INSIDE PASSAGE, Alaska — "Look at it as a bus line," suggests the Alaskan in the yellow rain-slicker as he boards "the blue canoe" at the tiny, tidy fishing village of Petersburg. "It may be a boat to you, but it's still a bus line to us."
A bus line?
After all, just how many Trailways double-deckers have packs of killer whales snapping at their hubcaps, or when's the last time you've seen an American eagle soaring around your Greyhound terminal?
The man was referring to the Alaska Marine Highway, the fleet, well-furnished state ferry system serving many of the seaside communities of Alaska that can't be reached by road.
In-season visitors, tourists who go north to Alaska in the traditional mid-May to mid-September period, have long gloried in the inexpensive, comfortable accommodations of the Alaska Marine Highway. They perceive it, correctly so, as a steam-heated, cocktail-lounging way of seeing the glaciers, seals and mountains of Alaska's eye-dazzling, 800-mile Inside Passage.
Vast Ferry System
Indeed, the ferry system is sometimes so cargoed with people from the "outside" (what Alaskans call everyone else) that it is frequently difficult for the locals to get aboard their seagoing commuter system.
"This is when it's really nice," says the passenger from Petersburg. He glistens with the sequin-like sparkle of fish scales that have dried on his slicker.
"From the first of October until the end of April, rates are way down, and the crowds are, too. For you outsiders, it's a good time to rub elbows with people who live here."
Alaskans are quick to point out a pod of eight black-and-white, designer-painted killer whales--it's as if they have the racing stripes of a hot rod, hell-bent for a halibut dinner off the bow of the ferry. Residents watch in silence as visitors ooh and aah over the solitary regency of an American eagle questing for the comfort of its own branch office.
This ferry, the Malaspina, has 18-knot speed. It holds 750 passengers, has 86 staterooms and enough room for more than 130 cars. On this trip it is engorged with big trailers, trucked on at one port, disconnected, then hooked up again and hauled away at another.
It's hard to comprehend the Malaspina's speed until you realize that it makes the 800-mile length of the Inside Passage--from Skagway in the north to Ketchikan at the other end--in about 30 hours. And that includes quick stops at Haines, Juneau, Petersburg and Wrangell.
The Wrangell Narrows are coming up. It's a magnificent stretch of water 21 miles long and, in places, less than 300 feet wide. You can seemingly reach out and pick the needles off the spruce and hemlock.
A visitor marvels at how the narrows were ever navigated at night, or in the fog, and the traveler from Petersburg says it was easy.
"We'd just blow the horn on the boat," he says, "and wait for the echo. If there wasn't an echo, you knew you were so close to shore that you might as well abandon ship right then and there." Radar and depth-sounders, he allows, do have their uses.
Like a Black Hole
Dusk is putting a cotton-candy patina on the white shoulders of the Inside Passage's mountains. In their shadows, the rest of the world seems to disappear into some endless, pre-galactic black hole.
It is the kind of sight you think was contrived by Walt Disney--surely Mother Nature could not have been so scenically inventive, so definite about the sharp demarcation of day and night.
Dinner is taken cafeteria-style. It's not fancy, but it's good and the servings are ample. The 270-degree windows of the dining room shut out the night and contain an ember of coziness against the outside void.
During the off-season months--October through April--riders 65 and older can travel free on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system within Alaska. There is, however, a charge for berths. There are also reduced fares for all ages during this period. Information: Alaska Marine Highway, Pouch R, Juneau, Alaska 99811; (206) 623-1970.