After nearly 30 hours aboard the Marine Vessel Columbia, I feel as though I am finally entering a place of magic; one that has little visible damage from the throes of humanity; a landscape that has all the smells and sounds that are favorable to me. My tent has been pitched on the upper deck of the vessel’s stern, not under the shelter of the cabin deck’s overhang, but flat up against the railings of the utterly exposed rearward partition of the boat’s Solarium deck. The last time I sailed, on the M/V Kennicott, the entire Solarium was located inside, away from the elements. This vessel seems to be a bit more modern, but seemingly lacks some of the fundamental niceties of the Kennicott. There is less space to merely hang out, but more room for paying cabin guests, it seems. This boat is 418′ long, is powered by two 6000 horsepower diesel engines, and can travel at speeds up to around 18 knots.The campers are crammed outside on the Solarium, under it’s overhangs, perched on foldout lawn chairs, sleeping bags lining the deck, one after the other. If one wants relative security for belongings and a wee bit of privacy, a tent is in order; and if a tent is in order, then you are out in the elements. So be it. That is where I am headed anyway and that is where I desire to be… It is where I belong. However, after 2 hours of wandering the ship, I head back to camp to find I have chosen perhaps the worst spot on the vessel to erect a dwelling. It is situated to the far starboard side of the vessel, beyond the relative shelter of the hull body, fully encapsulated to the southbound wind created by the ships’ steady forward motion. Hastily, I break camp and scurry to the more sheltered, and quieter, deck below. I feel as though this bivouac is better suited to my needs and walk away smiling.
Finally aboard, I am relaxed and can reflect on the months prior; hell, the 24 hours prior… Pat and his buddy Jason take Dennis and I out for a fine day of Cod fishing in the Pacific waters around the eastern San Juan Islands. We catch the daily limit of Ling Cod and head back to Bellingham for an evening of swill and fabulous fish tacos. The Cod is delicate, nutritious, and tasty. The next morning I am up and packing; preparing for a journey I have envisioned since the last time I departed this favored landscape. After parking my truck at Pat’s mom’s house (Thank You, Claudia!), I head to the ferry terminal and get situated. Now, on the ship, I am bearing witness to the great northern country I love so intrinsically. There will be stops along it’s journey to Skagway, Alaska, at Ketchikan, Wrangel, Petersburg, Juneau, and Haines, finally sailing to port in Skagway, and the beginning, so to speak of my own personal journey northward further yet.
British Columbia’s wilderness west coast is the stuff dreams are made of. The water is deep turquoise in color, it’s beaches scattered with driftwood, deep, intense forest abounds it’s shores, and Eagles, Bears and Wolves scavenge it’s edge ward advance into the mighty North Pacific. After sailing furlong through narrow straits and passages, with land close at hand, we begin to enter a thoroughfare of more openly water, while quite beautiful, it’s expanses become slightly monotonous. Suddenly the mindset is broken to reveal two Orca’s surfacing 200 meters westward, in the deep water’s of the channel. On the far side of the vessel, through the clouds and mist, I see the lower bits of B.C.’s daunting Coast Range, home to Mt. Waddington and some of British Columbia’s largest glacial ice sheets.
We pass by the Bella Bella entrance; gateway to the pristine Bella Coola Valley, where friends Greg and Allison live on their farm, also home to more Grizzly Bears than anywhere in B.C. That Afternoon, sliding up the narrow channels just south of Prince Rupert, in the Princess Royal Channel, the watery boulevard turns magically into an avenue of waterfalls. Dozens of them, ranging from 200′ to over 1000′ in length, some multi tiered. There are immense granite walls abounding the area, nearly always dumping themselves into the deep channel of the sea. Later, we pass through the expansive Dixon Entrance and sail smoothly into Alaska’s lower water’s, passing by the village of Wrangel, situated at the mouth of the mighty Stikine River, one of North America’s great, wide, Salmon rivers, of which I witnessed first hand previously while pedaling the fantastical esoteric Cassiar Highway back in 2011.
In The morning, at 5:30, I gaze out over the bow and spy the overblown cruise ships sitting fat in the water and it dawns on me where we are; we arrive, at 7:00 am, in Ketchikan. I remember that there is an excellent grocery store mere yards from the port, and, in need of food that is not over processed and over priced, I embark on an Alaskan shopping shindig.
North of Ketchikan, the passage begins to widen slightly, revealing splendid beaches abounding with driftwood and wildlife, signifying a channel that is considerably shallower than had been previously. The Inside Passage, as it is known, is a whimsical place of seemingly endless forest. Amongst it’s channels, islands, bay’s, inlets, and stretches of open sea, the northwest coast of this continent presents literally thousands of miles of coastline. Nearly all of it is wilderness, and beckoning my higher self to a simpler time of fishing and foraging. Even though I am aboard a diesel powered vessel, I have come home. In my opinion, unless one is embarked on a life journey of living wholly within the simple, yet often rigorous and uncomfortable means of hunting and gathering through the unlimited boundaries of nature, one is merely a product of a destructive economy. A tourist. Most of us are, and I am no exception. And when I say unlimited boundaries, I mean only within the said practices of a proper, aboriginal human, not on the whims of an industrialized, separated, and economy based, modern human. This, I believe has very finite limits that are now nearly reached. The Grizzly’s, Salmon, Wolve’s, Eagle’s, Polar Bear’s, Musk Ox, and Walrus, all see this. I, as most, have spent the greater part of a lifetime taking from our planet, our mother ship. I wish to somehow do better. Obviously, a portion of humanity has pondered this virtuous dilemma since the beginning of the Industrial Age, and even longer I suspect. To doubt and to question the status quo and it’s “happening-right-now” destructiveness toward all that is greater is something that appears to be scornful thought amongst the vast majority of our peers. It is required, however. This, I believe, is how evolution ultimately occurs, at least at this stage of human domination.
After being in this splendid landscape for more than a few hours, I have noticed something peculiar. With living in the city, I have nearly always needed to express myself on a much more intense level; it was easy to look around and feel the need to set forth some ideas about a positive change in the way the human race looks at itself and equally importantly, the world around it. In other words, living in the city, surrounded by crime, pollution, derangement, and the obvious notion that the greater portion of the human race has removed itself from nature, rendering itself out of balance, it has been easy for me to feel the need to write about it’s woes and faults, to express my displeasure with a world gone totally mad and devouring itself.
The peculiarity I feel, is that, now, being here, I remember these notions, but no longer feel them, because I am now bearing witness to a greater-than-human faction, a world that evolves out of pure and simple balance. The world of the forest , the Sea Otter, the Wolf, the Bear, the Eagle. And sometimes the occasional human. There are still those who wish to travel to these places to merely see it from the comforts of their artificial homes and RV’s. It seems to me that these creatures are looking to the natural world to see how the other half lives. Sort of like rich kids going for a drive trough the ghetto to catch a glimpse of something they have no desire to be a part of. I do not feel this way… I am more akin to be heading in the opposite direction and am attempting to become more apart of the natural world that humanity as a whole has left behind millennia ago. Being in these places makes my heart sing and my mind settle. Being here, now, in these landscapes, with these wild neighbors, once again makes me realize that the human world has become insanely complex, and in serious need of rebuttal from “the other half”.
Sailing northward, we cast ourselves into the confines of the Wrangel Narrows; a channel so skinny, even a river of equal size would not be considered large. We are very close to each shore, 200 feet maybe. Just south of Petersburg, I spy tiny homes built upon the beach head, with fishing boats parked out front and an array of solar panels of to one side, as to face the midday sun. These dwellings, this place, this… situation, is how I want to live again. We pass by immense Sitka Spruce, some of which have Bald Eagles perched atop. Petersburg is a stunningly gorgeous place. I have seen it in print more than once of it being called “Little Norway”. I see this. Earlier, we were delayed by the passing of a tugboat pulling a monstrous load, and as such, we fell behind schedule; as a result, the planned hour layover has been reduced to a half hour. I decline to go ashore and decide to stay and write. Twenty air miles west of here is the B.C. border, and sports the northern Coast Ranges’ biggest peaks, including the fabled Devil’s Thumb, a fantastic spire of granite, with no easy route to it’s summit, sticking from the Baird Icecap. If it were not for the impending storm, a glimpse of it may be had just north of here, but it is not to be, as is often the case in The North. Instead, the following morning, cold and clear, the Mendenhall Glacier at Juneau appears, a stoic reminder that all water, frozen or otherwise will always flow toward the sea. Further north, the jagged spires of the peaks jutting from the Juneau Icefield satisfy my need to see ice. The snow line is very low, and it occurs to me that I am arriving in the early season. Yesterday, it snowed in Whitehorse; pedaling over White Pass may be challenging and bitter. Moving northward yet further, massive peaks appear bearing vertical expanses of granite with hanging glaciers flanking their sides. This is the start of the Lynn Canal and the back side of the Glacier Bay area. Across the bow, miles ahead, a valley glacier reveals itself, flowing from massive peaks. This one’s a keeper; it looks to be a few miles wide and many miles long. This latitude and proximity to the North Pacific make for some of the largest glaciers in the Northern Western Hemisphere. Only the mighty St Elias has larger; yet, ultimately, these peaks before me now, are actually connected to the St Elias, and are merely a few miles away. With every turn of the ship, I am blown away by another massive set of peaks, and more rivers of glaciated ice. I am in awe…
In a couple of hours we will be in Haines, a town that I could live in I think. We will then sail to port in Skagway, hopefully by mid afternoon. I believe I have all that I need, minus beer, so spending time in Skagway will have to be of some other journey, as I think I might just pedal off this ship, heading North, and not look back.