The four bikes are on their center stands, and we have secured them with lines and deck cleats provided by the ferry, so they won't topple should we encounter heavy seas. Each weighs over 500 pounds and would incur severe damage should it go down. Dixon Entrance or Queen Charlotte Sound, both over two days south, are the only probable points of rough water on the otherwise normally calm Inside Passage, but we won't take any chances. We find our cabins, ensuring a comfortable sleeping environment for the next four nights. We are under way.
As we push away from the dock and nose south down Lynn Canal, a forty-mile long fiord of the north Pacific, the lights of Haines twinkle softly in the late evening twilight as the village passes to starboard (right hand side of the ship pointing forward, for you landlubbers.) Daylight has decreased by almost two hours in the fifteen days since we first passed through this latitude, but enough remains at 9:30 P.M. to make out the St. Elias Mountains, ebony in the failing light, as they rise sharply behind town. The summits are obscured by heavy cloud cover, and I realize we have seen the last of the ten to twenty thousand foot peaks of Alaska, Yukon and northern British Columbia. The mountains of Southeast Alaska and the British Columbia coast are much more gentle and certainly less awe-inspiring, if no less beautiful.
Our motorcycle riding essentially done, we glide home at seventeen knots on the M/V Columbia, at 418 feet the pride and flagship of the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet. In three and a half days we will reach Bellingham, Washington, just 120 miles north of our homes in the Seattle area. The ferry trip not only saves us 1,800 miles of hard riding, retracing our route to Seattle via the Alaska Highway, but was planned as a wonderful way to relax during the remaining few days of our Alaska adventure.
Jan and I are up before 7 A.M. even though a day of complete leisure awaits us. The Columbia steams south through the placid waters of the Inside Passage while we eat breakfast in the well-appointed dining room; our window table affording a great view across the stern rail of the ship. Eric and Julia haven't shown up yet, but of course our individual schedules are no longer relevant to our progress.
The dining room is devoid of much activity at this early hour, and over the remains of breakfast I gaze northward up Chatham Strait. I am intrigued by the many shades of gray in the picture that unfolds. In all directions except immediately astern, the water is battleship-gray in color. On either side of the ship the sea is dead calm, the glassy surface broken only by ever-expanding circles from drops of lightly falling rain. As the Columbia disturbs the surface with her passing, her wake turns the water gray-green for several hundred feet, accented momentarily by the gray-white froth of the propellers' wash immediately astern. At several hundred yards both again quickly yield to the battleship-gray of the sea. The mountains of Chicagof Island, perhaps three miles to starboard are visible for only half their height, as mist-gray clouds obscure their rounded peaks. The nearest shoreline should be ebony at this distance and in this dim light, but clouds mute the blackness and instead, the mountains are slate gray. North on the far horizon, the sky and sea, whose colors are different by several shades in the foreground, meld together in a dull-pewter cast, and the line between them becomes virtually indistinguishable.
Only Old Glory, its broad red strips and bright white stars snapping sharply in the breeze as it flies proudly from the fantail provides contrast to the myriad shades of gray in our view as we slowly sail southward toward Sitka, our next port of call.
Last night while we slept, about six hours after leaving Haines we stopped at Juneau, with a population of 25,000 the largest city in Southeast Alaska and Alaska's capital. Like most of the many other small towns and villages of the Alaska Panhandle (this region's other name) Juneau is not connected to the North American road system. All movement in and out of Juneau is either by plane or by boat, so anyone leaving with their vehicle does so by ferry. Other than Honolulu this is unique among American capital cities, and while it can be quaint and romantic to tourists and locals alike, it can be maddeningly frustrating to Alaskans wishing to visit their seat of government. Perhaps less than ten percent of Alaska's population of six hundred thousand lives in Southeastern, so the vast majority of Alaskan citizens must fly, or drive (two days or more) and catch a ferry to visit their capital. Several attempts have been made to move the capital to a location between Anchorage and Fairbanks, but Juneau's political lobby is very strong and that effort has been narrowly thwarted each time.
But politics aside, Juneau is a fine small city well situated along the deep blue waters of Gastineau Channel; the Coastal Mountains rising to over 4,000 feet just at its back door. In addition to its marvelous natural setting, Juneau supports a well-educated and well-traveled population. In my opinion, only its wet and cold marine climate (although mild by Alaska standards) and inaccessibility keeps Juneau from becoming badly overpopulated.
Alaska's ferries are correctly named the Alaska Marine Highway system. The ferry is the road in this beautiful and remote part of the World. We are bound for Sitka not because this is a cruise ship and Sitka is an exotic port of call, but rather because virtually anybody who arrives or leaves Sitka by vehicle, does so on an Alaska ferry.
We leave Chatham Strait at Point Hayes as we turn hard to starboard for our trip up Peril Strait. I notice the green navigation buoy that marks the end of Morris Reef, a foul area full of rocks and shallow water that must be avoided. During a sailing trip here in 1991 Richard Herman and I tacked for two hours by this marker as we tried to make headway up Pearl Strait into the teeth of a sharp wind directly on our nose. Our thirty-foot sloop didn't point well to windward, and combined with a hard current we lost ground and eventually slipped back past this marker. It was great fun in spite of the rain and fierce wind, but we needed to anchor before dark so we called it a day, then dropped sail and fired up the two-cylinder diesel. Two hours later, at the sheltered and secluded head of Sook Bay another ten miles up Peril Strait, securely anchored for the evening, we enjoyed our cracked crab on ice, and slice of orange in our Stoleys as we recounted tacking lessons learned and discussed bays and inlets yet to be explored.
The M/V Columbia is not so snug, but is certainly a fine way to enjoy the pleasures of the Inside Passage with only three or four days available instead of the thirty Richard and I enjoyed eight years earlier. As she continues up Peril Strait she successfully navigates the 270-foot width of treacherous Sergius Narrows and winds her way down both Neva and Olga Straits, past eagles and pink flamingos, to dock in Sitka.
The flamingos, perched high in a spruce tree and conveniently located for ferry viewing, are courtesy of a local resident who caused quite a stir some years back by setting fire to a large pile of old car tires he had hauled up Mt. Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano within easy view of the city. The resulting eruption apparently took place in City Hall rather than on the mountain, as local authorities were not amused at the high plume of thick black smoke that spewed forth from the volcano for many days, alarming residents and tourists alike. My suspicions are confirmed. While picturesque and historic Sitka is a stop you must make when you transit the Inside Passage, during the long winters when there are few tourists to entertain, there's not much going on in Sitka.
That the ferry is an extension of the road system and not a cruise ship becomes painfully obvious as the purser announces we have only one hour to visit what, in the early-1800s, was the capital of Russian-America, and the largest city on the west coast of North America. Today, supported by fishing and logging, but mostly by tourist dollars, Sitka with a population of just 8,500, boasts of being Alaska's fifth largest city. With Julia and Eric we catch a shuttle bus to town, sprint through historic St. Michael's Russian Orthodox cathedral (built in the 1840s) and five gift shops, before catching first our breath, then the bus back to the ferry.
When we disembarked in Sitka we were told in no uncertain terms by the purser over the public address system, that anyone not back on board by 3 P.M. would be left at the dock. I assumed we will be summarily executed if we tried to board after the appointed hour, so we take no chances and dutifully board at 2:55 P.M. after just forty-five minutes in Sitka. Of course I do a slow burn, chafing at petty beaurocratic power and the lack of common courtesy as the Columbia stays tied to the dock, loading a long string of RVs and other vehicles for another hour. I ask the obvious: "why can't passengers board after the RVs and cars to allow us an extra hour in port?" "It's policy" is the purser's hauty reply.
In spite of arrogant State employees we enjoy our day on the ferry; reading, writing, talking to each other and fellow passengers, and watching the spectacular scenery glide by. Just before our return passage through Sergius Narrows, a young brown bear, obviously startled by our sudden appearance in mid-channel, abandons his prized fishing site and with a shrug of his great shoulders turns and scrambles up the creek bank. But not before standing tall to remind us he is still king in these woods, and to admonish us for breaking the solitude of his lunch. He will return to his salmon feast at a later time. We sail on.
Three hours later as we enter Chatham Strait, two humpback whales feed near Morris Reef, perhaps a hundred yards off our port beam. A small boat observes, but respectfully keeps its distance, the skipper no doubt mindful that with one quick flip of an enormous tail his wooden boat is reduced to kindling. Both humpback and killer whales are frequent visitors to the Inside Passage as this is their summer feeding grounds, but no matter how common, a sight of these great mammals never ceases to thrill me.
At 7 P.M. the four of us dine together and reminisce about the past three weeks of this wonderful trip, and our future plans to ride on to Panama. As we chat, the Columbia steams down Chatham Strait and across Frederick Sound as she sails for a 2 A.M. docking in Petersburg. Only the sight of an occasional fishing boat reminds us that other humans inhabit this marine wilderness.
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