Deciding to take the ferry up to Alaska was a serious commitment for two reasons.
It’s expensive ($833 for my car and $369 for my personal ticket) and it’s definitive. I had to commit to being in a certain place on a certain date from four months in advance, and that was tough to do. I went through with it despite these constraints because I knew the ferry would show me a side of the west coast that I would never see otherwise. Besides, I’d be insane to want to drive 2,000 miles on the Al-Can highway twice.
The trip up was scheduled to take three days and three nights, and despite the price tag, my ticket did not come with a room.
However, the ferry has an interesting policy of allowing passengers to sleep pretty much anywhere they want. People sleep on benches outside, in the small movie theater, on the sofa next to the vending machines, in their tent out on deck, or, like me, up in the Solarium. There were lounge chairs that unfolded completely flat and could fit my sleeping pad easily. All told there were maybe 30 of us sleeping under the tinted glass roof of the Solarium.
There were some funny sounds and funny smells on that ferry.
The engine makes a low laboring groan that can be felt through the deck from bow to stern. Everything that isn’t securely strapped or screwed down vibrates. Light fixtures, chair armrests, bathroom stall latches – everything has its own frequency. The Solarium smelled like rich salted air occasionally spoiled with a billow of exhaust drafted down from the smoke stack. The restroom alternated between smelling like spray deodorant and stomach acid.
I walked in on a gentleman who was just about to begin brushing his teeth in the sink. He looked at me with an expression of embarrassment and exposure that I recognized immediately as how I used to feel early on in my trip when I would be caught brushing my teeth in a gas station or Walmart. I smiled warmer than either of us expected, and nodded him “good morning” without a second glance.
The people and their reasons for traveling by ferry were wide reaching.
Chuck, an unabashed flower child with a single blue pearl earring, was walking his tiny dog around the car deck. He explained that he and his wife Karen planned on wandering around in their Westfalia for a few weeks before taking their full-time nomadic lifestyle back down to the lower 48.
Kathy implored me to check out her son’s blog (http://justrollingby.com/) as he and I are both adventure travel bloggers.
I met the talkative and incoherent “Monarch Rey” who was an androgynous woman that worked in “fringe real estate”. She had a cactus tattoo across her throat, and when I asked her how many times she had taken the ferry up to Alaska she kept saying “This is my fourth dog I’ve taken up, and she’s 16 years old.”
Another man was transporting his plane back to his home in Juneau, and after I mentioned my engineering background he told me that he had rigged up his Dodge Neon with three 80 cubic foot tanks of natural gas to inexpensively fuel his long daily commute.
I met a guy named Tucker who was visiting Alaska for the first time. He had come to Bellingham by train from Kansas, and he offloaded in Ketchikan to visit his father. I sensed some gravity in the nature of his trip, and when I wished him the best of luck with things he told me how much he appreciated it.
Perhaps my coolest encounter was with a gentleman name Ralph. We were the last two sitting the forward observation deck Saturday night (8/1/15) and we began our conversation by speculating on the meaning behind the colored blinking lights on buoys and lighthouses. He and I got on great, and when I asked him the next day if I could use the shower in his stateroom, he obliged.
He did his best to make me feel like it was no big deal.
The scenery was amazing. It becomes more jagged and mountainous further north.
We stopped in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Juneau before I unloaded in Haines.
The ferry ride is paradise for reading, and I got through half of my latest book, Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan. It was fascinating to motor through miles and miles of completely untouched wilderness.