Adventures in Alaska, part 1

I arrived back to Bellingham, Washington via the Alaska ferry system a week ago on Friday. After a lazy couple days relaxing from vacation, I started work at Evergreen and began prep for the looming academic year. The task of editing hundreds of photos from this last adventure has proved daunting; each landscape I passed through in Alaska was breathtakingly beautiful and worthy of photographs in the moment, yet as a whole, they have begun to look exceedingly similar.

From the ferry, banks of Sitka spruces sitting upon desolate pebbled beaches, mist passing through and obliterating whole swaths of forest. Layers of hills and foothills and mountains becoming lighter hues of purples and blues the farther they reached into the distance. Water, alternating between the color of turquoise, muddy brown, deep blue and brackish black depending on depth and the mixture of glacially fed fresh water pushing against salt

Every kind of sea creature could be spotted from the deck of the ferry: hunting orcas, humpback whales, seals and sea lions, schools of porpoises careening along the bow of the boat, playing in its wake, jellyfish and perpetually leaping salmon preparing for the change from their oceanic lives to freshwater pristine streams where they will spawn and die. Bald eagles and sea birds of every sort lined the banks and played in the wind. In Haines, grizzly bears played in streams, satiated on the running salmon.

For now, I will start in three day increments, beginning with my arrival to Bellingham and 38 hour voyage to Ketchikan through the breathtaking passage between the coast of British Columbia and Vancouver Island. After a minor freak out (I lost my wallet within 5 minutes of boarding the ship but someone was kind enough to immediately turn it in $240 in cash and all!), I set up my tent outside of the solarium on the back deck of the boat. There were about 5 tents set up by sunset and more on the deck below. Alaska bound!

My tent is the second from the left. The weather was gorgeous and sunny as we left Washington. The sunset was brilliant. That night, as we maneuvered through treacherous Seymour Narrows, the wind was so fierce i thought my tent was going to fly over the side of the boat with me in it. The next morning, looking at the deepening greys of the sky and knowing the Ketchikan received 13 FEET a year in rainfall, I decided to take down the tent and sleep n the covered solarium. This proved to be a wise decision as it rarely stopped raining for the next 5 days, from Ketchikan to Juneau.

The ferry I was on for this leg of the journey was the MV Columbia. The Columbia is the flagship vessel for the Alaskan Marine Highway and has the capacity to carry 499 passengers. Regional art decorates every hallway of the ship. It has two cabin decks, a large solarium, a forward viewing deck, a theater, a restaurant and dining room and a cafeteria. There are showers and even washing and drying machines. There was a good mixture of tourists, travelers and real sourdoughs (Alaskan natives) on board, ranging in age from tiny babies to the elderly.

The only moose I saw in Alaska. Apparently it was the beginning of the hunting season and they were moving as far away from people as possible.

British Columbia ferry, dead ahead.

The beautiful Canadian lighthouse, Boat Bluff.

And the rain continues.

After 38 hours on a boat, I was ready for a day on land. I arrived in Ketchikan early in the morning, with the intent to stay all day and visit an old high school friend and his family.  I would catch the next ferry to Juneau late that night, around 1am. Before meeting up with the Green Family, I made my way downtown with breakfast on my mind.  The rain temporarily let up as I biked three miles into town, though the grey skies hung heavily at the tops of the trees. Ketchikan, like the majority of the villages and towns located along Alsaka’s Inside Passage, is surrounded by water on all sides.

After breakfast I went into a local museum which was located in a building shared by the library. I was consistently impressed with the professional presentation of each museum I visited in Alaska and the abundance of information provided. Below, a selection of hand carved souvenirs native Tlingit people made for tourists from the 1920s – 1960s, including Baleen baskets. The history of the Tlingit (pronounced Klink-it) people became the focal point of my journey, as I actively sought out all information I could find in each area I visited.

Old Groaner. What a sad fate.

A model replica of a Tlingit clan house. Later in the day, I would stand inside a full scale model.

Ketchikan’s downtown is overrun by tourists in summer. One old sourdough I talked with on the ferry said that “Ketchikan is Alaska’s Tijuana.” That could very well be true as Ketchikan is the first port in Alaska many people experience, including myself. The cruise ship industry is gross and actively perpetuates inauthentic ‘Alaskan experiences.’ That’s an essay for another blog post. Just know that when a cruise ship is docked in an Alaskan town, the townsfolk take to the hills.

The Totem Heritage Center was a a magical first glimpse into the history of Totems. Many of the late 19th and early 20th century totem poles were left to rot as the gold rush of 1867 swept Alaska. First Peoples abandoned their villages, leaving their totems behind. In the 1930s, a mass effort was made to salvage these decaying pieces of history in order to preserve the culture of the Tlingit and Haida peoples. A few specimens are stored here, stripped of paint by years exposed to the elements. Truly a breathtaking sight to behold.

Downtown Ketchikan features several reproduction poles made by Native craftsmen.

This is a real organization!

Old friend from High School Woody picked me up downtown and we went to his wonderful mother’s house for lunch. I had originally contacted his mom, whom I have traded emails with on and off over the past 1o years, as I knew she had returned to Ketchikan after leaving Buffalo in the early 2000’s. I had no idea that Woody had moved there as well. I also met Woody’s wife and beautiful new daughter, Marah Jade! I know so many babies now!

After lunch, the Green clan took me to Totem Bight State Historical Park which features many replica totems carved in the 1930s – 50s carefully copied from the 19th century originals. It was magical.

The tiered interior of the replica clan house.

After a tasty dinner, another hike in the rain, and a rousing game of Uno around the family table, it was time for me to get back to the ferry terminal. I was headed another 34 hours north, to the capitol city of Juneau.

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