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January/February 2005

The Floating Frontier: Cruising and Paddling Alaska

The slow boat to Alaska requires duct tape, an elastic itinerary, and a hunger for in-your-face adventure.

The Columbia pushes off promptly at 6 P.M., and the captain’s voice crackles through the PA system, instructing us to set our watches back an hour. “You’re on Alaska time now,” he intones, and as if on cue, a cold July rain begins to fall over the Puget Sound. I assemble my Kelty, guy it to the ferry’s port railing, and try to get my bearings in the tent city that has erupted here on the aft deck. Nearby, scrubby budget-minded tourists sprawl alongside forestry workers and the odd Alaskan in transit on rows of sheltered plastic chaises. As I look up, a neighbor tosses me a roll of duct tape. “I suggest you use some of this,” he says, “unless you’re planning on going swimming with that tent.” Alaska time, indeed.

In fact, the wild, untamed North stays right in my face during the next 3 weeks of floating through the Inside Passage on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system–which is a good thing. Sure, I get my share of moody and mercurial weather–but after a few hundred miles of glacier-packed fjords, breaching humpbacks, and towering summits, the spectacular sights almost begin to feel routine. Passenger boats have traveled the Inside Passage since steamers first began running in the 1860s, accelerating the turn-of-the-century gold stampede. Today, college kids float north on them to chase seasonal work; for Alaskans, the ferries are a glorified bus system. For me, the system’s 10 “blue canoes” serve a different purpose: Over the next 3 weeks the mammoth multideck craft will function as one part transportation service, one part floating campground, delivering me from one trailhead to the next. You can see far more of Alaska’s coast on the Marine Highway than by all of its roads combined, and I’ll stop wherever whim–or insider tip–dictates.

Chugging out of Bellingham, WA, I realize that the next time I break camp, I’ll be in Misty Fjords National Monument, 900 miles to the north. The ferry system covers more than 3,500 miles on its two routes, hitting both major ports and small villages the cruise ships blast by. Passengers can get on and off at will between Washington State and the Aleutians-a system that rewards snap changes in itinerary. Wandering through the fishing village of Petersburg, I eyeball Devil’s Thumb, a huge, spiky peak that has claimed the lives of several of the world’s best climbers. I have no interest in adding my name to the lore, but I pick up the Raven’s Roost trailhead out behind the airport (actually a paved strip with two trailers for a terminal) and hike 4 miles across soggy marshland and glass-calm muskegs and up 3,500 vertical feet of fiercely steep spruce-covered slopes. Inside the Raven’s Roost Cabin, a U.S. Forest Service-owned one-room affair, I hang my damp clothes and warm smoked salmon chowder on a kerosene stove, and it feels so good to be dry I decide to stay for 2 nights.

On a clear day, the guest book reveals, I could catch knee-buckling views of the rest of Mitkof Island–90 percent of which is spruce forest–and the iceberg-sprinkled Frederick Sound from up here. But I’m enveloped in shape-shifting fog, so I devour John McPhee’s Coming into the Country–and then the hundreds of enigmatic messages (“Seward was genius”) carved in the tables and walls-under the watch of several house mice. I finally descend back through the fog to catch the next blue canoe.

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