One of the things I’ve always loved most about Southeast Alaska is the Alaska Marine Highway System. When most towns are on islands unconnected by roads, it only makes sense that the Inside Passage of intertwining waterways would become our road system. On this most scenic of all highways, our ferries–more like small cruise ships–locals and tourists alike travel.
When we were kids, nothing delighted us more than when our entire tiny bush school would go on a field trip to somewhere in Southeast Alaska or to Canada, traveling on the ferry. It was an adventure none of us will ever forget.
Here’s the story of a visitor to Alaska who also got to enjoy our unique marine highway during her Alaskan adventure.
When I was on Top of the World by Carla Kirkland
It was a clove of seasons when I boarded a train in Thunder Bay, Ontario and rode through some of the most breathtaking natural sites in Canada with the overstuffed backpack I had lived out of, in Minnesota all summer. When I walked onto a ferry in Prince Rupert, BC, it was the closest thing to a cruise ship I had ever been on, then or since. I’d had a magical year at Touch of Nature Environmental Center in Carbondale, IL, and summer at the Environmental Learning Center in Isabella, MN as an intern. When they ended, I was looking forward to fall in southeast Alaska.
I walked off the ferry in Petersburg, Alaska, and for the first time in my life I wasn’t a student. I was 24, full of wanderlust, and free. I wasn’t worried I had no job or place to live. Heck, I couldn’t see past one day at a time. When my boyfriend (later husband), Jim, of five years met me at the dock and told me he had secured a friend’s small 1940s style houseboat for three days before we embarked upon the 33-mile trek along the historic Chilkoot Trail, my problem was solved. Temporarily, anyway.
Jim did seasonal surveying with the U.S. Forest Service for the last three years and had government-issued housing. I couldn’t stay there. I supposed I could always set up a tent in Tent City, where the town’s cannery workers lived, but I’d face those issues when we came back to town from the backpacking trip.
First things first, though. I went down to Hammer’s (Hammer & Wikan) Hardware and bought myself a pair of brick-colored rubber boots known by everyone in the fishing town as red rubbers. The only sure bet about the weather was that it would rain and knee-high red rubbers with pants tucked into them, were a constant fashion staple. By the time I got back to the boat, Jim ran down the hill from the Forest Service office saying someone had quit and they were looking to hire a replacement on a recreation crew. I didn’t know what it would really entail, but since I had just completed my bachelor’s degree in outdoor recreation, it seemed like an answer to a prayer. I went as fast as I could up the hill, afraid someone else would beat me to the job.
The day after I arrived in Petersburg, I had a position on a recreation crew and government housing. I would begin when I returned from the Chilkoot. There were three good months left in the work season and I was on top of the world. Since Jim and I were going to be working on separate crews, it was going to be common to only see each other occasionally.
When I came back to town, I met the other two people on my crew: a Vietnam Vet named Jimmy and our crew boss, Doug. We were given the task of building a new recreational cabin at Kadake Bay and doing maintenance at several other recreational cabins within the Tongass National Forest. We traveled by helicopter, ferry, or skiff to the various locations, but most trips were to our camp at the old Kadake Bay Cabin by skiff, loaded with building materials, tools, and groceries. The cabin had bunks, a wood stove, a table, and benches. Jimmy and I stayed in the cabin with no electricity or running water, while Doug preferred to sleep in his own tent outside the cabin.
We worked hard building the cabin, clearing trails, and chopping wood by day and reading by candle or flashlight at night. Jimmy did most of our cooking and I cleaned up the dishes while Doug brushed up on his Spanish in preparation of spending his winter in Mexico. On our days off, we would fish or go back to Petersburg when we could. The fishing was the most incredible I’ve ever experienced. When we were able to smoke the fish, we did. We ate and lived, worked and played together, and became family in some of the most beautiful wilderness I’ve ever seen.
When Jim and I and friends boarded the ferry to leave Alaska to go south at the end of the season, it was Thanksgiving Day, 1983, during the first snowfall. I remember peering into the distance as the town of Petersburg grew smaller and the snow fell harder. I felt confident we would all be going back the following season, not knowing it would be the last time we ever worked and lived in southeast Alaska with the wild abandon that only youth exudes.
NOTE: All photos courtesy of Carla Kirkland. Carla is a uniquely compassionate and insightful writer who considers the crossroad moments in life in a way that resonates with people who care about the world and each other. Check out her wonderful blog at carlakirklandwriter.com.