautiful and complex cultures could be “discovered” – came by sea. Early adventurers searched this raw coast for the Northwest Passage. The Matanuska’s passengers make their own voyage of discovery as the ship crosses sounds, rounds capes, enters deep inlets. What we see is more than scenery, because scenery implies mere prettiness, a mild-mannered landscape. This is a thousand miles of wild beauty rimming the coast between Bellingham and Skagway, a thousand miles governed by the movement of the ocean, the flux of weather, the interplay of mountains and rainforest.
By the end of the second day, when we realise that the view isn’t going anywhere, we relax and watch the British Columbia coast slide by. The ferry provides the perfect opportunity to escape the modern world. The only information of value is spread by word of mouth. Quick! There’s a humpback whale to starboard! To the right! 🙂 Is it raining? Look at that tugboat. When will we reach Ketchikan? What’s for dinner?
The ferry brings together unlikely groups: senior citizens and school kids, fishermen and foreigners. Everyone headed to Alaska has a story, and on the ferry people have time to spin out their tales. Some want adventure. Some want peace and quiet. Some are going home. Some are seeking a home. Some have nothing better to do. Some are looking for something better. For many, the ferry ride represents but a leg of a longer journey. For us, it is the journey.
Dramatic features, mountains, glaciers, wildlife, overwhelm the subtle and meditative aspects of the journey. In a pale dawn, clouds avalanche in slow motion down an island peak. As the day progresses, the colour of the sea changes from a pearly gray to a mossy green until, finally, the caramel light of the sunset spills across the water. Even rainy days, and there are plenty of them, present a delicate palette of grays.
The water is always different too. Only when the Matanuska crosses Queen Charlotte Sound do we understand how sheltered the Inside Passage is. As the ship emerges from the east side of Vancouver Island into open water, big swells and whitecapped seas sweep in from the Pacific and roll the boat, as well as some stomachs. And we are immensely grateful for the anti-nausea wristbands we are wearing! They really worked wonders for us. After the two hour crossing, a seaman pronounces the passage through the sound “pretty decent”, which makes us grateful we only experienced a taste of the ocean’s power.
Early on the second morning, the Matanuska crosses Dixon Entrance and the invisible border separating Canada and the United States. Until now, communities appeared only as constellations of light and activity studding the coastline. When the Matanuska docks in Ketchikan, the first port of call, we are ready to walk on something that doesn’t move under our feet. The ship remains docked long enough to have breakfast in a nearby cafe and visit a grocery store. The town is still waking up, but it’s rowdy, hardworking character is clear.
Ketchikan, like most towns in Southeast Alaska, is linear, never more than 10 blocks wide, but several miles long. Tongass Highway, the main street, is built on pilings that take it out of the water in several places. Some of the “cross” streets are really wooden steps climbing the steep hillside.
Ketchikan has the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles, found throughout the city and at four major locations: Saxman Totem Park, Totem Bight State Park, Potlatch Park and the Totem Heritage Center.
The Matanuska resumes its northbound journey in a drizzle. There are two kinds of weather in southeast Alaska: the one that makes the area what it is and the one you hoped it would be. Then again, it is October, the wettest month of the year. In the afternoon, we dock in Wrangell. On shore, a few local kids appear and form a ragged line to greet disembarking passengers. They are the state’s youngest entrepreneurs, hawking garnets gathered from a nearby deposit willed to Wrangell’s youth by a local mayor. Over the years, the proceeds have financed everything from bubble gum to bicycles, and even the occasional college education.
Wrangell is the only town in southeast Alaska to have flown 3 flags. The Russians built Fort St Dionysius here in 1834 to guard the mouth of the Stikine against Hudson’s Bay Company trappers hunting sea otters. Later the British leased most of the area, calling their post Fort Stikine. Under the American flag, Wrangell, named for Russian Baron Von Wrangell, became the jump-off point for gold miners headed up the Stikine to the Klondike and Cassiars.
The approach to Petersburg is long and dramatic. The Matanuska crosses the Stikine River’s silty drainage and enters the Wrangell Narrows, a pipe cleaner of a passage that twists between Kupreanof and Mitkof islands. This is the high point of any ferry trip, the 46-turn slalom course for ships. A seaman watches from the bow for obstacles, boats and debris in the water as the wheelhouse crew smartly manoeuvres the ship according to a string of more than seventy navigational aids and markers along the 21 mile channel.
The landscape grows intimate as the waterway constricts into a green artery pulsing with the tide. The Narrows is a literal name! It is really narrow. New pilots train gradually and carefully for this stretch by learning it piece by piece under the tutelage of an experienced captain.
Petersburg was named by its founder, Peter Buschmann, who, with his wife and eight children, moved here in 1897. The similarity of the geography to his native Norway, the mountain peaks, the fiords, availability of good lumber for building, a good natural harbor and its position in the centre of the world’s richest fishing grounds made this an ideal site for his new home. Many people in Petersburg are of Norwegian descent and they are proud of their ancestry. The Norwegian character is evident in the town’s houses, gardens and boats. In May, on the weekend nearest May 17, Petersburg celebrates a “Little Norway” festival with Viking boats and Norwegian dancing, lots of terrific food, costumes, street booths, games and competitions.
When the Matanuska departs Petersburg at midnight, we are not awake to hear the ship’s horn echoing against the mountains. Through the night, the ferry rumbles north, the powerful engines vibrating in the bones. Night cloacks the flank of Admiralty Island as the ship crosses Frederick Sound and enters Stephens Passage. It is barely daylight when the ferry docks at the Auke Bay ferry terminal, 13 miles northwest of Juneau.
Juneau is Alaska’s state capital. It is nestled on the slopes between Gastineau Channel and Mounts Juneau and Roberts, which rise 3000 feet above the town. Since the glaciers dumps sediment carried by the Mendenhall River and Lemon Creek into Gastineau Channel, ships cannot pass north of Juneau and must go back down the channel and around Douglas Island. In order to avoid many miles of extra sailing, the ferries use a terminal at Auke Bay, 13 miles north of town.
As the Matanuska reverses away from the dock, we stay on deck for a last glimpse of the blue cascade of ice descending from the Juneau Icefield.
The ship continues on through Lynn Canal, a concentrated stretch of Inside Passage squeezed between the ragged white peaks of the Chilkats to the west and the stolid bulk of the Coast Mountains to the east.
After lunch, the public address system announces a weekly emergency drill for the crew. Evidently the excitement is a bit much for some passengers. Ten minutes later, the address system crackles on again with another message: “For the information of passengers, the drill is for crew only.”
By the time the Matanuska arrives at Haines, the skies are brighter. Up here, where the Panhandle is soldered to the rest of Alaska, the climate dries out a bit.
The upside of not travelling during the peak of the tourist season is that the ferries are not as busy, the downside is that many of the shops along the way are closed. But the ship stopped in Haines long enough for us to wander along Main Street and find Helen’s Jewelry & Gift Shop at 221 Main Street. The perfect place for a gift or two… and an Alaskan nugget.
The Matanuska continues on its last northbound hour up Tayia Inlet, a tentacle of water reaching toward Canada. The layover at Skagway is a chance to explore Alaska’s most famous gold rush town.
This fascinating façade with nearly 9,000 small pieces of driftwood assembled into a checkerboard design is Camp Skagway No. 1, a brotherhood of gold speculators and miners that was established in 1899 when approximately 600 men a day arrived in Skagway by steamers from Seattle during the Klondike Gold Rush. It was the first of eventually thirty camps or brotherhood halls that would be created in Alaska and neighboring Canada with a peak of 10,000 members.
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway narrates how the wily and fiercely territorial Tlingit were inevitably overcome by the gold feverish stampeders – rugged individualists, perhaps, but aided and abetted by the US military – who transformed the aboriginal trade trails into “golden staircases” and a narrow gauge railway leading to the Klondike gold fields. The narrow gauge railway is now in operation purely for the tourist trade and runs throughout the summer months.
Commemorating the Gold Rush of 1897-98, this 13,191-acre park encompasses a six-block historical district in the town of Skagway, the nearby ghost town of Dyea and the famous Chilkoot and White Pass Trails. The streets of Skagway are lined with dozens of historic stores, saloons and public buildings of which the National Park Service has restored fifteen. In neighboring Dyea, the park interprets how a town, once the size of Skagway, disappeared in the years following the Rush, though it still serves as the starting point for hikes on the famous, 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, the most popular backpacking route in Alaska.
When gold was discovered in 1896 in Bonanza Creek, near Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, Skagway and Dyea became the starting places for more than 40,000 gold-rush stampeders who headed to Canada primarily by way of the Chilkoot Trail. The actual stampede lasted only a few years but it produced one of the most colorful periods in Alaskan history, that of a lawless frontier town controlled by villainous ‘Soapy’ Smith who was finally removed from power in a gun fight by town hero Frank Reid. At the height of the gold rush, Michael J. Heney, an Irish contractor, convinced a group of English investors that he could build a railroad over the White Pass Trail to Whitehorse. Built with little more than gun powder and picks, the White Pass & Yukon Route climbs from sea level to 2,865-foot White Pass in just 20 miles, making it one the world’s steepest train routes.
Through the night, the Matanuska retraces its journey as far back as Juneau before heading to Sitka on the outer coast. The ship rounds Admiralty Island to sail down the wide marine thorough-fare of Chatham Strait. One of the marine highway’s main attractions lies at the mouth of the strait, where Sergius Narrows separates Baranof and Chichagof islands. From the wheelhouse a voice explains that the ferry can only transit the narrrows at slack tide, when the tidal current is not running.
Once docked at the Sitka terminal, the Matanuska has to wait a few hours for the tide to slosh through Sergius Narrows. So we abandon ship for a tour of the Russian-American town.
Sitka was the site of the first Russian settlement in southeast Alaska, established by Baranof in 1799. Originally built just north of where the ferry terminal now stands, it was wiped out by Tlingit Indians. A new fort and town were built at the present townsite. For years, Sitka was the European cultural centre of the Pacific. American, Spanish and British ships came here to trade with the Russians for otter pelts. When the US bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867, the change-over took place in Sitka. The town’s Russian heritage, the historic sites and buildings, the Sheldon Jackson Museum (with its excellent Indian collection) and the Sitka National Historical Park make a stopover here very rewarding.
St. Michael’s Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, is a cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America Diocese of Alaska in Sitka. The earliest Orthodox cathedral in the New World, it was built in the 19th century, when Alaska was under the control of Russia. After 1872, the cathedral came under the control of the Diocese of Alaska. It has been a National Historic Landmark since 1962, notable as an important legacy of Russian influence in North America and Southeast Alaska in particular.
The cathedral is a showcase of icons brought to Alaska from Russia. The two most prized are Our Lady of Sitka (also known as the Sitka Madonna) and Christ Pantocrator that flank the doors of the altar screen. Both paintings are attributed to Vladimir Borovikovsky, a leading 18th century portrait artist and one of Russia’s most revered masters.
Resting on another Bishop’s throne 🙂
The Alaska Raptor Center is a raptor rehabilitation center in Sitka. Located on a 17–acre campus bordering the Tongass National Forest and the Indian River, its primary mission is the rehabilitation of sick and injured eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, and other birds of prey which are brought in from all over Alaska. The Center (the largest of its type in the state, and one of the largest in North America) receives between 100–200 birds a year, with many suffering from gunshot wounds and traffic accident-related trauma.
As the Matanuska makes a wide turn to the south, we drift back to our seats. The journey back to Bellingham lies ahead. Tomorrow, more islands will appear. The Matanuska will call at other ports. The light will change. It is all the same, and never the same, on Alaska’s Marine Highway.