23 to 26 July Kms travelled – 32,106
Having dined royally the night before on one of the finest rib-eye steaks I have ever eaten, I decided on an equally royal lay-in and leisurely breakfast at my hotel in Haines, Alaska. There was no longer any need for the tenseness and clockwatching that I had been (generally) carrying with me since handing over hundreds of dollars for my ferry south and flight home. I had arrived at the ferry port in Haines with time to spend much of the day enjoying the town and local area.
So having feasted well again at a sumptuous breakfast (a rare treat for me on this journey), I had Idris packed and ready to go by a somewhat tardy midday! Still, the sky was clear(ish) and the scenes impressive from this little American outpost. Haines had been largely ruled by the US army training post which now forms part of the town, having been decommissioned and sold off following the Second World War. In fact, my hotel was located within the old barracks, overlooking the old parade ground (now a lovely village-type green), and alongside other impressive old buildings on ‘officers row’.
Having picked up some hand crafted gifts for the lovely Mrs Pat – and there is a very good selection in the town - I spent some time chatting to locals about life in the high north. It seems that the fiord-like vistas, nature and impressive cleanliness has encouraged an influx of semi-residents from more southerly states. I can certainly see the attraction here, and also understand the rationale behind heading a little further south when the harsh winter sets in. But I did note a degree of tension from those who have to try and scratch out a living in the Haines area on a more permanent basis.
The income from tourism in the summer months is a vital source of revenue for those not able or unwilling to maintain homes in the south. And I sensed a degree of frustration with the lobbying against cruise ships visiting the small port (the number having already dropped in recent times). The town once served the military post; without a replacement in the form of tourists it is hard to see how the locals can continue to maintain homes here. But I hope they do. Haines has an old-world charm wrapped in a veil of outstanding natural beauty that deserves to be admired. Finding that balance that delivers a sustainable future for the port, and its residents, is a must.
But I digress, the fact is that while I was chatting to the locals I also heard about the lakes a little further up the estuary where salmon run by the thousands, where bear roam and feed, and where eagles soar. With a ‘trailer’ such as this I could hardly sit around town drinking coffee all afternoon – despite the good company. The short run out of town would also enable me to check out the ferry terminal for later in the day (this had recently moved some 5 miles out of town!).
If you are ever in the area and have time before your boat, take a while to ride this run. Not only was I experiencing more of those wonderfully curvy roads that hug both the rocky / tree-lined fiords and the mirroring water, but the treat that awaits you at the end of the road will have your camera snapping away in all directions. Unless there are bears that is!
A couple of miles beyond the ferry terminal the estuarial waters that take the boats out to sea run out where a small but picturesque river begins. But only a short dirt track further on that little river also disappears into a wondrous lake. I had hoped to spend some time there. There are spots (apparently) where you can look down on the migrating salmon so numerous that no human eye could keep count. But on my arrival on the track I saw my route ahead blocked by big furry beasties. Deciding to adopt the pythonesque ‘run away’ form of valour, I turned Idris while I still could do so easily and scooted away from the bears without so much as a glance back. Beautiful to see, but there is a wildness about them that unnerves me, particularly when you come across them unexpectedly in this vast landscape! Brave, brave Sir Robin... sorry!
I did have a great ride back though, and stopped off at the terminal to check everything was on course and to chat to the numerous bikers that were now starting to gather (albeit some only for the short ferry hop over to Skagway). And what a diverse bunch we are... a mix of Harleys, of course, but also Goldwings, father and son on KLRs, various GSs and a fantastic Ural Combo transporting midlife newlyweds - nice! There was also a somewhat grubby red XT660Z which sparked much comment from the waiting two-wheelers, and much fun was had chatting away the hours, while also admiring the odd eagle fly overhead (I failed to capture one on camera, despite many attempts).
Loading, when it was eventually time, was a simple but drawn out affair. But on arrival up on the open deck I was well pleased to note that Michael (see previous episode) had already secured me a spot where I would be spending the next four days and nights. A small boat, but it had most of what was needed, and having pitched camp on the deck and sorted my gear, we settled in for an evening of coffee and chatting with neighbours.
For those that are wondering, there are cabins on board but not as many as you would think - also at $850 one way just for bike and passenger, the cost was already more than sufficient for this ABR. But, unusually, you can actually pitch your tent on the open area of the deck (it does get a bit windy though) or, like us, sleep on the plastic ‘deck chairs’ that fully recline in the covered solarium area – which also sports ceiling heaters at night. With sleeping mat and bag laid out, I had 4 excellent sleeps and fantastic views.
You do wake early each day though. You can´t really help it, with the sun rising and shining through the roof. But you would not want to miss those sunrise scenes; they really are part of the whole experience on Alaska´s Marine Highway to Bellingham, Washington. The boat stops a number of times on the way south, and at some of them you are allowed to get off and wander the local towns for a while. I didn´t. Having everything I needed, including a ready supply of books from the onboard shop and book exchange scheme (opposite the purser´s desk), I settled in for some of the laziest 4 days I have experienced.
And what an experience! Firstly to be blessed by being surrounded by interesting people... and let´s face it, four days on a small boat with no phone signal or WiFi, you are going to end up speaking to lots of people whether you like it or not! I am grateful to Michael, Tom, Erica, Larry and the two Johns for your company. It seems that most people who venture up to Alaska are possessed with an adventurous spirit. So it was great to be able to swap stories or, when you felt the need, simply to kick back and enjoy the views.
And that brings me neatly to my second point. This area of the world is simply breathtaking. The ferry route finds its way through often narrow gaps between mainland and the mess of islands that simply litter the coastline. There was only one moment I recall from the whole journey when we were able to see open sea. Consequently the water was as calm and clear as an alpine lake. And in those early hours, or late ones for that matter, especially when the mists rolled through, it was simply magical.
Not wishing to sum up the journey with just two main points, I would be seriously remiss if I did not add the third; that being the wildlife. OK, we couldn´t see bears or moose, nor was there that much flying around above. But what appeared from the watery depths from time to time will stay with me for years... whales, orca, and sea otters. I´ve seen TV programmes where people have come over all emotional on sighting whales in the wild. I was a little more reserved... cough, cough... but it is true, these animals really do strike a chord when you see them in their natural environment, doing what comes naturally. The lovely Erica was able to capture some truly impressive shots – I wasn´t, so you´ll have to suffer my feeble efforts I´m afraid.