Whether sifting through sand, or scrambling over a rocky shore, it's about finding treasures in every day. 

Beachcombing Peace and Beauty in Juneau in December

Lulled for a year by the mellow pace of Thorne Bay and Wrangell we drove our country-mouse selves off of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry "Malaspina" and into the frenzy of Juneau in mid-December. We had the 'Master List' tucked into a jacket pocket; marching orders for items to shop for, appointments, and errands.  The main draws for the trip, though, were visiting family and friends and continuing education classes. Our plate was full even before we arrived in town.

The "Malaspina" was built in 1963, and still provides a great ride in a casual and friendly atmosphere. I love these ferries!

It took a bit to acclimate to the busy buying season in Juneau. The city was in motion as people worked through their own lists. The details that each shopper must see to for the holidays are spread throughout this city, in stores strewn about downtown Juneau, through the Lemon Creek area, in the valley, near the airport, and out to Auke Bay. Between those regions traffic flows fast with cars and drivers fueled by gasoline and caffeine. Just days away from the darkest day of the year and a week away from one of the warmest and brightest family times, a whiff of desperation mixes with exhaust fumes and road spray, and the four lanes of Egan Drive require extra Spidey-sense to stay safe. I used to live in Juneau, and my right foot came out of it's village-induced torpor and remembered the drill: it flexed, cracked it's knuckles, and applied itself to the accelerator and brake with vigor in automatic tasks of self-preservation.

I found it difficult to break the small town habit of saying "hi" to everyone we saw on sidewalks and in stores. At a population of 32,000, Juneau has taken on the anonymity-in-a-crowd feel of a larger city. A few people had obviously clicked "minimize" on their sense of humor page. Most Juneauites, though, have but a delicate veneer over their innate Alaskan friendliness, and that thin layer melts away when faced with a smile and a happy comment.

After several days of errands, obligations, and city bustle it was time for a reset, so my sweetie and I drove out to the Mendenhall Glacier to take in some Alaskan scenery. It's a thang. We joke about going out to make sure that the glacier is still there, still spilling down from the 1500 square mile Juneau Ice Field and terminating at Mendenhall Lake. This slow river of ice wrinkles and cracks as it flows, and then calves at the face revealing a turquoise so deep and so rich that it will slake a mid-winter thirst for color.

The sun managed to heft itself up clear of the mountains and break through the clouds and fog for a few minutes. It lit up the glacier and lifted our day. Color, light, and rugged Alaskan beauty....does it for me every time.

The clouds closed back in, the sun went to bed at 3 in the afternoon, and we returned to the tasks of the now-dark day: people, paperwork, and product procurement. The push and pull started to take it's toll. My boundary walls slammed into place at a simple doctor's check-up visit when the paperwork asked what religion I practiced and what line of work my spouse was in. After being in a town without one single stoplight the myriad of flashing school zones, stop lights, and blinking yellow arrows in Juneau were getting to me. This was awfully far away from walking a deer trail in the woods.

Loop Road in the Mendenhall Valley runs through residential areas. Mount Bullard in the background juts up to 4225 feet above sea level.

I was driving down Commercial Boulevard past angular construction equipment, chain link fences, the giant vats and hoppers of the Alaskan Brewing Company, and toward two huge box stores with their lit signs and vast parking lots when I saw the peace sign.

Big. Beautiful. Peace.

Most of the snow melted a few days later and the peace sign was more subtle.

It is a state of mind and a choice of expression. I'll try to remember this and be peaceful every day in every place. Even when my surroundings are feeling stressful.

To those who took the time and energy to cut through the alder scrub next to a commercial zone, giving an entire city a beautiful reminder to practice peace and mindfulness, Thank You.

And to each of you reading this, my friends, I send my love out to you, and a wish for you to enjoy a peaceful Christmas and New Year.

Alaska Beachcomber

Tying Up a 4200 Ton Ship, Quickly

On a route that only gives 45 minutes to offload and load passengers and vehicles, how do the Alaska ferries quickly secure the ship to the dock?

Tying the Taku to the dock makes use of centuries-old and last-century technology. It still works very well.

The light heaving line has a Monkey's Fist knot on one end. The other end is tied to another line, and that is tied to the heavy hawser line. The hawser secures the boat to the dock.

The deckhand coiling the heaving line for a clean throw from the bow of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry "Taku".

Throwing the heaving line over the dock.

Pulling the heavy hawser across.

Slipping the hawser loop over a bollard.

The hawser is given a few wraps around the windlass, and the windlass is turned on to snug the Taku to the dock.

This is also going on in the stern of the ship. The crew on the ship's bridge makes sure that the lines are brought up just right so that the ramp aligns with the car deck door. Within a few minutes the Taku is all fast to the dock!

Cheers, Y'all!

Alaska Beachcomber

Other posts with Alaska ferries:


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A Highway on the Water

This is a highway:

The M/V Taku. She is 353  feet (107 meters) long and can carry 370 passengers and 69 vehicles.

The ferry system in  Alaska, also known as the Alaska Marine Highway, is a wonderful way to experience Southeast Alaska and travel from town to town in a relaxed, social atmosphere. Plus you can take your vehicle along with. 

I have loved traveling on the ferries since I was a little kid. Maybe part of that is because my granddad was a mate on one of them when it came out of the yard all shiny-new in 1963.

They are great boats to form friendships on. The cafeteria and the forward lounge are nice places to turn off the devices, and turn to a person nearby to start a conversation.

After that super-fun trip to Ketchikan in the de Havilland Beaver I caught the ferry “Taku” north to Wrangell. It was evening and the scenery was such a beautiful study in contrast. Massive, rugged mountains made serene by the violet light of evening. So pretty.

Most of the Alaska ferries run on a 24 hour schedule – the route is too long to be just day boats. So it was close to 11p.m. when the Taku was all-fast in Wrangell and I disembarked. The Taku departed forty-five minutes after landing to continue on to Petersburg, Kake, Juneau, and Haines. Sometimes lovely Sitka-by-the-sea is in that schedule, too.

Evening scenery along Clarence Strait

Vehicles driving onto the ferry at the Ketchikan terminal.

After a few days in Wrangell I was ready to go back to Thorne Bay, and the Taku was making her way south again. I drove my truck down the ramp onto the car deck, where the crew directed me to a parking spot. The Taku departed Wrangell just after noon for a sunny, calm, six-hour voyage to Ketchikan.

Leaving Wrangell

The main line ferries Taku, Malaspina, Matanuska, Columbia, and Kennecot have good accommodations and amenities. There are staterooms that you can rent in order to have your own private room for the voyage. There are also recliner lounges where people relax, read, nap, or sack out overnight. The purser will rent you a blanket and pillow set for just a few dollars. Lots of people like to camp in the solarium on the top deck.

Hot and cold meals are available in the cafeteria, and vending machines provide quick snacks. You can purchase a special memento in the small gift shop.

Killer whales (orca) in front of the ferry in Tongass Narrows by Ketchikan, Alaska.

I like to hang out in the forward lounge and watch the scenery and wildlife, which I did on this trip. Dozens of Dahl’s porpoise were in Clarence Strait. The Dahl’s porpoise is a 300 to 500 pound marine mammal often moving at 35 mile per hour (55 kph) . When they hit the surface to breathe, a splash rips across the water, and then the animal is gone again. Those sprays sparkled in the sun on both sides of the ferry.

Coming into Ketchikan there was an announcement from the bridge that a pod of killer whales was in Tongass Narrows ahead of us. In between Ketchikan and the airport is a very busy place for boat and aircraft traffic, so I was surprised that those five animals would choose to hunt there.

Killer whales (orca) surfacing in Tongass Narrows. On the left is a male. (Sorry about the poor quality of the whale photos)

I botched the photos badly - not that I could botch them goodly, just that I’m admitting right here that the only reason I am even showing you these is to illustrate how visible wildlife is in Southeast Alaska.

Ketchikan is ferry-central at times. The Malaspina, Tustumena, and Chenega were at the shipyard. If you are wondering where the names came from, the ferries are all named after glaciers.

Alaska ferries Tustumena and Malaspina in the shipyard at Ketchikan. The Tustumena, aka Trusty Tusty, has ports of call in southcentral and southwest Alaska, as well as Kodiak Island.

The Chenega is one of two fast ferries doing day trips in Southeast Alaska. This 235 foot (71 meter) catamaran carries 250 passengers and 35 vehicles at 32 knots (37 mph or 59 kph)

I also saw the Lituya in Ketchikan. It was making it's daily run from Metlakatla on Annette Island. The Lituya is the only open car deck ferry in the Marine Highway system.

The 181 foot (55 meter) Lituya maneuvering between two freight barges to dock in Ketchikan. She runs from Metlakatla to Ketchikan, and then back the Metlakatla, each day.

The Alaska ferries really are a highway, and we depend on them. Long live the Blue Canoe!

This post is getting a little long, so tomorrow I will show you the crew handling lines to tie the Taku up in Ketchikan.

Be well, my Friends,

Alaska Beachcomber

Here's more on traveling in Southeast Alaska - Flying in a de Havilland Beaver