A 21-years-younger us pulled into the queue before the Matanuska Ferry, operated by the Alaska Marine Highway System—the only highway that reaches many towns in the 49th State. We had reservations for our Toyota pickup, and a small berth for the four-day journey up the Inside Passage from Bellingham, Washington to Haines, Alaska.
After being flagged on board the parking deck with a full complement of semi-trucks and vehicles of every sort, we schlepped our baggage up four flights of stairs to our room, which just barely fit the definition of a stateroom.
In contrast to staterooms found on the monster cruise ships that regularly ply the Inside Passage route, our accommodations were modest but cozy. But hey, most of our time would be spent in the port-to-starboard-length ship bar, complete with cushiony sofas and chairs (no one under 21 allowed), that would serve as our quiet and comfy cabin during this voyage. Andrea, our bar hostess, quickly welcomed us and soon conversation filled us in on all things Matanuska.
In particular, our ship’s captain was on his last voyage before retiring, and rumor had it that he planned some major route deviation that would take us into rarely traveled waters through narrow scenic fjords. This soon proved itself out as in short order the crew were ordered to station themselves on either side of the ship, carefully guiding the captain through a narrow channel that I would describe as “white-knuckle” sailing.
Everyone lined the deck rails as on the port side waterfalls cascaded down within feet of the slowly moving ship, and heavy forest painted the starboard land horizon with occasional appearances by moose and bear. Eagles cruised over our bow, and we were welcomed by a pod of killer whales hunting for sea lions who had found temporary shelter in the rocks of the nearly vertical cliffs almost in arm’s reach on our port side. To this day the roar of waterfalls, ghostly wisps of fog softening the intensity of verdant green vegetation, the smell of salt air, and the sound of bald and golden eagle cries remains clear in memory.
The engine of travel in wanderlust is the inquisitive mind, and after many successful attempts to learn the ins and outs of this mode of travel, Andrea said she had a surprise for us. This turned out to be permission to join the captain and crew in the wheelhouse. My first impression upon entering was the nature of command. It brought to mind the finely tuned operation of a Michelin-starred restaurant, featuring the call and response of the captain and crew with every critical order (“Yes Sir!” substituting for “Yes Chef!”). The atmosphere of respect was heavy in the air, supported—I was sure—by the knowledge that in this last voyage, the captain was to be afforded the utmost of respect and deference. It was an honor we were proud to share, and, as the pièce de résistance for Ruth, the captain walked over and invited her the honor of piloting the ship for a bit—under his VERY watchful eye. (By the way, this took place in open water!)
Speaking of the engine of travel, my interest in all things mechanical was satiated in learning about the propulsion system of our massive ship. She had two huge sixteen-cylinder diesel engines producing about 4,000Hp each, and burning about 230 gallons of fuel an hour.
Using data that I could pull up from 2015, the approximate cost of running these engines is about 400-500 dollars/hour, with marine diesel fuel then running about $2.55/gal. It’s not cheap to take the ferry up the Inside Passage for four days, and I’m sure there’s a state subsidy which makes these ferries sustainable. In 2022 pricing, here is an approximate cost based on IF a 28-foot Airstream and our 25-foot truck could be brought on board a busy ferry run:
Based on the pricing above, we have chosen to drive up through Canada, the Yukon, and Alaska despite the costly diesel pricing. A very approximate very round trip distance from Vancouver to Fairbanks and back is 3,100 miles at around $225 per 400 miles/tank, giving us an approximate fuel cost of $1,750. All this is very approximate yet considerably cheaper than the $8.5K! Plus we pull our state room and mini-restaurant behind us. Also note that the charges noted in the ferry chart are one way only from Bellingham to Haines, which requires another 640 miles to reach Fairbanks.
If one is interested in traveling on the cheap, you can take the option to walk aboard with backpack and camping gear and pitch your tent up on the top deck as seen here:
Border Crossing: Stardate 1968
When I first attempted to enter Canada fifty-four years ago as a hitchhiking hippie, I was turned away, back from the Windsor Bridge crossing from Detroit. Reason? “Vagrancy.” This did not dissuade a persistent young man, and I hitched south, across the base of the Great Lakes, and up to the Winnipeg border crossing. As there were no computers back then, I was able to convince the border guard with the right answers, a smile, and my driver’s license. It’s all about who and how you know. From there I hitchhiked across Canada with a beautiful ballerina—but that is another story….
Border Crossing 2022
In this modern milieu, technology in the form of the ArriveCAN app was the first stage in our “gateway.” This wonky app was necessary to download and fill out in an off-the-beaten-path location with poor internet. After multiple attempts to select the correct time of border crossing, having uploaded all my Covid inoculation data, I just threw all attempts to put a square peg into a round hole and determined to arrive at whatever approximate time was expedient. Ruth followed suit, and we then needed to complete online registration and printout of our rifle data. Firearms are strictly regulated here—in contrast to life in our Wild West of America. During our cross-window interview with the border security officer, we were asked to drive into a check point kiosk and enter a large inspection office for further review and visual rifle compliance. The inspection agent asked for the location of the weapon, walked out alone to our truck, and quickly completed his check out.
We could have passed into Canada in a jiffy so why carry in a rifle and muck up the process? Well, back in that time machine to 2001, we connected to a well-organized women-led wilderness llama trekking company. A couple of days in, after setting up camp and preparing to cook, we were accosted by two yearling grizzly bears who were determined to prevent us from having any part of their nearby moose kill. We retreated back to a small hillock, proceeding to create the noise and disturbance necessary to convince the bears that we were not competition, just non-adversarial nuisances with no interest in their dinner. If it weren’t for the llamas, we might have become hors d’oeuvres. Because llamas just don’t fit into bear’s scent-flavor profile, they are the perfect hiking companions; and they each can carry 50 pounds of gear, making our evening wine and meals a delicious treat. As we sat on the hillside anxiously waiting for the bears to leave, our guide remarked, “This is the first time I haven’t brought a rifle on a trek!” At last the grizzlies decided our camp wasn’t that interesting, and left us for their no-doubt tasty moose. Once they’d cleared off, we made a beeline to our campsite and, after the fastest breakdown ever, beat a hasty retreat. A couple of big firsts on both sides of the trekking equation!
A wise hiker in the world of grizzlies thinks the options through carefully. Be bear aware. Create trail noise in potential bear habitats. Don’t pet or feed cute cubs. You think this is funny? There are many stories of those who win the Darwin Award. Grizzlies can run as fast as 35 mph. Play dead? An angry mom can make this act an actual one. Bear spray? A bear moving as fast as an Olympic sprinter would have to be close enough to be in range of the spray stream, then (as a local ranger told us) you’ve got an angry, orange, burning, really pissed-off bear. The best solution? Stay home and watch bear activity on the travel channel or take your chances. We’re gallivanting out once again to play in bears’ home field, choosing the nonvirtual option.
The farther away you travel from the gravity of the mass mind of the United States, the more you discover that as a whole, Canadians are a pretty personable lot. Of course there is no social utopia, and the grass is not greener on the other side…though actually it is in a environmental northern greenbelt sort of way. But people are just friendlier and refreshingly open, in an at-first disconcerting familial way. Everywhere you go, you notice that folks are less suspicious and will more easily engage in friendly conversation. Over the last decade, Americans have devolved into divisiveness and political polarization that is discomforting. Just recently I was in conversation with a stranger while waiting in a shopping queue and he said that whatever negativity of social quirks emerge in America takes about 4-5 years before it infects Canada, sooner these days with the advent of social media but still with significant lag time; think the “Tide Pods” scare, if you recall. But still, as a whole, the 49th Parallel separates the American temper tantrums from the more laid back, “Sorry, excuse me” attitude of the Canucks.
Now, there are the typical upcountry, redneck similarities. We spied a number of Canadian bumper stickers that read: F..k Trudeau!, that corresponds to America’s F..k Biden. Some things never change in human nature, but thus far these emotions have not created the social schism here in Canada that we have seen in the Lower 48. Did I mention that this is remarkably refreshing?!