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.
One effect of riding the ferry: It made me want to get closer to the water. From the Juneau stop, I hop a $90 bush-plane ride to Gustavus, gateway to Glacier Bay--one of 10 national parks and monuments of which the ferries come within a puddle-jump. From the ranger station in Bartlett Cove, I watch the requisite bear safety video, rent a kayak, and point my bow toward the Beardslee Islands, which shelter prime humpback feeding grounds. I paddle for 90 minutes and suddenly the whales are everywhere, surfacing with a whoosh almost close enough to touch. Around dusk, as raindrops begin to fall through the fog, I stop paddling, lean back, and listen. I can't see much beyond my bow, but all around me, I hear whales rising for blows. I spend 2 days and 2 nights here, playing hide and seek with the humpbacks, and paddling miles in every direction, searching in vain for an orca.
In the evening, I land in a cove on Strawberry Island, one of about 50 unoccupied islands clustered in the Beardslees, and make an inconspicuous camp in grass above the beach. I stash my food 300 yards away--the footprints all over the sand are more than adequate reminder, as if I need one--but still, a bear comes sniffing around my tent sometime in the night. The creature retreats when I loudly begin reciting Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." When it's clear that the bear is gone, I break camp early--around 4:15 A.M., well after dawn here this time of year--and flee as well.
Other stop-offs involve less time and bruin exposure. Over the course of my ferry tour--which costs around $350, a fraction of what the cruise ships cost--I drop in some of Alaska's iconic coastal towns for some quick exploration. In Sitka, I hike an easy 11 miles round-trip to the appropriately majestic Indian River Falls. Outside of Haines, I summit Mt. Ripinsky, grinding up 3,600 feet in just under 4 miles; from the peak, I could see for miles down the Chilkoot Inlet and, all around, the starkly glacial Chilkoot and Chilkat Ranges.
Even the mainland town of Skagway, the Gold Rush town that has slipped toward cruise-ship kitsch, has enough going to occupy hikers for months. The Chilkoot Trail starts nearby, and I ponder covering at least a few of its harshly steep 33 miles. Instead, I head toward the foothills outside of town and scramble up a hellacious trail that climbs 6 miles and 3,700 feet past Upper Dewey Lake and a series of other moraines to, finally, Punchbowl Lake, which sits near the top of the massif in a deep, rocky glacier-fed bowl. I breathe in the vistas of Mt. Harding and the vast Taiya Inlet, and against the backdrop of 8,000-foot peaks, the cruise ships look like tub toys and their passengers like silverfish.
The weather deteriorates on the descent, and dodging pellets of hail the size of Concord grapes, I make it back to the ferry terminal just in time for the next ride south. As I duct tape my rainfly to the stern deck, the horn sounds and the boat grinds backward from the dock. I take one last glimpse of the steep-walled Lynn Canal and climb in my tent for a nap. As sure as the rain, when I unzip my fly hours from now, the Marine Highway will have delivered me to Juneau or Homer or some new island I don't know exists yet, where Alaska will prove again that no matter how much you've seen here, the place never fails to amaze you all over again.
In addition to the terminal in Bellingham, WA, hikers can board Alaska Marine Highway System (800-642-0066; www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs) ferries in Prince Rupert, BC, 550 miles northwest of Vancouver. Ferry tickets are sold by the leg; the most expensive (about $200) is the initial journey from Bellingham to Ketchikan.
On the ferries, a ticket entitles you to free camping on the deck. Pick up backcountry camping permits for Glacier Bay at Bartlett Cove. U.S. Forest Service cabins are available on some islands for minimal fees; Raven's Roost, outside of Petersburg, and 20 others on adjacent islands go for $35 a night (www.nps.gov/aplic/cabins/fs_cabins.html).
One thing is certain on the Inside Passage: rain. July through September is the best bet for dry weather.
Adventure Guide to the Inside Passage and Coastal Alaska, by Ed and Lynn Readicker-Henderson ($18), and Along the Alaska Marine Highway, by Alissa Crandall ($10), cover all the bases.