LATER IN THE day, Jim Driscoll, the Matanuska's chief purser, discussed Alaska's attitude toward the Marine Highway.
"The representatives in the interior of the state, whose constituents do not depend very heavily on the Marine Highway, would like the service to go away as it costs millions to subsidize every year," he said. "It's not fair because they have their state-funded highways and we down here are without roads. Most of them do consider the operation a necessary evil which will never disappear, therefore it should be run as cheaply as possible.
"The people in the Southeast who use it regularly want a quality service, and that means things like waiter service in the dining room," Driscoll continued. "This winter you have got half the fleet laid up in Seattle and our best ship, the Columbia is broken down. The Taku is still running out of Prince Rupert when it should be in drydock being given a complete rebuilding job like this one had two years ago.
"This is a fine ship now, but I don't see how the Taku can make it through the summer when we need everything that floats in the timetables."
Driscoll, who said there were plumbing leaks and peeling paint, termed the Taku's appearance "shabby."
However, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities took issue with that description of the vessel. She explained that there was "not enough time" for the Taku to be refurbished for the coming season and thus the ship will continue in service this summer and go into drydock in October.
"The Taku is a vessel that has served the system well," she said, pointing out that "financing is a matter of priorities" and that the ferries "operate at a loss" but perform a vital service. "Every year the vessels must be inspected under Coast Guard regulations." The Columbia is now being overhauled, she added, and will be back in service this summer.
North of Juneau, the passage along the Lynn Canal brought fine panoramas of the Mendenhall, Davidson and Rainbow Glaciers, all fed by huge icefields higher up in the mountains.
Just before Haines, late that same afternoon, Mike Crosby, the senior deputy purser, came on the intercom with a bulletin: "Canadian Customs advises all travelers that blizzard conditions now exist on the Haines Highway. Travelers are advised not to attempt to drive the road tonight. The border station is hereby closed until conditions improve and until further notice." The passengers preparing to leave the ship here had already gathered in the forward lounge to form a convoy. They all firmly agreed to stick together until they had passed through the worst sections.
Darkness had fallen by the time the almost empty Matanuska reached Skagway, its turn-around point. The wind coming from the Coast Mountains made the walk along the deserted main street slippery and tough going. The false-front Gold Rush era buildings were all either boarded up for the winter or closed for the night. The substantial-looking Golden North Hotel, where I once spent a night in a lovely brass bed, stood shuttered and empty. It was not a night to spend more than a half hour on the icy streets of Skagway.
Skagway, in 1900, boasted nearly 30,000 inhabitants. The discovery of gold in the Klondike Region of the Yukon in 1898 brought tens of thousands of prospectors to Skagway by sea from Canada and the United States. A narrow-gauge railway was built to carry the gold seekers and their supplies over the mountains to connect with the Yukon steamers. In the winter, the White Pass and Yukon Railroad continues to be the only land route out of town for Skagway's 800 inhabitants and the few people passing through what feels like a dead-end place at that time of the year. In the summertime, Skagway takes on the appearance of a human zoo when hundreds of passengers are disgorged from the luxury cruise ships every day.
During the night, the Matanuska touched at Juneau's Auke Bay before working its way south and west to Sitka just in from the Pacific Ocean. The fourth day's run through the twisting Peril Strait brought the ship within 100 feet of land on numerous occasions. For the entire morning there was not one dwelling passed along the evergreen shores of the Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest with its 16 million acres of woodland.
White-headed bald eagles soared overhead. An amateur bird watcher lifting an expensive pair of binoculars pointed out the young eagles, which are brown until they reach three or four years of age. Alaska has five times as many of these huge birds as the combined lower 48 states. Schools of porpoises followed the ship, a deer came down to the shore for a look, and two humpback whales leaped entirely out the water within 300 feet of the ship. Nobody got a picture, it all happened too quickly.
At Sitka, a local school bus took the passengers into the town center. The town has grown a lot since I last saw it in 1959. The Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a product of 19th century Russian occupation, has been rebuilt after a disastrous fire gutted the structure. During our visit it was closed, which as a pity since inside there is a fine collection of icons and religious paintings.
In a peaceful forest setting at the edge of town rests one of the largest and best-preserved collections of totems in the world. There's a story attached to each one of the colorful poles.
With the homeward rush now over, the Matanuska was lightly loaded on its southbound run via Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan to Seattle. The remnants of a blizzard that paralyzed Seattle enshrouded the ship as it plowed through the gray waters along the British Columbia coast. A look-out stood huddled against the driving show at the bow and the ship's fog horn sounded regularly at two-minute intervals.
Despite the adverse weather conditions and the only really inclement weather since leaving the port of origin, the Matanuska arrived back at Pier 48 right on time at 6:30 a.m. Friday morning. The vessel would spend the day resting its engines and preparing for another sailing that evening -- voyage number 1,173 North to Alaska.
For further information on ferries, write to the Alaska Marine Highway, Pouch R, Juneau, Alask 99811. For other travel information, the Division of Tourism is at "Pouch E."