The ferry taking you from Prince Rupert to Alaska leaves at 3:30 AM. Because you must clear customs prior to boarding the ship, it is recommended that you arrive at the terminal no later than 12:30 AM. You do not know what it is like to kill time before having to do so in Prince Rupert, especially after having already spent the day hanging out and then finishing dinner a little after 7. But we did so with a little shopping, a silly movie, and an extended late night snack at Tim Hortons. At midnight we threw in the towel and headed toward the terminal.
By 12:30 AM we were lined up ready to get on the ferry. A scant two and a half hours later we finally boarded the Matanuska. BC Ferries Northern Expedition is less than a decade old. The Matanuska was built in 1963. A workhorse if there ever was one, the ship is much smaller and more matter of fact than its Canadian cousin. The views though are just as amazing and the passage through the Wrangell narrows was especially thrilling with the captain deftly weaving his way through a maze of buoys. At one point we passed a fishing resort and saw maybe fifty bald eagles perched on the trees and hanging out at the beach. The resort set off a firework and a dozen eagles then flew just in front of the boat.
We booked a cabin and it was clean but incredibly small with an even tinier bathroom (one where you can take a shower or turn around but not both). Before falling asleep I looked out the window to say goodbye to Prince Rupert. When I woke up a few hours later we were still in port. Due to a mechanical issue the boat did not actually leave Prince Rupert until around 6 AM. Besides being a couple hours off schedule, a planned extended stay in Ketchikan which would allow us to explore the place for a bit was changed to a thirty minute lay over. Over French pressed coffee, fruit and oatmeal (made possible by our cooler and free hot water), Corey and I discussed our itinerary.
Our original plan involved a short stay in Wrangell followed by a 48-hour ferry ride to Sitka. But a quick study of the ship’s schedule revealed an alternative option that traded Wrangell, and the long voyage, in return for extra time in Sitka. Thanks to the extraordinary help from the purser (whom I later tipped out with fresh blueberries) and a ticket agent named Heather (Trader Joe’s pita chips for her) the deal was made. Trip karma is real and for evidence I offer the fact that later while making a purchase of fries at the cafeteria the chef dropped a few Korean barbeque ribs on my plate free of charge.
During the short turn around at Ketchikan, the boat picked up not one but two groups of kids; a Ketchikan all-star little league team and a teenage girl softball team headed back home to Juneau. I learned later from one of the coaches that the Alaskan Marine Highway (AMH) is South East Alaska’s school bus for all the traveling sports teams. He recalled once taking a trip with about 200 students that included a marching band and not enough chaperones. On our voyage the boys were a bit more active than the girls and after an hour or two of settling in they began a game of tag that seemed to cheat death at every turn.
I also met a young couple and their incredibly cute little boy returning home to Ketchikan after a disappointing move to South Dakota. Although I only saw Ketchikan from the boat, that couple’s description of the place (as well as comments made by Heather, the now pita chip rich ticket agent) gave me a bit of insight into a community flooded each summer by thousands of cruise ship passengers. It is a lot more quite, however, in the winter time with most of the stores shut down, their owners setting up shop in the Caribbean. Back home he was hoping to resume his job as a case manager in a hospital servicing youth with behavior disorders.
Other conversations turned to the price of oil. Alaska has no state income or sales tax but resembles Sweden in the level of provided services. Home schoolers for example are reimbursed for on-line classes, computers, and even things like a karate class. Not only do Alaskans not pay many taxes, they also receive a bonus (every man, woman, and child) from the Alaskan Permanent Fund (which is derived from oil money). Supposedly this is all possible so long as the price of oil is around $95 a barrel. The actual price today though is under $50 a barrel which has meant serious cut backs to a lot of these services including the AMH. Our ship, for example, no longer has a gift shop or bar. More serious are the cut backs along the service line with some communities going from weekly to now monthly ship visits. These tiny towns are absolutely dependent on the AMH and their very survival is at risk. I also talked to a crew member, someone who had worked over five years with AMH, who was quitting once he made his way to Bellingham (crew members are allowed free passage on any ship) due to his hours being drastically cut last winter. The man was planning on going back to his family in Gillette, WY, an oil industry town, to build houses with his dad ahead of the housing boom. He anticipated this boom occurring once the price of oil reached $60 a barrel.