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Monday, September 12, 2011

Adventures on the M/V Columbia

Two nights ago, I set out for Ketchikan on the largest ship of the Alaska Marine Highway System Fleet, the M/V Columbia. At over four hundred feet long, she's a large ship, and she seems to have a very thorough crew, including one young man who wears his hear and sideburns in accordance to styles of the early twentieth century. He has the suspenders to boot. He doesn't say much, though, despite more than one attempt to solicit conversation.

At any rate, despite waiting for two hours in Bellingham in the eighty degree muggy heat to board, we still left on time. On our way out of the harbor, Mt. Rainier rose to great prominence over the Washington terrain. We gently motored south, out of the bay, and turned north around a point to starboard, heading for our destination.

I confess, I went to the Columbia's cocktail lounge straight away, mostly out of curiousity, but also to have a drink with my new friend, the ship itself. The lounge, a product of the late nineteen-seventies, was dimly lit, adorned with cherry or mohogony tabletops and red, leather-esqe cushions in the booths. From the ceiling hung hundreds of clustered globe-lights, the sort you would see in bathrooms over a mirror, except dimmed considerably. The centerpiece of the lounge was a large tube television display that showed the same radar readout that was displayed on the bridge.

After the lounge, I returned to the Solarium on Deck Eight, the Bridge Deck, the top of the ship. I set up my bed, and then sat at the rear, putting my feet up on the rail, and enjoying the view. The sun slowly set to our port side, and under the cover of the Solarium roof, the electric heaters came to life. Still tired from my marathon drive (Denver to Bellingham in less than twenty-four hours), I made my bed and fell asleep.

The next morning, I rose with the first hint of sunlight. It was only four-thirty, but the coffee was brewed down in the Snack Bar. I got a hot cup and donned a long sleeve shirt and my favorite hat, a beanie my dad had given me over twenty years ago. Again, I returned to the rear deck, enjoying my black coffee and the view that made the taste as sweet as hot chocolate. After half an hour or so, the sun was showing through, and dolphins of a type unknown to me began surfing the wake off the port bow. They looked similar to the famous bottlenose dolphins you see in movies, but I'm not as familiar as I could be with the dolphins of British Columbia. As people gathered to enjoy the show, I returned to my bed, propping it up to enjoy a book lent to me by a friend back home.

As I began to read, I looked up to notice a thick fog had rolled in. Just as I had done so, the ships fog-horn blew, and I felt confident that the experienced crew, not I, the Chechako, were piloting this heavy metal beast through the narrow passages around the thousands of islands that make up the Alexander Archipelago.

I went to refill my coffee, and then returned to my book. With the fog hiding the wonderous distractions of islands and wildlife, I decided to sit, write some of my experiences here, and then return to my book.

I read for a few hours, and then the fog lifted, and the sun shone brightly in front of blue skies. Humpback whales were lobster-tailing off both sides of the ship. Passengers all flocked to the top decks with their cameras, hoping to catch a glimpse, but the time the word was out, the whales were too far off.

I went to the balcony as we motored slowly, passing Bella Bella and the BC Ferry Northern Exposure. It looked like a cruise ship next to our luxury liner of days past. Still, comparable in size, and sailing in the opposite direction, we waved at our Canadian counterparts.

I proceeded downstairs two deck to the prosser's desk and found our place on the map. Then I went up one deck to relax and take in Gulliver's Travels with Jack Black in the theater lounge. It makes me anxious to see my family.

I went out to the port starboard sie as we passed a tiny lighthouse bearing Canada's flag on it's pole. The captain blew the horn, hoping to solicit the lonesome keeper to the deck for the a wave. After nobody appreared, the captain got on he PA and declaired that he must have gone to CostCo. My theory is that if he took a job with that much isolation, he probably doesn't want cruise ships and ferries blowing his horn every time they sail by. He was probably in his living room avoiding the nonsense.

The sun gently set behind us as the moon rose off the starboard. Being nearly full, the moon was a sight to behold.  This huge, orange orb seemed to hang just oer he mountains, as if ptiently waiting to answer a prayer or light the way for some wayward traveller.

I returned to the Solarium where I promptly fell asleep, though early (only six-thirty). I slept long and hard, and woke up with the sun barely scraping the black of the dawn sky. I shot up, folded my blankets, and went downstairs to check the radar, filling my coffee along the way. I found our location, sailing north past the inside of Mary Island. We had made it back to the United States! I grabbed my stuff, turned my cell phone back on, and quickly updated my Facebook page to "State of Alaska". I had been updating it with every city I had passed through since Rawlings, Wyoming.

Now with only one more update to go, the excitement slowly started to build. I can see Revillagigedo Island, my home, and I can see Gravina and Annette Islands. I was almost there!

The PA sounded, and those disembarking had waited in the stairwell, anxious to get down to the car deck and leave. For many, this was simply a stop on the way to Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, or Skagway. For those of us from Ketchikan, we were home. I loaded up in my van, and carefully backed it out in the ferry bay and then proceeded up the ramp to dry land. Ketchikan was beautiful. The sun was shining and warming. I was home.

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