Day 1: Departure
The first thing the M/V Kennicott does is go back in time. From its dock in Bellingham, the Alaska-bound ferry blasts a solid departure honk right at 6pm Pacific Standard Time. Two seconds later, it’s 5pm Alaska Standard Time onboard.
The reason is practical; the Alaska Marine Highway System control center has to follow 11 ferries across 3,500 miles, and it’s more efficient for them to all adhere to the same time zone. The boat, shorter than the biggest Puget Sound ferries but much taller, inches out of Bellingham Bay and loops around Lummi Island, a bubble out of time. Geographically you’re still in the Lower 48, and soon the shining towers of Vancouver, BC, appear off the boat’s starboard side. But the clocks know. The ferry is already in Alaska.
I’m riding the Kennicott in August 2014 for five nights to Whittier, a port outside of Anchorage. It’s the slowest way to get to Alaska, except for maybe walking—the Alcan Highway through Canada is a mere two nonstop days of driving, and a flight from Sea-Tac to Anchorage would take only three hours.
There’s something faintly ridiculous about this slow mode of travel, especially the way I’m doing it: boarding with my backpacking pack, sleeping in a pup tent I erect on the solarium deck. But a ferry ride from Washington to Alaska is the Northwest’s version of a ride on the Oriental Express or a trek to Machu Picchu. It is, excuse the expression, a bucket-list trip. One couple I meet in line at the Bellingham dock proudly tells me this bare-bones trip on a governmental vessel is their honeymoon.
We’ll pass glaciers and cruise ships that dwarf our little ferry. We will travel more than a thousand nautical miles through a route called the Inside Passage. But the real journey to Alaska is a mental adjustment; it’s bigger than the Gulf of Alaska, bigger than the mountains.
Some passengers ride the boat to return home, and still more are going to an Alaska home for the first time. Some are on vacation and won’t notice the time change for days. I wind my watch back and put on an old North Face fleece I considered too ratty for even Seattle. Holes in the pockets were burned by flying sparks from a long-ago Juneau campfire, and it helps me complete my own slide into Alaska time.
The Evite could not have been more to the point: “Allison Williams Flees New York.” Subtitle: “Don’t worry, she’ll come back. They always come back.”
Throwing a going-away party for a two-month sabbatical is overkill, but my New York City crowd exploited any excuse for a gathering. Sticky summer had already hit on this June Saturday night, and I held court in a bar called Musical Box, all exposed brick walls and shouting hipsters on Avenue B. I balanced on tufted ottomans—what passed for bar furniture—and tried to hide my mounting anxiety about giving this up, even for eight weeks.
The organizer of the fete announced that she’d “cry in the corner every day” until I returned. My roommate tried not to look too excited about having our crumbly Greenwich Village apartment to herself.
I explained over and over again what I was doing: No, I hadn’t quit my flashy magazine job. I was just starting a masters program in Alaska, one that required my physical presence only two weeks every summer for the next four years.
The rest of those two months I’d taken off? Town shopping, I called it. I was considering not coming back. I was sure Anchorage was going to be perfect, a tiny metropolis in the middle of wild, rugged Alaska. I’d try it out, then I’d move. Six years in Manhattan had given me a vague sense of wanting something like my Pacific Northwest homeland, but bigger, more green, and less crowded. I craved mountains most of all.
Every story in Manhattan had already been written. Everyone in the Musical Box was living a more exciting life than mine, and was doing it louder. Every experience a white, middle-class single girl could have had already been chronicled—and this was before Girls. I needed a blank slate, a beautiful one. A quiet one.
I’d been an Alaska junkie for years—Northern Exposure, Into the Wild, and paperback mystery novels by Dana Stabenow, the state’s own queen of thrillers. I may not have been drawn by the promise of actual gold, but I understood the mania that once drove 100,000 prospectors up north in the Klondike Gold Rush.
The first time I traveled to Alaska, I flew. But what I thought would take two months of deliberation took me 10 minutes after landing in the Ted Stevens airport in Anchorage.
I rolled away from the airport, and immediately the landscape gave way to strip malls and lumber stores and low, boxy buildings. Roads were wide, four or even six lanes across, marked by massive traffic interchanges. Intersections took agonizingly long to cycle through left-turn lights and crosswalk signals even though I couldn’t see anyone walking in the light summer drizzle. It looked like Tacoma in the early 1980s.
There was no way I could live here.
I navigated toward downtown, anxious for the spaces I recognized as “city”—tight blocks overrun with pedestrians, nonchain restaurants, parks. I looked for the jagged Chugach Mountains that were supposed to preside over Anchorage but if they were there, they were lost in the clouds.
I knew no one and could waste only so many hours in the town’s admittedly excellent bookstore, Title Wave. (Also in a strip mall.) I checked into a hotel with corrugated metal siding and a name I could barely pronounce, Qupqugiaq Inn—the moniker was the only sign I could see of Alaska’s widespread native culture. Bored, I drove to a megaplex to see a movie, but Sandra Bullock’s goofy, Alaska-set The Proposal was yet another dig at the state I’d imagined. It was sunny and scenic—and filmed in Massachusetts.
It’s not that I expected a postcard panorama of majestic snow-covered peaks, culture-rich Native Americans in traditional villages, and flannel-clad Brawny men swinging axes alongside saucy frontier women…well, maybe I was.
With weeks before my return flight, I buckled down at grad school in Anchorage, then borrowed a tiny two-door Honda. I drove to Denali National Park and to Seward, flew to Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan. In Juneau, a fellow student taught me to shoot her .22 rifle, though I missed every Budweiser can I targeted. In Homer I walked the boardwalk of sandy Homer Spit. A half-day halibut fishing charter was the cheapest way to get a ride into Kachemak Bay.
I never expected to catch anything, but three hours later I was the proud owner of two butt-ugly halibut. While their teenage daughter flirted with the captain, a local couple explained how they’d stock their freezer with halibut filets for winter. With no way of preserving my unexpected bounty, I offered them my catch.
“Can you recommend a restaurant for halibut in town?” I asked by way of goodbye, thinking I’d cap the Homer trip with a taste. I got a momentary blank stare and then a quick invitation to their home. Days later I recounted their hospitality to a local.
“You gave them two whole halibut and then asked where you could buy some?” she said. “In Alaska that’s basically inviting yourself over for dinner.”
Days 1 & 2: At Sea
Life at sea is quieter than I expected; within 20 minutes I walk every publicly accessible deck. I try reading: I packed John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, a 1970s Alaska nonfiction epic so iconic that reading it on the Alaska ferry is the equivalent of wearing a band’s T-shirt to their concert. But the rush of being under way on the M/V Kennicott makes me antsy, so I move on to my first goal aboard: Find a ride to Anchorage. If I don’t, I’ll have to hitchhike the 60 miles from the port at Whittier when I disembark.
Stu is a stocky army captain who’s been stationed in Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. He’s traveling the same way I am, the way the Alaska ferries are famous for: tent erected on the exterior solarium deck and secured to the hard floor with long strips of duct tape. Stu is short and moves with the efficiency of a soldier, storing his gear in a low-slung camouflage tent. As he strings a hammock on deck, I joke that it’s such a good idea, someone will steal it.
“I’d go cabin to cabin and hunt them down,” he says, “and throw them overboard.” I can’t tell if he’s joking, but I’ve found my ride.
We’re this boat’s equivalent of steerage, perhaps, but with the broad view through the solarium glass rather than tiny porthole windows, it’s hard to envy those in “first class.” Our bathrooms are much the same anyway, equipped with magnets to keep the stall doors from banging in rough seas.
Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Disney cruises trace this same path every year, departing from Seattle or Vancouver on boats stacked with swimming pools and piano bars. The Kennicott has a cafeteria that serves halibut burgers and salty soft pretzels.
The 250 or so passengers aboard quickly sort ourselves into three major camps. For the wildlife watchers, home base is the whitewashed railings on the decks outside. Through binoculars and telephoto lenses they spot dorsal fins and spy hops and the slap of whale tails. With them I feel what I call restless picture syndrome: taking shot after shot of the landscape that’s shockingly beautiful.
For families there’s the forward observation lounge. With rows of squeaky upholstered seats, it could be a movie theater, but the big screen is angled windows overlooking the bow of the ship. Locals on short trips from one town to the next are on a mission to shop or work; they rarely mix with the long haulers and tourists.
And finally there’s the bar, destination for the travelers who rank social connection over scenery. It looks like the conference room in a badly designed old office building—all garish carpet and awkward vinyl chairs, though the tables have a lip to catch drinks when the boat lists. Alaska brand beers, from a tap sporting a cross-eyed polar bear, are $6 each, no tax and no tip—the bartenders are state employees.
It’s here I find my crowd for the week, a resident crew of travelers flipping through mass-market novels or engaging in first-class bullshittery. We set up in the corner, commandeering a few tables with packages of roasted nuts and granola bars.
Everyone has a story, true or not. A few of them are military, like Stu, most of them headed for the Coast Guard base on Kodiak. One tall petty officer with a pompadour and deep affection for Elvis music tells stories about nuclear submarine mishaps—then notes that what he’s talking about is probably classified and therefore maybe didn’t happen. Another’s tale about a youthful indiscretion begins, “No one here’s an arson investigator, right?” and ends, “Next thing you know, half the town knew I burned our house down.”
Returning Alaskans share local knowledge, bragging of how you can steal Alaskan king crab from a stranger’s crab pot as long as you replace it with beer. People starting over are reluctant to discuss the past, but one reveals he’s leaving a career as a cemetery worker before showing us gory cell phone pictures of caskets that have shifted their way to the surface.
I ask Stu, my tent-deck buddy, what he’s reading and he reluctantly shows me the title on his Kindle: Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class. Everyone in the bar already knows I’m one of those bleeding heart liberals, so I laugh. But Stu’s fresh off an Afghanistan deployment; I listen to his long digressions on Muslim culture before the whole table gets involved in a heated argument about Chelsea Manning’s gender—these conversations aren’t exactly linear. Eventually we’re all laughing at Stu’s abject hatred of “Coexist” religious harmony bumper stickers.
A Kodiak-bound enlisted Coast Guard chef has a cautious conversation with the petty officer, who later admits that their difference in rank means they run in very different cliques on a normal base. The boat tosses them together here.
“Have you been down to the car deck?” he asks once the officer leaves; every few hours the stairs open to the car level so people can walk their dogs, and chaos ensues at least once a day. “It’s like Somalia, but for dogs, down there.” He gleefully describes how a pair of bulldogs ate the entire front seat of a Dodge pickup between car calls.
For the most part, bar conversation is yarn spinning of the highest order, only it goes on for days. People drink beer and cheap wine and soda through the long, lazy days.
The irascible bartender shoos us all out of the bar one afternoon, telling us we have to go look at the Fairweather mountain range that looms off the starboard side. “I don’t get tips,” she says, “I can do that.”
A place can’t be as big and wild as Alaska without being a little dangerous. And I’m not talking about the state’s remote mountains and its 100,000 glaciers, seas of ice that crack and swallow underprepared adventurers. And I’m not talking about the bears, though there’s that too. I went from shuddering at the sight of a gun to only hiking with friends who brought firearms.
And I’m not talking about moose, a creature I learned to fear even more than bears. The spindly baby moose that wander through campus drive everyone inside; I didn’t understand until I saw the mother cows lumber by and the ropey muscles they’d use to charge anyone who approached the awkward babes.
No, the real menace in Alaska isn’t the wildlife. It’s alcoholism so rampant Alaska loses more than a billion dollars a year, more than any other state, to the costs of accidents, health care, and lost productivity. “People just don’t show up to work,” I heard over and over again. Outside Anchorage it just gets worse, where despite dry and damp regulations, Alaskan Natives die from alcohol-related causes nine times more than the national average.
The menace comes on two-lane roads that hug mountainsides and impatient drivers that speed along them with no option to travel a different way. It comes in a land where people move to start over, sometimes starting over from something terrible.
In towns this small, the past clings to Alaskans like lint. When I swung through Sitka near the end of my two-month sojourn, I secured one of the only vacant hotel rooms in town, in an off-kilter bed-and-breakfast. That day a waitress, after inquiring about my lodging, solemnly informed me that the proprietor was fresh out of jail for helping kill her boyfriend’s wife—and everyone in town was convinced she’d then killed the boyfriend too. At night I crept back to my bed, the only guest in the B&B and thoroughly creeped out.
On my sabbatical’s last stop, I befriended a ferry driver, telling him I was on a several-hour layover. In the thrall of enjoying Alaskan hospitality, I accepted his invitation to his home for dinner, a lovely home accessible only by his tiny ferry. After all, he seemed like a kindly old man.
An hour later, he cheerfully turned from the baked halibut to request I join him in his homemade hot tub. And could he could take pictures? I refused dinner and waited on the deck outside his house until he’d ferry me back to civilization. I was appalled that a savvy woman like myself would end up in such a situation.
The current of menace ebbs and flows, to be sure. And there’s a thrill of seeing Alaska as the true last frontier, as a place where laws are more suggestions than rules and where troubled or odd people are drawn. It’s just part of the fabric of Alaska, like the hospitality, like the bears.
Days 3–5: Ashore
The best part about riding a boat is getting off that boat. But the worst part of getting off the M/V Kennicott is the bullhorn that announces each stop an hour before reaching port. I’m jerked awake at 6:30am near the town of Ketchikan, sweating on top of the down sleeping bag I thought I’d need.
Everyone is thrilled to have an excuse to get off the ship, which has started to feel cramped and dull after only one full day at sea. There aren’t more than 250 passengers on board, and even the Coast Guard men used to month-long tours at sea are itching to see new faces.
Stu and I climb into a cab; we’re docked a few miles outside of town. Both Ketchikan and the next stop, Juneau, are so frequently visited by cruise ships that their centers have become little extensions of those ships: blocks of fur stores and jewelry stores, many owned by the cruise lines themselves. Only the last stop, Yakutat, is saved from the tourist sheen, and the only person who unloads there brought his surfboard for the famed Icy Bay waves.
Rumors about the best restaurants had circled on board before we hit port, so we see familiar faces at the same diners and coffee shops. In Ketchikan it’s the Pioneer Cafe that benefited from the shipwide gossip, and at each table someone tries the well-advertised reindeer sausage.
In Juneau, one more chance to escape the tourist trip: Cab drivers are convinced to take passengers to the foot of Mendenhall Glacier for a quick photo, then to the foot of the Mount Roberts Tramway.
I break from the pack, picked up for our brief shore leave by the friend who once taught me how to shoot a gun. Her cabin is “two miles off the road,” meaning we have a good uphill hike before she can cook us breakfast. Even miles from the street and neighbors, her home is painted a cheery blue and is surrounded by tidy strawberry patches. She tells me how she, an east coaster, ended up here—on a ferry ride exactly like mine. Once ashore she was entranced by Juneau’s steep mountains and waterfront and she never left.
After my first day in Anchorage back in 2009, I was ready to leave, to find a new fantasy destination that wasn’t as grubby in reality. Patagonia looks good in commercials, and Nepal has that whole spiritual thing. But within two weeks I’d experienced the tight web of community that is Alaska’s real fabric.
I learned to talk fish—well, to understand talk of fish, at least, a topic that dominates life in Alaska more than fracking in North Dakota or traffic in Boston. Kings are the giant swimmers that drew top dollar, but reds are the sockeye you had a better chance of scoring, especially if you knew someone fishing in Bristol Bay. Anchorage restaurants could be disappointing, I learned, but just-caught salmon on a backyard grill beat any seafood dish in Washington.
I learned that the tribes here are Alaska Native, not “Native American,” and there’s no such thing as a reservation. Tribes from Aleut to Tlingit to Yupik formed native corporations in the 1970s that administer land rights and wield real political power. Native history is a complex web of oil rights and Russian Orthodox missionaries, dry-town votes and global warming threats.
Forget midwestern or Southern hospitality; this is a state where people don’t lock their cars in case anyone needs to use them on a cold night. Where it isn’t strange to walk two miles to civilization just to fetch a friend for breakfast.
In the Internet age, Anchorage can only feel so remote. But at four hours behind the buzz of the East Coast and home to no professional sports or major entertainment industry, its sense of American pop culture can be vague. On campus no one recognized Game of Thrones the first time I pulled out the giant paperback, and poetry readings are more packed than weeknight movies. Everyone seemed to know everyone else in the state, like a giant undergraduate population where no one has more than two degrees of separation. When I ask locals what they think of Sarah Palin I hear stories of a cousin who went to school with her kids or a fight over the Wasilla library. Palin is a meddlesome neighbor here, not a national lightning rod.
As I continued to take trips to Anchorage every summer, it became less of a postcard destination and more familiar. I learned the lingo: snow machine, not snowmobile. Outside is what they call everything that isn’t Alaska. Breakup is spring, specifically the melting of the iced-over waterways. I was still an Outsider, but I don’t always sound like one.
I befriended Mae, a poet who wore fresh flowers in her hair all summer; she looked more like a wood nymph than a backwoods homesteader. She didn’t own a cell phone or have an email address, and she loaned me her car so often it was like she considered it communal property.
Mae grew up in Anchorage, and she told me stories about what teenage life means in town: girls raped, kids in fatal car accidents on dark roads. Tight rumor circles have no release valve. When her baby was born in the middle of the annual Iditarod dogsled race, she named her Winter.
Mae’s cozy one-bedroom in Anchorage is still there, blocks from the Qupqugiaq Inn, on the very road I drove in horror on my first day in town. It was even tighter quarters than the Manhattan apartment I’d escaped, but it became my favorite place in Alaska.
Day 6: Arrival
The M/V Kennicott arrives in Whittier just before 6am. For the last time, I’m blasted awake by the horn, but this time I’m glad to have time to disassemble my tent. The town of Whittier itself is a strange one, home to fewer residents than our ferry has passengers. It’s located on the other side of the mountain from the road to Anchorage. Cars pass through a two-and-a-half mile tunnel under rock to escape Whittier.
I climb into Stu’s cherry-red Jeep, then wait for him to argue about a bumper scratch with ferry employees. Five days ago I worried about hitchhiking, but by now I’ve argued with Stu about politics and raided his deployment hard drive for movies, tickled to see Romancing the Stone and Dave alongside his war flicks and James Bond. As we navigate the twisty Seward Highway that traces Turnagin Arm, known for its head-on collisions, I’m laughing as he trash talks Joe Biden.
We pull into Anchorage and I flip through photos on my digital camera, amused at how many I have of the same thing—icy blue waters of the Inside Passage, the distant outline of possible fauna (more smudges than whales), and my duct-taped tent. I take almost no photos of the chatty crew from the bar, my fellow tenters, or even the ship’s sparkling, spare interior.
The journey to Alaska is just like the state: impossibly beautiful when you point the camera in the right way, but truly memorable for whole other reasons. We pull into Mae’s driveway and I fish my pack from the back seat. It’s a sunny summer morning in Anchorage, still cold enough to have a chill.
Mae hears the crunch of wheels on gravel and brings Winter outside to greet me.