Voyaging through Southeast Alaska

Michael Raffety


My father was stationed at Ft. Richardson, Alaska, during the war. In 1941 my mother traveled to Alaska to visit him there. I always knew that from the home movies of Alaska, including a photo of my mom in a parka with a fur-lined hood.

What I didn’t know was that she traveled by boat, which is the best way to see Southeastern Alaska. The voyage goes along what is known as the Inside Passage, a route protected from the ocean by a ring of islands, the largest being Vancouver Island, 290 miles long. There is about 50 miles of open ocean between Port Hardy on the north end of Vancouver Island and Calvert Island. When I kayaked the Inside Passage from Vancouver, B.C., to Ketchikan, Alaska in 1976, I hitched a ride on a fishing boat out of Port Hardy to avoid the open ocean.

The ship my mother took in 1941 was the S.S. Alaska, which also made stops at isolated canneries. The steamship company owned 12 of them. By 1976, most of those isolated canneries were closed down and made interesting ghost towns to tour when I came upon them in my kayak.

In October 1941, when my mother was voyaging on the S.S. Alaska, the government had taken control of all ships, including this one. Originally built in Seattle in 1923, the Alaska was 350 feet long and 4,658 gross tons. It carried 200 passengers in style. At the time when war was declared the Alaska Line had 15 vessels.

The Alaska Steamship Co. was formed Aug. 3, 1894, and really made good money when the Klondike Gold Rush happened in 1898. The steamship company shipped mining supplies, dog sleds, cattle and miners.

In 1909, it merged with the Northwest Steamship Co., but retained the name Alaska Steamship Co., operating 18 ships.

What I thought was a blank note card with cute puppies on the face turned out to be a lunch menu from the S.S. Alaska that my mother had saved.

Lunch for Wednesday, Oct. 15, 1941, was pretty extensive in its choices. Listed first were garden radishes, dill pickles, sweet mixed pickles, spiced beets, green onions and “Chow Chow.” Soup choices were puree of split pea au croutons or beef tea.

Fish was broiled Alaska halibut maitre d’Hotel.

Entrees were braised sirloin of beef with egg noodles, rice pancakes with honey, grilled pork chops with fried sweet potatoes, green pepper omelette, fruit omelette, broiled ham or bacon and eggs to order.

Vegetables were stewed rutabagas, steamed potatoes, minced Lyonnaise potatoes and broiled Carolina rice.

Cold Buffet included potato salad served with all cold meats, roast prime ribs of beef with horseradish, kippered cod, ox tongue and liver sausage.

Salad included bouquet of greens with French dressing.

Dessert options included green apple pie, cabinet custard pudding with vanilla sauce, wine Jello with whipped cream, cinnamon rolls, assorted cookies, fresh apple sauce, Sunkist oranges, stewed apricots and Ryekrisp.

Cheese included American, Tillamook, cottage, Oregon cream and pimento.

The end of the menu prepared by Chief Steward D. McLean included coffee, buttermilk, black or green tea, milk and chocolate.

And that was just lunch. What a spread! But they can keep the rutabagas.

I checked with my mom last week and she assured me you just selected a few things from the available buffet items.

The Alaska Steamship Co. discontinued passenger service in 1954 and shut down in 1971. The S.S. Alaska was scrapped in 1955. Their freight hauling was taken over by tugs pushing barges, airplanes and trucks using the Alaska Highway. It was also eclipsed by the Alaska State Ferry operated by the state Highway Department. Originally started by a couple of Haines, Alaska residents in 1948 with a surplus landing craft used for tanks, it was purchased by the territorial government in 1951 and renamed the Alaska Marine Highway in 1963.

I voyaged on the Alaska State Ferry in 1973. The MV Malaspina was built in 1963 and elongated in 1972. It could hold 88 vehicles and 500 passengers. It is 408 feet long and 74 feet wide at the beam. It is 5,552 long tons. It includes 54 four-berth cabins, 29 two-berth cabins, a cafeteria, cocktail lounge and bar and a solarium. I traveled in the solarium. For $65 then a person with a sleeping bag could sleep on a lounge chair under the heaters of the solarium, traveling from Seattle to Skagway with all the same incredible scenery people see on the Princess Cruise Lines.

Last year the Alaska State Ferry celebrated 50 years.

From Skagway I caught the White Pass & Yukon Railroad to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Staying in a youth hostel there I met the only other person with enough money to go halfsies on a 16-foot canoe, enough grub and a river map to get us 500 miles downstream to Dawson.

That year, in fact, was the 75th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Our canoe actually was a foot shorter than was safely recommended by the RCMP. When we got to Lake Laberge and a storm came up and with minimal free board, we paddled like crazy but very carefully to get to land without swamping the canoe and camped for several days until the storm passed and the lake calmed down.

The experience left me reciting part of the Robert W. Service poem, the Cremation of Sam McGee, a prospector who froze to death near the lake, which Service spelled “Lake Labarge.”

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”

When we arrived in Dawson we sold our canoe to an older gentlemen, someone in his late 30s or 40s, who stepped into it and immediately capsized, enjoying a dunk in the Yukon and giving us a good laugh. We rode a bus back to Whitehorse and I retraced my path back on the railroad to Skagway and then the Alaska State Ferry back to Seattle and finally home to San Francisco.

I had started the summer of ’73 planning to be a student on an archeological dig in Cyprus. When my charter flight was canceled — a civil war broke out on the island — I used the money for a summer of adventure, starting with backpacking through the Three Sisters Wilderness in Central Oregon, the Olympic National Park and hiking around Mount Rainier, then doing my Alaska adventure. I was pretty well darned near out of money and my GI Bill hadn’t kicked in for the year yet. After worrying about running up my credit card on food from the Palestinian’s corner store, I signed up to drive cab for a year before returning to San Francisco State University. It worked out, because I found a roommate who worked for the same cab company and was renting a place in Bernal Heights with a view of the Bay Bridge and downtown.

But that’s another story.


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