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Setting Sail


Sumiki

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-----Our Alaska Marine Highway ferry was scheduled to leave the dock at 5:00, and we wanted to be there early enough for its departure. But the vessels of the Highway are juggled early and often, and upon our confirmation, we learned that departure was actually 7:00. But it was better to be early than late, so we left Whitehorse—this time, for the final time—around 8:40 in the morning.

 

-----The hour and a half of driving between Whitehorse and the next sign of human activity in Haines Junction was one which we’d already covered on the day we first entered Alaska, and it was a good chunk of the reason behind wanting to leave so early. A 14-kilometer section of badly damaged road and some of the worst loose gravel sections of the Alaska Highway were once again expertly navigated, though somewhat mitigated by the fact that they were doing some road work on the front half of things. When we stopped, the lady holding the stop/slow sign—replete in pink hard hat and yoga pants, with her lazy dog napping in the shade of a nearby car—approached each and every vehicle in line and cheerfully told all of us how long it’d be and how great it was that they had two pilot cars running. Truth be told, someone so friendly is in the wrong line of work.

 

-----The cloudiness and the raininess that dominated our journey up the Alaska Highway had passed, leaving clear skies and views of the snowcapped peaks as we motored on to Haines Junction. We got gas in Haines Junction, at the same place as we did before, with the words of our secondary Arctic Circle tour guide ringing in our heads: “on the road to Haines, always get gas when you see it.”

 

-----True to form, the first sign that greets you on the Haines Highway is one that warns of no services for the next 200 kilometers, and as far as lonely drives are concern, it’s practically a paved Top of the World. The route took us south through what remained of the Yukon, swerving into verdant valleys with mountaintops all around. It was well-paved, with only a few chipsealed sections to eradicate our complacency and serve as reminders of exactly how good it was to have legitimate pavement under our wheels once more.

 

-----Few vehicles were coming from Haines, and even fewer were going in our direction, and as we passed into British Columbia, the scenery began to morph. As rain began to drizzle and snow encompassed the mountains, the landscape—now a rolling plateau—had frozen lakes and rivers just now feeling the thaw, and in every direction the snow lay in a patchwork of embankments “like spilled milk,” as my mom put it. As we reached the summit, we encountered a man who had gotten out of his truck who waved us down to ask if we had a spare gasoline tank. We told him that we didn’t, but that the RVs we passed earlier might be of help. What we soon learned is that, if he gave his vehicle a good push, he’d probably be able to coast the rest of the way.

 

-----What comes up must come down, and coming down meant going through customs. They give travelers a good warning, but it’s not always wise to slow down to a stop while on a steep grade. The Canadian customs office was just around the turn, and we stopped at it only so my dad could get out and tell one of the officers about the guy out of gas at the top. A quarter of a mile down the road, we reached U.S. customs, where the guy there took one look at our passports, asked the mere basic questions in a monotone, and sent us on our way.

 

-----Haines is regarded for the immense number of bald eagles that either live there year-round or make it home seasonally, and the “Welcome to Alaska” sign called the area “The Valley of the Eagles.” The road descended—gradually, now—alongside the Chilkat River. On either side, mountains shot straight up. We’re not at the right time of year for the tens of thousands of eagles, but we did see a handful of them soaring above our heads as we came into town.

 

-----Haines, as it turns out, is a rather sleepy little place. Like many places in the Alaskan southeast, it receives quite a bit of rain, and I don’t think it’s quite stopped drizzling since we exited Canada for the final time. The Marine Highway used to be nearer to the town centers for each of its ports of call, but recent decades of increasing cruise ship activity necessitated shuffling the workaday Marine Highway to the side in favor of the massive vessels that pump money into the economy. In Haines, the port is about three miles from the center of town, so we ended up going into town for some lunch.

 

-----The place we ended up going to, nestled near the harbor at the end of the road, was one that I had reservations about upon first sighting it. There was something fishy, and I don’t mean what was in the fryer. Though lunchtime, there was only one other car parked outside, and they had a phenomenal view. The interior was clean—though old and slanted somewhat—but smelled like some kind of diluted cleaning fluid.

 

-----We went in because we’d already parked and my dad badly needed something to eat beyond what we had in the car, and we ended up all splitting an appetizer sampler platter where the shrimp was the only halfway decent thing. It was one of those places that gets by solely on the backs of deep-frying everything they serve into utter submission, and upon unwary travelers like us—and on the one day we didn’t do our research, at that! The calamari came in flat sticks, the chicken wings were more sad than anything else, and the mozzarella sticks tasted like they were straight out of an Italian nightmare, as most of the cheese had disintegrated in the frying process and the result were mostly empty husks of solidified frying material.

 

-----As it turned out, we would find out later that it is considered to be, by far, the worst restaurant in Haines. But we didn’t contract any illnesses and it was enough of a caloric intake to get us around. Our next stop was the visitor center, where the lady who was supposed to be knowledgable knew absolutely nothing. But Haines is a small place, so after about a minute of driving we arrived in historic Fort Seward, where old Army headquarters have been updated and refurbished to serve as a hotel and some lodgings. The fort was one of the military posts in Alaska and policed the gold rushes into the area.

 

-----With several hours to spend, we meandered our way through Haines again and towards the Marine Highway terminal, where we went in to confirm our reservations. When we’d booked last winter, they’d not only had us boarding at an earlier time, but on an entirely different ship. Later, this was changed with the same route, only changing ships in Ketchikan. Now, we’re entirely on the different ship, as the one in our original reservation is still being prepared for the season. All of this led to some disorganization, so we thought it best to make sure we were still good to go and to generally scout the place out.

 

-----The terminal is well-organized and the employees inside the deserted lobby confirmed that we were still good to go at 7:00, as the latest info says. We saw our ship already docked, with the waters it was in—constituting a truly massive fjord—absolutely pristine and absolutely stunning. What wasn’t a mountain was a rainforest, and what wasn’t either were the waters of the fjord.

 

-----With several hours still to go and absolutely nothing else to do, we washed the car and then found the Haines Borough Public Library, which was—in one of these recent years—voted one of the best small libraries in the United States. It’s got a quaint interior and free—but slow—Wi-Fi.

 

-----After leaving the Haines Library, we wandered around Haines and got to a place called Mountain Market for a bite of proper dinner before boarding the MV Malaspina. Though ranked highly amongst the Haines restaurants, we soon discovered that a) it’s more of a coffee bar and dessert place whose sandwiches are an afterthought at best, b) it’s half grocery store anyway, and c) those who ran the place were infinitely more interested in speaking to old locals than to give half a glance to any newcomers. Our sandwiches were as bland as they were hard to bite through. The peanut butter chocolate brownie was the only remotely exciting thing there, and though it began life on our taste buds as if it were chocolate fudge with peanut butter cookie dough atop, by the time we finished with it, it was positively repulsive.

 

-----We went all the way to one end of Haines and then all the way to the other, and the more we saw, the less we thought. Other towns nestled in the Inside Passage are more keen to advertise their wares, but Haines is just sort of … there. There’s just not much to it, and those who lived there don’t seem to have any sense of civic pride. After we got gas for the final time before driving onto the Malaspina, my dad said that “the food isn’t something I’d feed to a praying mantis.”

 

-----We arrived at the port at 6:30, and we rearranged the car in the misty rain as those around us filled into the loading lanes. The Malaspina was supposed to leave at 7:00, but was nowhere in sight by 7:15, so after my dad entertained us with his patent-pending moose impression before my mom and I went inside the terminal and inquired about the status. As we did so, the Malaspina came into view, cruising in from Skagway before coming to a stop in the dock.

 

-----We waited for a long while as the vast innards of the vehicle bay spurted out RV after RV after camper van after RV, and finally, several attendants came around who looked at the signs in our windshields telling them of our destinations and told us to wait for directions. The loading process was very quick, as the crew made up for their lost time by packing vehicles in to several inches of each other in spots.

 

-----It took two trips to get our stuff from the back of the ship to the front of the ship, for as it happened, we were bequeathed one of the very front cabins on board. It was snug, to be sure, but roomier than I expected. It was clean, with a bolted-down table on one end and four chairs aside, with two sets of bunk beds. I took one of the top ones to satisfy a long desire to sleep in a top bunk. Our windows, though equipped with a sign reminding us to close them at night so as not to interfere with the night vision, afforded a wonderful view of whatever happened to be to our front right.

 

-----The Malaspina has a lot of stuff on board, and even though it’s one of the original ships in the fleet and thus showing its age when it comes to the amenities, the accommodations are pleasant. After exploring, we went out onto the deck and watched, with the wind in our faces, as the Malaspina set off from Haines, and went to bed content with our activity for the day.

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