Stompin' on the Terra

"And he said, 'Stomp upon the Terra.'" – Lord Buckley (via Hunter Thompson)

My Photo
Location: Plum Island, Massachusetts

20 February 2011

Dateline: Ketchikan, Alaska

Arrived in this gateway city at about 7am this morning. We entered Alaska both literally and figuratively: the middle of the night saw cold rain and snow with a driving wind descend upon the M/V Malaspina. I awoke around 3:30am to the boat rocking way more than it had on the trip to that point, and the visible outline of snow flakes on my tent. I clambered outside, fearful that somehow the rain fly had blown off while I slept. But my fears were unfounded: the fly was fine and still well-secured, though the wind-driven wet snow was piling up on the wall of the tent facing the starboard side. I brushed off the fly (a pointless exercise, really, but I'd ventured outside and felt like I should do SOMETHING) and crawled back to sleep.

Three hours later, the announcement that we were pulling into Ketchikan roused me out of bed once and for all. A skiff of wet snow covered the decks of the Malaspina, making walking treacherous. And now, as I sit in a coffee shop across from the ferry terminal, the rain-and-snow mix that dumped about six to eight inches of snow on the streets of Ketchikan has given way to thinning clouds and patches of blue sky. The forecast (for here and farther north) is for clearing skies but windy conditions. We have a seven-hour layover (five more to go) here in Ketchikan before we head to Wrangell and Petersburg; we'll arrive in Juneau tomorrow morning after 8am and, after a three-hour layover, it's another four hours or so to Haines and the end of my ferry ride.

My tent is visible on the bridge deck, a small yellow dome at the foot of the boat's light mast and just aft of the solarium.

WHOA! An avalanche of wet snow just slid off the roof of the restaurant here, shaking the building with a loud "BOOM!" as it landed.

Anyway…the tent is visible, as was the Alaska Airlines flight that just landed at the airport across Tongass Narrows from town. The forested hills of Gravina Island rise beyond and everything is covered with a fresh coat of white. Ferry passengers with dogs are throwing tennis balls for their recently liberated canines in the snow-filled parking lot. Snow plows scrape past the window, not really doing much as they've already cleared the two lanes of roadway, but the shin-high mound of dirty slush atop what would be the yellow line in the middle of the street remains untouched.

It really has made for a complete transition: from sunny, warm early spring days in the Pacific Northwest to the very-much-still-winter time that is February in Alaska. And there's quite a ways north still to go.

Saturday sunrise from my tent
Johnstone Narrows, British Columbia

Bella Bella, British Columbia

En Route: 7pm AST, Saturday, 19 Feb

I'm comfortably ensconced in my tent on the bridge deck of the M/V Malaspina, just aft of the solarium. It's a frighteningly dark night, with a layer of clouds obscuring any stars, the moon or any outline of the islands and the mainland sliding past. A cold, crisp wind blows, making for a chill night when one is out wandering the decks of the ferry, but here in my ancient VE-24 tent with a winter sleeping bag and a down comforter on top of a queen-sized inflatable mattress, well, I'm as snug as the proverbial bug in a rug.

We're 24-plus hours out of Bellingham and about 12 short of Ketchikan. This first day at sea has been a great reminder of what's missing in these hectic days of air-only travel. Yes, the pace is slow (compared to the Alaska Airlines 737s streaking past above the clouds) but this reversion to Alaska Time has been therapeutic. Sightseeing was tremendous, even by Alaska/British Columbia standards: the weather today was nothing short of fantastic, featuring blue skies with nary a cloud (until this layer rolled in right around sunset), green islands easing out of the steel-blue and cold-looking water, and high snow-covered peaks on the mainland to starboard. And in the slower going of ferry travel, one can take all these elements in, process them, and savor the connection between observer and observed that's really there, visible and palpable if one chooses to breathe and see. It's a therapy that has me growing ever more peaceful and comfortable the farther north we travel. Where just 24 hours ago I wondered (read: worried, fretted…stressed) about my path, now I'm simply enjoying it. And that's been a welcome return home, not necessarily in terms of location (though it might be that, too) but psychologically.

And the ride has been just plain fun. It's strange: I've taken two stints and watched DVDs on my laptop, and in those few hours it was as though this trip wasn't taking place and I was back in California, Utah, Massachusetts…anywhere but here. And now. And while the intermissions were enjoyable, they're not nearly as fun and enjoyable and comfortable as simply enjoying the scenery that surrounds the boat.

The clientele on board the Malaspina has been pretty cliche: military families bound for a new post; outdoor-sports enthusiasts fresh off several months in Joshua Tree heading north to enjoy what remains of winter and get a jump on summer; standard-issue rednecks loudly lamenting the demise of the "land of the free" heading to what they swear must surely be their salvation; and so on. The preponderance of southern accents is hardly surprising, especially the Okie and Texan twangs of the oil workers. The solarium tends to attract the solitary travelers, where they bunch up, swap cigarettes and stories; I've been enjoying my comfy front-row seat for this never-ending exodus to the holy land for society's outcasts.

Or maybe that front-row seat is actually on the stage and I, too, am a player?

18 February 2011

We're Goin' North, the Rush is On

I'm sitting in the Fairhaven district of Bellingham, Washington, waiting to board the Alaska Marine Highway System's ferry, the M/V Malaspina. I'll be taking the ferry through the Inside Passage to Haines, where I'll rejoin the terrestrial highway system and drive through a couple of hundred miles of the Yukon, circumnavigating Kluane and Wrangell-St. Elias national parks (Canadian and American, respectively) and mountain ranges, to return to Anchorage a few days hence. Simply put: the thought of retracing my steps through the entirety of British Columbia and the Yukon after having come south just four months ago was too terrible to contemplate. I'll leave the majority of the driving -- three days' worth, this time of year -- to someone else.

It's a return, to Alaska of course, but also a return to a route taken long ago. Almost 19 years ago, to be exact. In May 1992, I was in this same town in my VW camper van with my dog, Spooner, and we were off on what was then a great adventure: a couple of months of cruising through the Great Land, living in our bus. It was a tremendous, truly life-altering trip in 1992, and coming down the hill toward the ferry terminal today got me wistful for those long-gone and vastly different days (and not just because I still wish Spooner were around to join me on these trips). Despite what this particular trip to Alaska will entail -- how long I'll be there, what my employment situation will be, how much work I'll get done on my house, etc. -- there's always a sense of comfort when returning to Alaska. Not a return home, exactly -- I'll always be a New Englander -- but a return to my second home but an equal first love. To say I'm looking forward to the journey would be an understatement.

And it's been an interesting trip so far. I've watched spring emerge in places and yet seen winter still firmly in command. Orchards are blooming in California's Central Valley, and flocks of ducks and geese are massing in Oregon's Willamette Valley, prepping for their journey north. And yet, inland, in the Sierra Nevada mountains and beyond, in the Great Basin, in Utah's high mountains, winter is still very much in control. But the fact remains: it's only February but spring is indeed on the way. The vernal equinox is just 31 days away.

Last night's full moon, which I enjoyed from around Eugene, Oregon, northward, seemed a portent of the times to come: bright, vibrant, glowing. I'm looking forward to the coming days.

(iPhone photo of the full moon rising over the mountains east of the Willamette Valley from the side of I-5 near Eugene, Oregon.)