Green Light Over the Ocean: Day Seventeen on the Alaska Road Trip

Today we traveled on the Alaska Marine Highway.

Jane at the stern.

“Wait, but I thought you were on the ferry!” you say. You are correct! The ferry is considered part of the highway system in Southeast Alaska because there’s no other way to get your car around. No roads exist to the towns at which we stopped today: Juneau (where we began last night), Wrangell, Petersburg, and Ketchikan (the last city in Southeast Alaska).

The shoreline of Wrangell (I think).

Funny, rounded mountain peaks behind the town.

I was thrilled to be back on the ferry. I first traveled on this beautiful ship three years ago on the Senior Alaska Trip. In February and March of my senior year, 60 of my best friends and I embarked on a two-week expedition (with many teachers keeping watch) through Yukon, Whitehorse, frozen Lake Laberge, the Alaska Marine Highway, and headmaster Rob’s homestead in remote, rain-forested Ketchikan. That trip was the crowning experience of high school, and it was the inspiration for my mom’s and my great road trip north.

Throwback to the 2012 Senior Alaska Trip with my bestie Claire (mermaiding on the left). We rocked the puffy.
Photo credit: Nick Lew.

Nothing on the trip so far took me back as vividly as did this ferry. The yellow-windowed roof of the solarium (the third-level stern deck where hippies and students sleep under the stars in fleece blankets and tarps), the white-washed metal walls of an old but reliable ship, the underpriced vending machines, the old-fashioned magnetic announcement boards, the tinny loudspeaker announcements, and the stocking-footed elderly couples playing dominoes in the freezing Alaskan air because who would want to be inside on a marvelous day like today? None of these things had changed a bit.

Today’s voyage felt very different from the Senior Alaska Trip in many ways, too. For one, we had a cabin. We slept under a roof (or, rather, under other bunk beds) and kept our suitcases behind the safety of a locked door rather than sprawled among strangers. We had our own shower, sink, and toilet, so we weren’t running barefooted and damp across the deck looking for our towels and toothbrushes.

Jane shows off our four-person berth.

But we did spend as much time as possible outside on deck among the duct-taped tents and readers of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. After seeing masses of impatient tourists disembark from cruise ships like Norwegian Star and Pacific Princess in Juneau, we were endlessly grateful to be among the down-to-earth passengers of the Alaska Marine Highway.

Down-to-earth readers of Jack Kerouac in front of the Solarium.

Kids found endless entertainment (driving toy trucks across the deck), as did Jane (spying on birds) and I (spying on the kids). 

One of my favorite things about this ferry route is how we are always close to land on both sides. You can’t get bored with a constantly-refreshing view of forest, rocky shores, tucked-away lighthouses, lookouts, and the occasional house.

Passing landscape.

It’s the best way to bird-watch, too – you sit still, and the ferry glides by birds at just the right speed for you to identify them!

A rocky lighthouse-base swarming with surfbirds and ruddy turnstones.

At one point, a commanding voice spoke over the loud speaker: “This is just a drill.”

Five minutes later: “Code green, a crew member is missing. I repeat, code green, a crew member is missing. Proceed to search patterns.” Dozens of crew members (who weren’t wearing uniforms, so we hadn’t before realized they were crew) assembled to don red life jackets and hustle around the decks.

Then: “Code safe, the crew member has been found. Complete all sweeps, then return to muster station.”

During the afternoon, drills were performed for fire, man overboard, missing crew member, and other emergencies. Every time the alarm bell rang, we had trouble convincing ourselves we should just keep watching the seabirds drift by.

At our stop in Ketchikan, we found the broken-down Columbia, the ferry on which we had originally been scheduled.

The night sky was spectacular, and I was a little sad that I wouldn’t be sleeping directly under it. Clear skies laid bare the Big Dipper, the North Star, and Cassiopeia.

Full moon over the Inside Passage.

Then, the best surprise of all: northern lights. Green curtains of light swept across the sky as if blown by cosmic wind. Bright pillars shot up from the horizon, then dissipated into a soft ocean of shimmering glow. When the lights were at their brightest green, a thin rim of orange formed on the lower edge, and it was simply breathtaking.

End of day summary:
  • Day of road trip: 17 
  • Start: Malaspina ferry (Juneau), Alaska, United States 
  • Miles traveled: 305 (ferry) 
  • Hours driven: 0 
  • Favorite bird sighting: surfbirds 
  • End: Malaspina ferry (Ketchikan), Alaska, United States