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Friday, June 25, 2010

The Inside Passage

Location: Strait of Georgia, British Columbia
Population: 0

We had a very wet day exploring Ketchikan on foot before boarding the MV Columbia for the final leg of our voyage back south. I should have worn the rain pants before heading out, but that’s one of those mistakes you have to make several times before you learn. Instead, I switched to the rain pants while the jeans dried in the car. Don’t we look like we’re having a good time?

Our journey north was full of excitement and anticipation. There was lots of stopping to take pictures, new animals to see, talk and speculation about what was to come. The trip back south is instead about reflection, quiet time looking out at the passing scenery or talk of the highlights of the last five weeks. The end of a trip is always bittersweet – so many good times were had and is sad it is coming to an end, but home is starting to sound pretty nice, too.

When we traveled north on the Alaska Highway we would leapfrog other travelers or talk to folks pulled out at view points or at hotels. It’s different traveling there than in other places because there is only one road, which means only two directions to go. The early conversations inevitably lead to the question, “Are you going north or south?” We met the northbound motorcyclist from Vancouver, Washington who needs to go on a several thousand mile bike trip every year or he gets restless. We met the father helping his Alaskan-born son move south to take a job in Colorado.

It is similar on the Alaska Marine Highway, where despite our ferry hopping and overnights in coastal towns we somehow end up again with the same people on different ships. There are several different places to hang out on the large ferries, so we meet the others that station themselves with us in the forward observation lounges looking for wildlife. There are the birders from New York who went to Gambel on St. Lawrence Island way up north and saw 32 life birds in four hectic days of bird-watching. The woman relocating to Ketchikan after working as a mental health care professional in a remote native community. The European travelers from the town where my mom went to high school. The family relocating from the Air Force base in Anchorage to one in Salt Lake City. It is an interesting sort of camaraderie that forms, traveling this way.

I’m not a big fan of air travel anyway, but this trip has reinforced to me the benefits of traveling more slowly by land or sea. If we had hopped on a plane in Seattle and gotten off a few hours later in Juneau or Anchorage or Fairbanks I would have missed so much of the sense of place that is Alaska. I would have had no real concept of how far away from home I was, or how much open space and wilderness stands between those two places. With this type of travel the experience is the journey itself rather than a particular destination, and I like it that way. Even by car or boat I realize we can cover hundreds of miles in a day, and I can only imagine what it must have been like to those early travelers who walked their way south from the Bering Land Bridge or explored these complex islands and inlets by sailing vessel with no charts to aid them.

Enough of those philosophical thoughts for now, let me share some of the sights of the day. After boarding the ferry yesterday afternoon we headed south as far as about Prince Rupert before it got too dark to see; darkness is still a concept I’m readjusting to, I have to say it is very strange for it to be dark by 10 PM again! This morning I woke up to the rocking during one of our two open water crossings and was again greeted by rain. The weather lifted throughout the day, progressing as we do towards the clear skies and warmer temperatures that have been reported at our port city in Bellingham.

In the inside waters we’ve seen a series of lighthouses in all different shapes and sizes. This is the Dryad Point Lighthouse in British Columbia.

There are lots of interesting vessels to see as well, like this freighter loaded up with everything from cargo containers and construction supplies to boats and trucks. It looks a lot like the monthly shipment we saw being unloaded in Yakutat. I wonder where this one is headed?

While we saw a few humpback whales in inside waters throughout the day the whales of Queen Charlotte Sound were the most impressive wildlife sighting of the day. At one point it seemed like there were spouts every where you looked, there were so many whales around! Often when a whale is spotted you will see it once or twice more before it dives and then the ferry moves you along and too far away to see it again. A couple of times I tried going outside when it looked like a whale was close enough to photograph, and once today I was rewarded. Before we got to the big group of whales in the Sound, we saw this single individual. As me and one other lucky soul stood out on the deck, the whale came up directly off the ship from where we were standing and only about 25 yards out! It was so close I could hear it breath over the engine noise.

Later in the afternoon we reached the northern end of Vancouver Island and entered the waters that are the primary summer home of the Northern Resident group of killer whales, the counterpart to our Southern Resident population in the San Juan Islands. We didn’t have any luck with orca sightings today. (I’m disappointed but can’t complain that we didn’t see any orcas in Alaska – an interesting fact to me since Alaska is where my passion for them bloomed when I was 12!) Despite the fact that we didn’t see any dorsal fins it was still cool to transit through the areas I have read about it books such as Orca: The Whale Called Killer and Listening to Whales – both of which I highly recommend, by the way. Places such as Blackfish Sound, Alert Bay, Cracroft Island, Robson Bight, Johnstone Strait. I can just imagine the orca dramas that play out here later in the summer when the Northern Residents are around more often, or the Southern Residents transiting through when they make the occasional trip down the Inside Passage as part of L-Pod did just a week or so ago.

Here is a picture I took in Blackfish Sound. Looks pretty similar to the San Juans, doesn’t it? That’s probably why I didn’t take as many scenery pictures today.

I won’t be able to post this until I’m back at home, so this will be my last blog entry written from the road about our epic trip to Alaska. Tomorrow morning we pull into Bellingham and I’ll catch another ferry back to my home port of Friday Harbor. While I’ll quickly re-enter the summer swing of things there, including catching up with the Southern Residents that have been around a lot, I’ll still do a few more posts about the trip with some photos and thoughts that just haven’t quite fit in anywhere else.

What can I say, it’s been a heck of a trip! I hope you have all enjoyed following along, as it has truly been the experience of a lifetime.

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