Alaska is a big place, but doesn’t have a lot of roads to show for it. It does have the Alaska Marine Highway System, and Alaskans travel all over the state on the ferry. Some people use the it to move to Alaska, and others when it’s time to leave.
That latter group includes Alaska Public Media correspondent Vikram Patel, reporting from from somewhere between Haines, AK and Bellingham, WA, last November.
Here’s Vik’s experience in his own words:
As I roam the decks of the M/V Columbia, I wonder who these other passengers are. I figure some of them are like me. I’ve lived in Alaska for over a decade, and I’m moving away because my mom is sick. I want to be closer to her. But why is everyone else leaving? I started asking around.
“I’m 56 years old,” said passenger Grover Montano, from San Diego and heading home on the ferry. “I had to come over here and help a friend in Ketchikan.”
Montano had just spent two months in Ketchikan on behalf of the Chumash Indian tribe in California, to request bear skins and eagle feathers for religious ceremonies from the local native community. Happily, Montano reported that his mission was a success. On the ferry, though, he was back in vacation mode, sleeping in a tent on the deck of the ferry and spending his days enjoying the view.
“We’re on the stern of the ship, surrounded by some beautiful islands covered in spruce, hemlock, and yellow cedar,” Montano said. “Seas are calm, winds are fair, sun is shining, and it’s in my hair.”
Some of the other passengers on the ferry were also returning from short stints in Alaska. Not all of their missions were as successful as Montano’s.
“I’m 33 years old, and I am in a third life crisis right now,” passenger Tyler Clark said. “I was living in Seattle in February of this year, I was engaged to be married, I was cheated on, our relationship ended, I was also working at something of a dead-end job.”
While piecing his life back together, Clark found himself in the Seattle airport talking to a woman who lived in Juneau.
“We talked for 20 minutes,” Clark said. “[Then] she went up to Alaska, I went back to California, didn’t exchange any information. The next day, I ended up finding her, then we talked for about a month or so and decided that booking a trip to Alaska was like the next fun thing to do.”
But Clark’s romantic weekend didn’t go quite as planned. It seems his new friend regretted the invitation.
“I like to think in like numbers, I was there for four days, 96 hours,” Clark explained. “I probably, collectively spent, like, six hours with her. I was hoping for just a little bit more.”
After four days wandering around Juneau, mostly by himself, it was time for Clark to leave Alaska.
“And here I am, on her suggestion, on this ferry,” Clark said.
When asked whether he thought he would ever see his new friend, Clark said wistfully, “I do, I do.”
Unlike Montano, who slept outdoors on the deck, Clark set up his makeshift campsite indoors, in the back row of the movie theater on board.
Most of the passengers sprung for a cabin, including Cammie Heiser, a single mom who is on the ferry with her two young sons. They live in Kenny Lake, an Alaska town of about 400 people near McCarthy.
Wintertime in a cabin with two small kids can be tough, so Heiser decided to get some backup, explaining that she and her children “are going to do a roadtrip to go visit family in New Hampshire.”
For Heiser, the best part of the trip was how supportive strangers were.
“As a single parent traveling with two kids, it’s pretty awesome that everyone loves my kids and wants to hang out and play,” she said.
When asked what his favorite part of the boat was, Heiser’s 5-year-old son, Taj, had a more practical assessment: “That it floats on water.” Taj continued to explain that his favorite part of the ocean is the Mariana Trench, which is the “deepest place in the ocean” and features “animals that can survive in really deep pressure.”
On the last night of the ferry trip, about 30 people, both passengers and crew, put on a talent show. Montano played his guitar, Clark performed a magic trick and Heiser sang a few songs.
Anchorage musician Nick Carpenter was one of the passengers who suggested the impromptu talent show.
“An older woman from Juneau brought tears to my eyes,” Carpenter said. “Off the cuff, she hadn’t practiced, didn’t even have a guitar, had to borrow one, played a cover of ‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong.”
“I mean, I don’t know if there was a dry eye in the house,” he said. “It was like your grandmother baking you cookies. She was looking everybody in the eye, and, and saying how sweet it was. You know, these lyrics were kind of mirroring how sweet this moment on the boat was.”
After three days, four nights, and one talent show, we arrived at the ferry terminal in Bellingham. Leaving the boat, and Alaska, we all proceeded to our next stops.