The Southeast Alaska way of life


By Michael Raffety

Ships and my wife don’t get along. She says she can get seasick standing on a dock. When we visited by cousin Kathy, who is two days older than me, we learned about Bonine, which is an anti-seasick pill that won’t make you sleepy like Dramamine. Her husband Rob praised it as a cure for his tendency to get seasick. He had tested it thoroughly because they had just returned from an Alaska cruise, where the cruise ship saved time by transiting the wild west side of Vancouver Island, with waves and weather strong enough to cause them to fall while walking down the stairs. Yikes!

Safeway pharmacy didn’t have Bonine, but the pharmacist helped us find the equivalent and it worked very well.

The first test for my wife was taking the Bainbridge Island ferry out of Seattle to visit the sixth-ranked Japanese garden in the U.S., the Bloedel Reserve. Using the over-55 rate for two people and a pickup truck, it only cost $15 one direction.

Seattle ferries don’t rock on the water. No problem.

On the same day we toured the seventh ranked Seattle Japanese garden, which I thought was better than Bloedel.

When we boarded the Alaska State Ferry for its 6 p.m. departure for the final leg of our trip to visit all my cousins and my aunt and show the PowerPoint show about my mother’s life, which included photos of she and her sisters, it was raining in Bellingham, Wash. As the state ferry negotiated the San Juan Islands the rain continued through the evening and into the next day. Mist-shrouded islands surrounded the boat. It was simply entrancing. Add to that seeing a killer whale this late in the season.

By the time the rain ended and the sun appeared we were passing a lighthouse I had visited in 1976 when I kayaked from Vancouver, B.C., to Ketchikan, Alaska. It was more than a lighthouse. It was a compound and housed a family of Mormons who were generous with their hospitality. There we met a neighbor and also visited him. He was building a sailboat from the spruce trees he had logged nearby.

This was actually my second voyage on the Alaska State Ferry. I booked a solo passage in 1975 from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska, where I caught the White Pass & Yukon Railroad to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. That ferry ride cost $65 for the privilege of rolling out my sleeping bag on a lounge chair in the solarium with its ceiling heaters. Now that same passage costs $422.

This time, however, we booked a cabin with its own bathroom and shower. It even had its own thermostat. It was somewhat roomier than a Pullman sleeper.

There was a two-hour transit of open ocean between Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Island. They gave one-hour advanced warning so people would have time to take anti-seasickness pills. The open water transit was relatively calm with only a little movement of the 418-foot-long Columbia. With the aid of the anti-seasick pill my wife was unfazed by the open water transit.

We both found the 38-hour state ferry ride to Ketchikan an enchanted journey.

My cousin Marilyn and her husband Jack met us when the ferry arrived at 7 a.m.

You may think the major industries of Ketchikan are fishing and logging. There is a lot less logging now. My cousin Kathy’s daughter Amy and her husband Leif live in Ketchikan. I mention Leif, because there is a multi-figure bronze statue near the Ketchikan wharf, which includes a logger for which Leif posed. Leif has been a logger, but now does welding and handyman work.

The main industry of Ketchikan is cruise ships. In fact, the cruise ships own all the businesses along the waterfront –- all the curio shops, including the shop that sells my cousin’s paintings.

Jack and Marilyn are the ultimate self-sufficient Southeast Alaskans. Marilyn worked for the Alaska State Ferry for nine years as a purser, then worked for the city recreation department. Jack retired as an engineer for the state highway department. But that’s not how they paid off their house.

That’s where the self-sufficient part comes in. Jack had done construction before working for the highway department. He built the house from the trees he felled for their driveway and building pad. A friend with a portable sawmill turned the cedar trees into lumber and beams. They lived without sheetrock while the lumber cured.

And that’s how they have a house without a mortgage –- and a house with a view of the water. But it doesn’t stop with a self-built house. They have freezer full of venison, salmon and halibut and Marilyn has a greenhouse off the back porch where she grows tomatoes and cucumbers.

The day after we caught our flight out of Ketchikan Jack and Marilyn were off to Portland to buy new appliances to go with their kitchen expansion-remodel plan.

How do they get them back to a town that is on a big island? Cargo container. From the state ferry we saw tugs with long lines pulling barges full of cargo containers. While eating lunch in the dining room we saw a tug heading south pulling two two-story houses with their interior lights on. The dining room steward thought they were Forest Service buildings used for special projects. They were strange and magical and totally Alaska.


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