At the Bellingham terminal, a crew member ushered me toward the elevator on the lower car deck of the MV Columbia. Because I was roughing it, though, I chose the more challenging route up instead. Slowly, I ascended eight flights of stairs, my camping gear shifting on my back like an unhinged tortoise shell.
At the top, beneath burnished silver clouds, I scanned the deck for an open campsite. Tents occupied both corners. I eyed an available patch in the center, against a railing with unbridled vistas of the Washington state port. I claimed my land in true Alaska state ferry fashion, slapping a piece of duct tape on the steel deck.
The ferry system is the First Frontier for travelers who wish to explore the Last Frontier in the maritime version of the public bus. Established in 1963, the year-round commuter service is a workhorse, transporting Alaskans to and fro along the 3,500-mile Alaska Marine Highway.
“Our job is to bring the guy from Hoonah to the hospital in Juneau,” said crew member Don Allen. “If we do that, we’ve done our job.”
And yet, during warmer months, the system is also a recreational pony and an alternative to the traditional cruise, as its 11 ships deliver adventure-seeking tourists to more than 30 points along the Alaska seaboard.
“These are our ‘blue canoes.’ They’re part of us,” said Tresham Gregg, an Alaskan artist in Haines who grew up riding the watercraft. “The nice thing about the ferry is that you make up your own experience as you go.”
The six mainline ships offer multi-berth staterooms, but four walls and a private bath are overrated. Cruisers either short on funds or long on excitement can rest their sleepy heads on any available surface: cafeteria bench, plastic poolside chair, movie theater seat, carpeted floor space. They can also pitch a tent on an open-air deck, where only a sliver of nylon will come between you and the sea, the sky and the camper beside you.
In late August, I joined the ferry-camping community on the 600-passenger flagship of the fleet. The ship would shimmy through the narrow channels of the Inside Passage, sailing from Bellingham to Haines and back. We would stop 10 times in six communities, a math equation that — trust me — does add up on paper.
For my week on board, I packed as though I were camping in the unforgiving outdoors. I stuffed my duffel with a sleeping bag, a tent, an air pad, a headlamp and a fleece blanket. But I also made a few adaptations based on the unusual environment: rain boots instead of hiking boots, a giant roll of industrial-strength duct tape instead of tent pegs. Plus a pair of scissors. I didn’t need to ruin four years of orthodontics by ripping tape with my teeth.
Rookie camping move: I didn’t practice setting up my new REI tent before arriving at the ferry port.
Consequence: I tried to attach the main poles to the fly.
Then along came a Swiss traveler with an offer to help. As one of the first campers to board, Tomas had picked up some insider tips from the crew. For example, he instructed me to tape the bottom pieces of the corner loop ties to the deck. That way, the wind wouldn’t be able to lift up the entire tent and carry it off like a soap bubble. He also secured the fly to the railing with rope. To test out his masterful work, I stood over my tent and shook it like a displeased Godzilla. It didn’t budge.
As a token of my gratitude, I lent Tomas my duct tape. He’d forgotten his roll and had to scrape old pieces off the deck. Another important lesson: Never turn down fresh strips of tape.
With my tent stabilized, I set off to roam the ship. The Columbia departed at 6 p.m., which meant that I had less than two hours before my land legs would start to wobble. I was inclined to run — the vessel is 418 feet long, after all — but Mother Hen was watching.
“No running allowed,” the purser repeatedly announced over the intercom.
Using a map as a guide, I explored the two decks essential to my camping lifestyle. On the boat deck, I located the 22-hour cafe and its free hot-water spigot, microwave and assorted cafeteria-style meals. For finer dining, I poked my head into the nearby full-service restaurant, encased in tall glass windows, and scanned its menu of fish swimming beneath us. Toward the bow, I discovered the dimly lit cocktail lounge covered in velvet wallpaper, and the observation lounge, with stadium-style seating.
On the cabin deck, I slipped into the dark movie theater (several screenings a day) and the pocket gift shop, where I scooped up wooden puzzles of Alaskan marine life for a rainy day. Finally, I dropped a trail of imaginary bread crumbs to the bathroom (boat deck) and showers (cabin deck) closest to my tent (bridge deck). There was only so much adventure I could handle in the middle of the night.
After several loops around the boat, I felt confident enough to toss my map. Not long after, I was faced with my first challenge.
“On the starboard side, you will see a humpback whale,” a crew member stated over the PA.
I knew exactly what to do. I headed straight for the right side of the ship, walked toward the exit near the vending machines and pushed open the doors to Alaska.
One might wonder: How do you survive 38 hours of sailing without a land break or any typical cruise ship distractions, such as shows, casinos or spring break-ish pool contests?
When the Columbia set sail from Bellingham to Ketchikan, the first stop at the end of those 38 hours, I asked myself that same question and proceeded to answer it. Self, you will read, watch movies on your laptop and sleep. Self received some bad advice.
First, the initial leg of the journey is mostly in British Columbia, so my mobile gadgets didn’t work. (There’s no WiFi on the ship.) Sleep was not a viable option either, since my tent was one honeycomb in a busy beehive. Nor was I tired, despite the four-hour time difference.
So I relied on old-fashioned entertainment. I talked to fellow passengers and settled into a white plastic chair with a courtside view of the slowly passing scenery. In a spurt of ambition, I’d sometimes combine the two activities, chatting with other travelers about what had just floated by — pods of orcas, a team of synchronized Pacific dolphins, and humpbacks blowing small geysers and flashing their Y-shaped tails.
When the clouds started to leak, I retreated to the covered solarium. Here, beneath rows of heat lamps, bodies baked like wrapped fish on chaise longues draped in blankets and sleeping bags. A woman with a purple massage chair was kneading muscles for $1 a minute. A neo-hippie with a dangling earring shared his passion for homeopathic oils, even helping my neighbor counter his seasickness by dabbing his feet with a potion made of ginger.
I also made countless forays to the cafeteria, where two cousins from the Tlingit tribe held court at a corner table. They’d turned the space into a small exhibit of their craftworks, displaying animal-shaped earrings, beaded hair accessories and medicine pouches made of seal fur.
I found myself drinking more tea than necessary, a thin cover for frequent visits to their table. With little prodding, they shared their ancestral customs. Robbie described the potlatch, a generous feast and gift-giving tradition that honors the dead, and the culture’s use of seal meat and oil. She also described the meaning of the raven earrings that I eventually purchased. According to Tlingit lore, she said, the trickster bird stole light from the eagle and released it into the world.
That glow inside my tent could be either my headlamp — or my earlobes.
For onshore sightseeing, the ferry occasionally followed an insomniac’s clock.
The Columbia docked at all hours. We pulled into Juneau, for example, at 4:45 a.m. (northbound) and 12:45 a.m. (southward). My memory of the capital is fuzzy. I recall an industrial port and a parking lot with hazy yellow street lights weakly piercing the dark cloak of night. I could have convinced myself that I’d dreamed the stop, except for the hard proof of new bodies stretched out around me.
The longest layovers at the most convenient times occurred in Ketchikan (three hours, 7 a.m. and 2:15 p.m.), Sitka (three hours, 12:45 p.m.) and Haines (11:15 a.m. to 8 p.m.). At all but two of the ports, the ferries tied up several miles from downtown, so I had to factor cab/bus/fast-walking travel time into my schedule.
In Sitka, a school bus shuttles visitors into town, 6.5 miles south, for $10. The Haines post is about five miles from the museums (hammers and history), American Bald Eagle Foundation and Live Raptor Center (owls, hawks), and Sea Wolf Gallery at Fort Seward (carvings and puppets). The glacier-iced destination has one taxi service, or you can always cadge a ride from an employee or a passenger with wheels. (I did both.)
Ketchikan’s commercial area is fairly close to the ferry terminal. From the deck, I could see the squat skyline of the dynamic center, plus the white wall of cruise ships.
On my first visit to the so-called Salmon Capital of the World, I squeezed into the pickup truck of Eric, a genial kitchen staff member, and his wife, Susan. Despite the early morning hour, the couple took me on a driving tour of their home town.
We started at Cape Fox Lodge, a hilltop hotel set in the Tongass National Forest that displays Native American artworks in the lobby and upstairs. A funicular carries guests down to the boardwalk of Creek Street, the former red-light district that’s now a rainbow-colored strip of art galleries. On our way to the Saxman Native Village, a few miles outside town, we passed two bald eagles perched patriotically on high evergreen branches. On the return drive, Eric pulled over to further inspect a thick dark smudge along the river’s edge.
Standing against the metal railing, I watched a wriggling mass of salmon swimming upstream. When Susan and Eric weren’t looking, I tried to warn the fish of upcoming danger: They were headed straight for the mouth of a black bear.
For my second visit to Ketchikan, I walked the two miles with an engaging passenger and former logger. Greg’s impromptu tour covered the sordid years before the town’s cruise-ification in the 1980s.
“This used to be sin city,” he said, pointing out former strip clubs and sketchy bars. “It was a wild town.”
He told me about the bad ol’ days of bar fights between fishermen and loggers, plus other unsavory behavior fueled by too much booze and too little female company. Most of the seedy haunts were gone, replaced by squeaky-clean souvenir shops.
The Tongass Trading Company, where he used to buy outdoor gear, was still standing, however. Although the store’s ground level caters to hunters of cute stuffed animals, a more authentic Alaska prevails upstairs. While Greg scanned the knives, I bought a pair of Xtratuf neoprene boots. I swapped out my green Hunter boots and spent the remainder of the trip tramping around in my “Ketchikan sneakers.”
My bright orange tent was the postman of camping: It braved heavy rains, strong winds and flocks of seagulls. It breezily waved its fabric at menacing clouds. As for me — well, I was a bit more fragile.
On the first two nights, the weather traded off between clear skies and showers with drops so heavy, I thought someone was pelting my tent with gumdrops. The second morning, two campers dropped out of the pack, folding up their soaked gear and retreating to the solarium.
I’d avoided leaks, but puddles started to form through the bottom lining. Hours before dawn on the second night, I sleepily dragged my luggage to a sun chair so that it could dry under the heat lamps. I returned to my soggy tent and lay motionless on the air pad as if I were floating on a raft in a pool.
That evening, I peeked inside the hollow shell and noticed shallow ponds. Then I checked on my belongings, so toasty after spending all day cooking beneath the hot bulbs.
I made the call: I was going to crash in the solarium.
But I paid for my disloyalty. I woke up parched, sweatshirt off, bag zipper undone. My cheeks were flushed. I felt like a crispy baked potato that the chef had forgotten in the broiler.
The following night was wetter and colder. I ventured even deeper indoors, to a children’s play area in the observation lounge. Again, I suffered for my lack of fealty. My night’s lullaby featured a whispering couple at a nearby table and a woman’s sleeping bag that crackled like a candy wrapper.
After experiencing the other sleeping venues, I was ready to return to my original shelter. And I was rewarded for my allegiance.
The sky was a giant dance floor of stars lit by a disco ball of a moon. Close to midnight, I heard a shuffling sound and peered out of my tent to see a passenger moving his blankets to the open deck. Soon, several people started to pull their chairs out to the lip of the solarium, the celestial light touching their toes.
I crawled out and began to quietly rip the duct tape off the fly. I tied it back, creating an opening large enough to allow the moonbeams to enter and illuminate my tent.
More from Travel:
Alaska Airlines offers connecting flights from Reagan National or BWI Marshall to Bellingham, Wash.
Alaska Marine Highway System
Eleven ferries cover routes between Bellingham and Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The Columbia offers seasonal service from Bellingham to Skagway through Oct. 1. The Malaspina then takes over for the winter. Round-trip cost to Haines is $706 for passengers, including tent campers; cabins start at an additional $337 one way.