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Alaska: Wet Highway

The Alaskan Marine Highway System. Or, as the locals say, the poor man's cruise ship. Friday marked boarding call for the ferry north to Haines. My ferry departed at 6pm, and by 3pm I was squared away in line with the other bikers headed North. My only surprise was that I expected a dozen+ riders this prime time of year and there were only seven of us. I never asked the boat if the number of motorcyclists is capped, but the space we were slotted on the boat did fill completely. One BMW rider was from Vermont. There was a couple from California on a Ducati and another on a three-wheel Spyder. Jerry was a rider from Arlington who was intent on reaching the Arctic Circle asap and then turning around for a quick ride to Florida. Gary had the most interesting bike, a green KLR he had personalized and called the “Shrek”, complete with a little Shrek along the handlebars. Finally got our wave to line up and then followed the crew inside to park, tie down, and unpack the gear we would need for the next few days.

Navigating the stairs top-side took some doing. The boat is larger than the outside leads you to believe. It seemed to be 7 flights of stairs to get up to the solarium. The M/V Columbia is the largest vessel in the Alaska ferry system. It is over 40 years old but was refurbished and generally a clean boat with a dining room, cafeteria, movie room, and forward viewing rooms. I think it is set up to hold around ~130 vehicles and 600 passengers, but with cabins, etc, it was always hard to tell how many people were on board. For the most part it seemed only lightly populated and never seemed crowded anytime during the trip.

By the time I reached the solarium a flurry of backpackers without vehicles had already laid claim to almost all of the white pool chairs lining the green astroturf under the solarium heat lamps. I headed instead right to the railing where 3 tents had already been set up and marked out a spot for my own. Next to me was a green tent set up by a air traffic controller from the UK. Also, a yellow tent from a dentist on vacation and an orange tent from another traveler like me who had left the working world for a quick adventure to Alaska (he was going by pick-up truck rather than motorcycle). A couple of the other motorcycle riders had tents, but the majority of them secured cabins.

The first night crossed open, unsheltered sea so the boat got rocking a little. The wind also whipped a bit on the deck but it was relatively dry for the night. Saturday was filled with meeting other travelers lounging under the solarium and killing time between meals. There were no port calls and limited scenic views – most of the day was cloudy, but we did start to enter narrow Inside Passage channels later in the afternoon, with surrounding green hills. It was neat to pass seaside Alaskan homesteads far off the beaten path, living in their own separate world from the rest of the country. The first city we really approached was Ketchikan on Sunday morning. The night before we hung out late into the wavering darkness with one traveler moving to that city, Jerry.

Jerry and his daughter were moving there in their RV. Jerry is one of those guys who can keep you up all night with stories of his life. He almost became a pilot, then decided to live for months in the coastal forests of Kauai. After which he journeyed to Southeast Asia to travel the banana pancake trail and teach English for years. He was living in Phuket with his wife and daughter right as the 2004 tsunami decimated the coast. He returned to the US, earned his teaching degrees, and after years teaching in the Southwest will now be a grade school teacher in Ketchikan. Jerry reflected that the beauty of teaching and the beauty of traveling are both the same - absorbing what others have to teach you. Learning from everyone's perspective. Learning what’s important and why you are here. Lots to learn from many travelers on a three day boat to Alaska.

Port call in Ketchikan was early Sunday morning. And it was in the pouring rain. Otherwise I would have loved to hike downtown and explore a little. The ferry terminal is a solid mile from the downtown area. While taxis do arrive to take people around, the time is fairly limited so you need to be prompt to both catch a ride there and back. Other people head across the street for some quick on-shore breakfast. Since the weather did not cooperate, I got as far as the line for the breakfast and then turned back to the boat.

The ferry carried on to Wrangell in the early afternoon and then to Petersburg around dinner. Both of those stops were only 1 hours port calls. The Wrangell one was actually cut in half. Still, me and 3 other campers from the solarium had a case of cabin fever so we rushed down the street at both stops for the nearest bars. The closest beers at Wrangell was a half mile away, which entailed a sprint down to the restaurant, one quick round, followed by a sprint back (we were the last ones on board). There was a Chinese restaurant closer to the ship in Petersburg. So we could sit down and have a more relaxed drink before darting back to the Columbia through falling raindrops.

After one last night at sea, the skies cleared up. Which was nice both for the final hours on the boat and the motorcycle ride later that day. The ferry made a very early morning call at Juneau and then steered towards Haines and Skagway. You could make out the snow-capped mountains and some of the ice fields of glacier bay through the parting clouds. As we neared Haines almost all of the riders had packed up and were ready to head down to the bikes (only Gary planned to head to Skagway with his ‘Shrek’). All of the bikes weathered the journey perfectly, so after a quick gear-up we backed into the space formerly absorbed by the steel boxes of RVs and trucks and rode the motorcycles onto the dry land of Alaska.

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