Boarding the ferry in Port Hardy marked the end of phase one of my journey. Three ferries were to take me the bulk of the distance north to pick up where my trip left off last year.
The Northern Expedition ranks as the finest ferry that I have been on, more luxury hotel than ship. I wondered if it was commissioned to replace the ill-fated Queen of the North, which lies at the bottom of the Inside Passage, the victim of a late night tryst between the two people who were tasked with navigation, or at least that is the speculation (the two did not cooperate with the investigation and had been lovers in the past).
As we moved along the Grenville Channel, the narrowest section of the Inside Passage, we collected more and more seagulls, along with a smattering of other birds. So narrow is the Channel that you feel like you can reach out the window and touch the branches of the trees on the steep bank. It seemed like the gulls were guiding us through the fog at the narrowest and most precarious section of the Passage. Perhaps their motivations were more selfish, hoping for a free meal off the side of the boat, unable to tell the difference between ferries and fishing vessels. In any case, it was a real treat to watch the seagull ballet through the window of the ship, against the mirror-like, placid waters of the passage. Once the passage widened again, having safely guided us through, the gulls relieved themselves of their duties, convincing me that their motives were indeed altruistic.
In the end, 23 hours on the ferry just did not seem enough. That would be remedied on the next voyage from Prince Rupert to Juneau, a milk run stopping at every town along the way, backtracking to do so. The trip was to take 48 hours to go roughly the same distance. The Taku felt more like a ship than a luxury hotel. The first part of the voyage was exposed to the ocean, high winds and some very rough seas. Having never been out on the ocean itself away from the protection of inlets and islands, I was quite surprised how the swells were able to throw such a large vessel around. The seas were such that the boat had to travel in a zigzag pattern, perpendicular to the waves. Every zig and zag made the ship heave from side to side, and me wring my hands over what might be happening to the Dummy on the vehicle deck below.
We had a three hour stop in Sitka, which was the Russian Capital of Alaska before it was sold to the US and it retains some of its Russian flavour. One guy I met from there on the ferry described it as having 8,000 people, 16,000 cars and a total of 14 miles of road and the only way out with your car is by ferry.
We pulled into Juneau at shortly after 2 am and I had nowhere to go until breakfast at my hosts. Fortunately the ferry had a 4 hour layover before it headed on. So I just went back to sleep. I woke up an hour before the ferry was set to depart again, went down to collect my bike in the utility area, and was happy to discover that it was still standing and looked like it had remained so for the entire journey. I loaded up the bike and slowly made my way into town (the ferry docks a good 15 km from Juneau).
I pulled into my hosts’ drive way and was soon enjoying a delicious breakfast. When I had originally planned this trip travelling on ferries to Skagway, I had hoped to perhaps see glaciers that flowed to the ocean, like I had seen in pictures of Alaska. When I got on the boat and looked at the maps, there were indeed glaciers flowing into the ocean in the area, but we would not be passing any on our voyage. So when they suggested a hike to the Mendenhall Glacier, I jumped at the opportunity.
When the Discovery Center was built in 1958 the glacier was a stone’s throw away. Now it is a couple of kilometers. I hiked as close as I could get to the glacier without crossing the frozen lake. As much as I wanted to get a closer look, I was not willing to take a chance on the lake ice, especially given that a large piece of ice could come off the glacier at any time, causing a potentially ice breaking wave to cross the lake.
The next morning I was up at 4:00 to catch yet another ferry to Skagway. After a short stopover in Haines we pulled into Skagway shortly after 1:00. Skagway is a neat little town that survives the year from the tourist trade in the summer. It sees over a million visitors in the summer, the vast majority on cruise ships. It has approximately 300 permanent residents. I like touristy places in the off season.
After meandering through town checking out the sights, I made my way to my host’s place. Initially I had planned to leave the next morning. But that night a large dump of snow meant the White Pass would be virtually impassable by bike and prone to avalanches (the promise of the Yuletide Ball that evening also made the decision to stay easier). Nick proved to be an amazing host, touring me around the town and surrounding area and giving me all sorts of information.
After the Yuletide Ball and then a stop at the Station bar, Sunday was a write off. The next morning I went to leave and a number of things were seized on the bike (all the water and perhaps salt and then low temps). So makeshift repairs were in order.
I finally got out of Alaska on Tuesday morning.