ALONGSIDE PIER 48 on Seattle's waterfront, the blue and white Alaskan ferry liner Matanuska was quietly resting between voyages. There was a light, cold drizzle falling over the city. Awaiting the signal to board, the foot passengers were huddled in one of the two temporary waiting rooms, while the vehicle passengers sat snugly in their cars, campers and pick-ups.
Winter seemed an odd time of the year to think about taking a seven-night, six-day boat trip 2,460 miles up the Inside Passage to Skagway and back.
"There won't be many tourists on this trip," said the warmly-wrapped reservations clerk who was adjusting the height of the boarding ramp.
The Alaksa Marine Highway operates nine passenger ferries over several different routes to complement the state's underdeveloped coastal road system. On the Seattle service, which operates weekly throughout the year, increasing to two sailings a week from May to September, the 408-foot Matnauska calls at seven different Panhandle ports. Five of them -- Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau and Sitka -- have no road access to the outside world. At the northern end of the route, the port of Haines has a 150-mile gravel road connection through Canada to the Alaskan Highway and Skagway has a new road and an old narrow gauge railway leading to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.
Ever since 1963, when the State of Alaska's Department of Transportation began operating its first ships, the service has grown and has become the way home for many Alaskans, a cheap means to get to Southeast Alaska for new comers, and a moderately-priced (aobut $50-$60 a day including passage, a cabin and meals) alternative to the expensive cruise ship for visitors who want to see some of the most beautiful and unspoiled maritime scenery in the world. Unlike the luxury cruise ships, which run only during the crowded summer season, the Akaskan ferries allow stopover privileges and a chance to meet travelers for whom Alaska is a destination, not a port of call.
Three of the ferries were in winter lay-up and undergoing repairs on the far side of Pier 48. The flagship Columbia appeared particularly smart with the twinkling lights of the Big Dipper shining brightly against the dark-blue background of the ship's tall funnel. All the Marine Highway ships can be easily recognized by their representation of the state flag on their stacks. Next to the Columbia was the Malaspina, a slightly smaller ship and a close sister of the Matanuska. The company brochure says that both the "M" ships were lengthened by 56 feet, which added much-needed space to the car deck and substantially increased the passenger and cabin capacity. The third laid-up vessel, the Tustumena, is a seagoing boat which runs on the frequently choppy Southcentral route to the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island.
Once on board the Matanuska, a tour of the facilities created a most favorable impression. On the boat deck forward there is a large observation lounge with huge wrap-around windows affording views in three directions. At midship is a dimly-lighted bar and lounge furnished with red plush chairs, and at the stern a cheerful dining room, again with windows on three sides.
The deck below has 112 cabins of all shapes and sizes. Mine was a functional and relatively spacious double arranged for single occupancy, with shower and toilet facilities attached.
The highest deck, the bridge deck, has a reclining lounge for passengers without cabins and floor space for the backpacking set. According to the lounge attendant it is "wall to wall" bodies throughout the summer months." Aft, on the same deck, is a heated solarium that passengers may use during the day to view the spectacular passing mountain scenery. The hail and hearty often are found sleeping there at night.
Down on the car deck, the crew members were congratulating themselves on having boarded all paying vehicles. The last few cars to make it were so closely packed together that their occupants had to climb across the bumpers with their suitcases to reach the stairway to the passenger accommodations. They appeared not to mind the inconvenience and were happy to be on board at all. The deck hand told me that 19 "pass" cars had to be left behind. With that, the hydraulic doors slammed shut, and the vibrations under foot indicated that the Matanuska was away on time at 8 p.m. on her voyage north to Alaska.
Bu the next morning the dank, gray weather so common in the Northwest had given way to a crystal clear day with the temperature rising into the 30s. The ship was treading its way through the fast-running Seymour Narrows, at times a less-than-quarter-mile-wide passage between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coast. The precipitation during the night left a blanket of snow on the peaks seen to port and starboard. On the lower slopes, the snowfall was lighter, until at the water's edge it appeared as a fresh dusting. The waterway here was busy with tugs pullng loaded and unloaded container barges.
An announcement from the purser broke the silence. "May I have your attention please? For the next 40 miles and 2-1/2 hours, the Matanuska will experience some rough sailing as the ship traverses Queen Charlotte Sound. It will not be dangerous, but the captain advises all passengers and their children to remain seated during the crossing. I repeat . . . "
The Matanuska is not built to seagoing specifications because of its overhanging car deck, and it did a bit of dancing, taking a few waves over the bow. The sea water froze on the metal decks, making a walk outside slippery business. By sundown, at 4:30 p.m., the ship was once again in the sheltered Inside Passage, and except for a 10-mile stretch called the Dixon Entrance, it would remain protected from the Pacific Ocean swells for the rest of the northbound passage.
At dinner, some of the passengers in the food service line were grumbling about the dining room going cafeteria-style. I asked the white-smocked cashier about this.
"Tomorrow after Ketchikan," she explained, "there will be fewer people on board, and the new crew which takes over will probably offer table service for breakfast and dinner. Unfortunately, the ships went over to cafeteria service to cut labor costs, and now with the reduced help and a different serving set-up the ships cannot offer formal dining when there are more than 250 passengers on board." I told her that I happily looked forward to the new arrangement. I paid for my salmon steak and took my tray to an empty clean table.
Food is extra and three meals a day will average $12. The preparation is good. There are a half-dozen selections, including fresh seafood, at lunch and dinner.
The sleeping accommodations -- which must be paid for in addition to fare -- include two, three and four-berth inside and outside cabins with and without bathroom. The size, arrangement, type and number vary with each ship. (Cost is based on size and number of berths -- not location.). Since the accommodations are designed primarily with Alaskans who make two and three-night journeys in mind, the cabins tend to be functional rather than well-appointed. Passengers make their own beds; if you take the roundtrip voyage you may request a change of linens.
This winter a 2-berth cabin with bathroom -- one way Seattle-Skagway -- cost $77 total, and one-way passage was $82 per person. From May 1 to Sept. 30, that cabin one-way will run $84 total, and one-way passage will be $121 per person.
Only a few cabins are still available for this summer.
Ketchikan, the first call since Seattle, came early in the afternoon of the second full day. The small city of 12,000 is stretched along the waterfront for several miles at the base of a formidible mountain chain. It felt good to be able to take a brisk walk down to the boat basin where most of the large salmon fishing fleet was for the winter. The downtown is further along and has a fair collection of turn-of-the-century wooden buildings.
Of the 326 passengers on board before Ketchikan, 152 disembarked here and they were replaced in part by 87 new faces. All over the ship the atmosphere was more relazed and table service did, in fact, come to the cafeteria as promised.
The Wrangell and Petersburg calls came during the night, and by the following morning, Monday, the Matanuska was approaching Juneau, the state capital. A beautifully colorful dawn began after 9 a.m. and continued with slowly fading hues for more than an hour.