Roughing It Along the Alaska Marine Highway

It was 5 a.m. and the silence of the Alaska Marine Highway on that October morning awakened some passengers on the M/V Matanuska.

We must have anchored in Wrangell Narrows, I thought, as a mountain of hemlock and Sitka spruce trees seemed to press up against my starboard porthole. Enjoying the luxury of a comfortable berth, I turned over and went back to sleep.

When the steady throb of the 408-foot ferry's twin diesel engines had not restarted two hours later, I wondered if we had gone aground.

Not so, according to a deckhand.

"During the night we anchored near Scow Bay because of fog and zero visibility," he told me. "When the fog lifted, the tide had run out."

My daughter, Donna, and I were on the last leg of a two-week trip on what has been called the "poor man's cruise" of the Alaska Inside Passage.

The state-run Alaska Marine Highway extends about 1,000 miles--from Bellingham, Wash. (approximately 150 miles north of Seattle), to Skagway, Alaska. You can ride the waterway via ferry in a variety of segments, as we did, from distances as short as Sitka to Juneau (about 95 miles) to longer journeys such as Ketchikan to Bellingham (about 680 miles).

For a fraction of the cost of what summer passengers pay on upscale cruise ships, we had been enjoying the identical spectacular scenery via ferry.

Of course, we had far fewer amenities. Meals are served cafeteria-style--the kind of wholesome, hardy fare one might expect would please even the most rugged logger. Some ferries have no cabins, others not enough to accommodate even those passengers willing to pay for the convenience.

In that case, passengers simply sleep on deck or on any available space not otherwise occupied. Lockers, public showers and nights of sleeping inches from such varied clientele as babies, gold miners and a host of interesting locals are all part of the experience.

We knew that October would be a rainy, foggy month along the Alexander Archipelago, but we wanted to escape the sunshine tourists. We wanted to make brief stops at towns along the Marine Highway, travel with Alaskan fishermen and loggers, and learn something of the Tlingit culture (pronounced KLINK-et).

When the tourist season ends, the locals crowd the ferries to visit relatives or doctors, go shopping or simply to enjoy the ride. Other than airplanes, ferries are the only transportation connecting the thousands of islands of southeast Alaska.

After a hundred years of benign neglect by the U.S. government, the Native American culture, especially the art, has attracted considerable recognition from the 200,000-plus tourists who cruise the Alaska Marine Highway from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

After Labor Day weekend, Alaska practically shuts down to tourists. When days grow shorter and rains shower the coasts and snow falls inland, Alaska returns to the Native Americans and others who migrated to its wild, open spaces to escape the demands and stress of the Lower 48.

The complex culture of the Tlingits is widely symbolized throughout the region in ovoid and fluid art forms representing the Raven and Eagle, which are the two great social divisions, or moieties. Everyone belongs to one of these matrilineal families, but must marry into the other. The Tlingit art forms tell stories and preserve a heritage passed down through countless generations.

Southeast Alaska's rich heritage is due largely to the Tlingits. Their familial totems, elaborate blankets, fine basketry and cultural legends are the archives of this land. Family crests are thousands of years old.

Russian fur traders were the first outsiders to arrive and exploit the area. They were supplanted in 1867 when the United States purchased Alaska for two cents an acre. Total cost: $7.2 million.

The Tlingits had lived so well on the lush, rainy, foggy islands that they had plenty of leisure time to develop carving, weaving and other art forms. Now their native land is the Tongass National Park. They still hunt and fish, abiding by restrictions set by the U.S. Forest Service. Some of their children attend Sheldon Jackson College, in Sitka, tuition-free.

"Now the Japanese own the cold storage plant and the pulp mills," said one Tlingit working in the college's main dining hall. "The waters are over-fished. They are cutting down the trees. Where will the eagles go?"

Sitka was the first stop on our trip. Donna and I flew from Seattle to that lovely city of 8,000 jammed between the Pacific Ocean and fog- and snow-covered mountains. It has just 14 miles of paved roads, and the flavor of an earlier era when Native Americans and Russians fought for supremacy. The imposing St. Michael's Cathedral, an onion-domed, gray-and-white wooden Russian Orthodox church, dominates the downtown Sitka skyline.

The church stands on an island in the center of town, in the middle of Lincoln Street. Native Americans live on narrow, hilly streets in small frame houses. Some are decorated with lovely Raven or Eagle symbols.

From Sitka, on the second leg of our southeast Alaska adventure, we sailed the Le Conte--a 235-foot ferry--on an overnight cruise to Juneau. Cruise is used loosely in this case; camping would be more descriptive. There were no cabins, and many of the 200 passengers had come prepared with sleeping bags. By 10:30 p.m., most passengers had bedded down on any available floor space in the lounge.

Along with 20 hardy souls, we retired to the bridge deck to sleep on reclining chairs under a three-sided, heated solarium. Near its open end, wanting less heat and more sky, and wrapped in warm blankets, I enjoyed the night breezes and even the spray from a rain shower. Several campers pitched tents on the bow, thereby cocooning themselves from the velvet blackness of the sky and the stars poking through the scudding clouds. A sign warned: "No fires or cooking on deck."

We talked to several commercial fishermen on board. One claimed to have caught a 240-pound halibut a year earlier. A 240-pound halibut? Not yet convinced, I asked two fishermen's wives about the likelihood of such a thing.

"Yes, that's true," one mammoth Native American woman told us. "My husband caught a 300-pounder. Big as me. Commercial men don't shoot the big ones because the noise lets the other boats know what they hooked, and then they all come crowding. They have to club 'em or harpoon 'em. It's a dangerous business."

By morning, the ferry had docked in Auke Bay at Juneau. We showered and ate breakfast. An amiable driver from a local motel picked us up and, having nothing better to do, offered to drive us to the Mendenhall Glacier, 14 miles away.

Mendenhall is one of 38 glaciers flowing from the Juneau ice field. It recedes at the rate of 30 feet a year. The weight of it is such that the land rises, after Mendenhall recedes, at a rate of about three quarters of an inch per year.

In October, before enough new snow falls to cover its crevassed surface, the glacier looks very much like an enormous dirty rumpled bedspread--streaked with gray, blue and brown: gray from environmental pollution, blue from the compression of centuries of ice and brown from the thousands of tons of rocks ground up during its advance and recession.

During the last Ice Age, the glaciers were part of the mile-deep ice sheet that covered all of southeast Alaska. During a warming trend some 12,000 years ago, much of the ice melted. Then the ocean flowed into valleys gouged by the ice, and formed the myriad of channels and bays that are part of the Marine Inland Waterway, often referred to as the "American fiords." Countless peaks of land were left exposed as islands. Often shrouded in fog, this splendid array of tree-covered islands dot some 1,100 miles, from Skagway to Seattle.

In Juneau, we boarded the Matanuska and had the luxury of a cabin and private bath. We anticipated brief stops along the way, and were pleased to see that we had the same mix of interesting Alaskans for traveling companions that we enjoyed on the Le Conte.

We heard stories first- and secondhand about people attacked by bears. One Native American man told us: "My cousin, Joe, survived a bear attack by pretending to play dead, after being badly mauled. That's the only way to come out of it alive. Unless its spring and they're real hungry. The bear nibbled on Joe's ear. He stayed real quiet. So the bear lost interest and walked away."

Returning south on the Matanuska while waiting for the incoming tide in the Wrangell Narrows, the purser announced, "Unfortunately, because we have lost so much time, we will stop only long enough to discharge passengers at Wrangell." No sightseeing there for us.

Then the purser added another disappointment: "We will dock for only on hour at Ketchikan. You will have just enough time to make telephone calls to friends meeting you in Seattle." In my case, it was to book another flight to Philadelphia.

As the Matanuska headed on the two-day excursion from Ketchikan to Seattle, an Alaskan who used to live in Minnesota said, "City people from the Lower 48 think Alaska is more like a foreign country than part of the union. There's no state to equal it. You know, when the sun shines it is the most beautiful place I've seen. We don't want too many tourists coming up here crowding us. We want to keep it a secret."


Taking a Ferry Through Alaska

How to get there: Alaska Airlines offers three flights daily from Seattle to Sitka, Alaska. One-way fare is about $329.

Riding the ferries: Ferries are jammed in-season (May 1 to Oct. 1). From Sitka to Juneau in-season, ferry costs $44 with cabin, $35 without. Off-season, cost is $27 with cabin, $20 without. From Juneau to Bellingham, price is $640 in-season, $416 off-season, both with cabin.

For more information: Call Alaska Marine Highway reservations office at (907) 966-2266. For outdoor activities in Sitka area, contact Sitka Ranger District, U.S. Forest Service, 204 Singinaka Way, P.O. Box 1980, Sitka, Alaska 99835, (907) 747-6671. For general information on travel to Alaska, contact Alaska Division of Tourism, P.O. Box E, Juneau 99811, (907) 465-2010.

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