We landed in Homer on Friday night, June 29th, around 8:30. After the first few days on the boat, I was ready to get off, but by the time a week had passed it was starting to feel like home. The gentle rocking from side to side coupled with the brisk ocean breeze and the vibration from the engine made for some of the best sleep I’ve had in a long time. Sort of like sleeping on top of a dryer.
We had boarded around five o’clock the previous Saturday and took off just after six. I was a bit disappointed to realize that this was not the same boat I had been on years ago. That one had a large open space on the stern. Everyone taped their tents to the deck and created a little traveler encampment complete with guitars and bottles of wine to pass around. On this one, the Kenicott, we were tucked in a small grundle between an observation room and a bathroom. The nice thing was that we had a roof over our head. There was a bit of rain the first few days and we didn’t have to worry about getting wet. The bummer was that it was one of the few places on the boat where people could smoke. Most were ok with going somewhere else if asked nicely, although somebody seemed to light one up every morning at five.
After an amazing night of rest and beautiful sunrise over the inside passage, I started to get to know some of our new neighbors. This was the first time that it dawned on me how often we might be telling our story in the coming months. I had never really considered how the topic would come up before this and had been making a point not to initiate the discussion so I could clear my mind a bit. When you make a new acquaintance though, the topic of where you live will inevitably come up. I get confused when people ask that right now and usually say that I don’t know.
Sunday, the 24th, was my grandma’s eighty sixth birthday. We wanted to do a nice dinner, but one of the downfalls of the ferry is the food. The boat serves something that could be described as a fusion between elementary school cafeteria lunch and the leftovers from a family reunion that nobody wants to take home. Camp stoves are not allowed but there is a microwave. You can bring food and alcohol on board, so a trip for provisions was made before boarding in Bellingham. We managed to pull together some tortellini with tomato basil sauce, a salad, and cheesecake for dessert.
After dinner Soph brought the cheesecake out while singing “Happy Birthday,” and my grandma shed a little tear. The rest of the dining room joined in and applauded. She stood up and said “I’m 86 today!” We pointed out that we had switched the candles around as a joke and she put her hands up and corrected herself, “Ohhh, no, wait….. I’m 68 today!”
One of the things that I have learned to appreciate about my grandma as I have gotten older is her thoughtfulness. Maybe she was always this way, but even if she was I would not have been able to see it 15 years ago. After an obligatory, “Make a wish,” instruction she said, “I wish I was 68.” Then a quick moment of introspection passed and I could see a look of sober truthfulness come over her.
“I wish that the two of you have a safe and beautiful journey, and I look forward to seeing you in two years.” A solitary tear formed in both of our eyes, but never managed to run down our cheeks. It’s hard for me to ignore the thought that I may not see her again.
The next day, Monday, we landed in Ketchikan at 7 am. Somebody on the boat told my grandma that the two mile walk into town was beautiful. I didn’t recall it that way from my last visit, but figured we should give it a go. The walk was as remembered. You’re on a sidewalk that narrows and widens and in many spots is almost non-existant, and the road next to it is fairly busy. The smell of the nearby sea is masked by diesel and gasoline.
Soph was on my right and out of the corner of my left eye my grandma disappeared. I turned to hear her shout as she tripped toward the pavement. My heart dropped as I raced to her side. As I tried to help her up I noticed a small cut on her hand and looked back to see what she tripped over. We were actually on one of the few perfect patches of sidewalk. She wanted to make sure she could stand under her own power. She dusted herself off, and looked more embarrassed than anything. She said she was simply looking at the mountains instead of where she was putting her feet and had tripped.
After a few steps it became evident that she was not ok. She started to limp and I could tell she was having a sharp pain. We stopped and asked a woman where we could sit and she offered us a ride to town. We dropped her by the pier and argued a bit about her catching a cab on her own back to town. We convinced her to stay, although she would not go to breakfast with us and insisted that we go explore without her. We stopped in a coffee shop for a second to check email and when we came out she was gone. We walked around the area and didn’t see her. Trusting that she did not try to get back to the boat we went for a walk.
Ketchikan is a lively town on a Monday morning. There were multiple cruise ships coming in and all of the vendors were out with expensive jewelry. There was even a lumberjack show going on. It is a different kind of busy than you get in a traditional town. Transient service industry employees suppress hangovers with pots of coffee as they brace for the population to quadruple for a few hours when the ships come in. While the town is packed full of suburban adventurers looking for that authentic Alaskan experience you do anything in your power to get your hands on their wallets and purses. It is a gauntlet of commerce. When they get back on that floating megalopolis you notice that your coffee is a bit cold and top it off with more or maybe even a shot of whiskey in preparation for the next batch.
We went to the edge of town, found a little hill on the side of a mountain to go up, and got a nice view. After 20 minutes or so we went back to the gazebo where we had left grandma and she was still not there. We peaked around a bit more and saw her walking back with a cane that she had bought in a gift shop. It was the first time she looked like an old woman to me.
I found a cab and we made our way back to the dock. Once on the boat we set her up with some ice and elevated the leg. Peter, the Hungarian doctor that we had shared a Lyft with from Seattle to Bellingham offered to check her over. He didn’t feel that that it was anything serious, but said she would probably be sore for a few days. Watching her struggle to walk, despite knowing that she would get better, was a difficult reminder of how quickly things can change.
We landed in Juneau on Tuesday, June 26th. I checked in with my grandma to see how her leg was around six in the morning. She was still in bed, but said that she had gotten up to go to the bathroom and it was feeling better than the day before. She didn’t want to go in for an x-ray and I respected that although I would have preferred otherwise. We would have 5 hours on this stop although the ferry terminal was relatively far from town and we would need to get a ride there. The plan was to get some groceries and find a coffee shop with wifi so we could catch up with the world. There was a glacier 12 miles from the boat, but it didn’t seem feasible to get there.
One of the crew members told me there was a bus stop about a mile away. We decided to walk there and catch a ride to town rather than pay $35 for a cab. After a few minutes of walking in the rain I got impatient and stuck my thumb out. A handful of cars passed, but a 4 Runner pulled over and we had a lift. A couple named Tony and Jess jumped out to move a few things around and we hopped in the backseat with their son Casey.
“Where ya heading?”
“Wherever is easy; town, the bus stop, the glacier……”
“That sounds nice, let’s all go to the glacier! Mind if we get some food first?”
And just like that we got to see the Mendenhall Glacier. Along the way we saw Peter trying to thumb a ride, but unfortunately we had a full car and couldn’t help. We could see the ice field from the road as we worked our way towards the park near Lake Mendenhall at its base. It is hard to explain the feeling you get the first time you see a glacier. It is like a peaceful version of the cover to the film “The Blob.” (original, no the remake). A cold but gentle Leviathon watching over the land. It's a good reminder of your own insignificance.
Tony and Jess had lived in Minnesota for a bit, but they’d had enough of Midwest winters and moved out to Oregon. They were taking the ferry up to Alaska and planned to drive back home over a few weeks. We had seen Tony around the ferry a few times. He had a massive camera and was hard to miss.
We took the trail along the east side of the glacier. It climbed up the side of a mountain to give some great views of the ice floats in the lake below. We could see a bright blue cave where the ice met the lake. Along the trail there were markers for how far the glacier had reached in previous years. Today it is several miles behind where it was just 75 years ago. Despite being circumcised by a warmer climate, it is still imposing. It climbs several hundred feet above the lake. I overheard a tour guide telling some visitors that it is part of the Juneau ice field which is composed of 38 glaciers and covers more than 1,500 square miles, an area bigger than Rhode Island.
The Trail was relatively straight forward, but somehow we managed to miss a turn and realized that we were going the wrong way as it regressed from a well trodden path to mud with a few footprints. In addition to signs of humans, we came across several piles of bear shit. Jess hovered her hand just above one and said it felt warm. From there on Casey became our official bear deterrent. Like clockwork he would clap his hands loudly every 30 seconds to alert them of our presence. Normally I like to say that other people’s kids are the best contraceptive, but Casey is the kind that makes you want to have one. 8 years old and generally excited about whatever is happening around him. Happy to show you all of the pictures he’s taken so far of totem poles and planes, although his favorite part of the trip thus far was the ice cream on the boat. He’d amassed a fortune of $50 from saving his $5/week allowance and had just broken into it with the purchase of a Lego bear at the gift shop. He was looking forward to putting it together in the car.
At some point we heard what sounded like the growl of a bear. Everyone stopped. It was followed by some shouting. We couldn’t tell if it was a joke, but it sounded close. Tony and I were curious to check it out, but decided otherwise and traced our steps back to the vehicle. We were getting precariously close to missing the ferry. Once on the road we hit some construction traffic and almost didn’t get back in time. I sat in the line of cars imagining having to fly to Homer and get a message to my Grandma that we would meet her there. As we set off from Juneau, a pod of whales splashed around in the bay near the boat. One jumped completely out of the water.