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A voyage along Alaska's Inside Passage on the Malaspina ferry

In addition to sailing on the Malaspina ferry, there's a rain forest, totem poles and whales to see.

June 23, 2013|By Rosemary McClure

JUNEAU, Alaska — I'd been told she'd had a little work done. Who can blame her? She was turning 50, and her life had been hard. The miles were starting to show.

But after an $8-million update, she was as good as new and ready to celebrate — and I got to join the party.

Meet the Malaspina: Fifty years ago she made the voyage that launched the Alaska Marine Highway System, a ferry network that opened the state's isolated coastal towns to tourism and gave residents easier access to the outside world.

To mark the system's golden anniversary, the Alaska Department of Transportation collaborated with coastal towns from Washington to the Aleutian Islands for a summer-long celebration. The event kicked off in Ketchikan, Alaska, in May, when the renovated Malaspina set sail on a five-day, 500-mile commemorative Golden Voyage. Special sailings and events will continue through October.

I couldn't wait for the trip to begin. I've always wanted to see Alaska's Inside Passage by ferry instead of by cruise ship. Fewer people, fewer rules and much less miniature golf on a ferry, which suits me fine.

I flew into Ketchikan, near Alaska's southern tip, arriving a couple of days early to explore the area before the Malaspina began her Golden Voyage.

The city was just shaking off its last significant snow of the season when I arrived May 1. It probably would have been smart to wait later in the season to make this trip, but I would have missed the celebration.

Clouds hung low and rain fell as I left the airport.

I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head and remembered advice I'd heard from an Alaskan friend: "Only tourists use umbrellas," she said. "Don't even bring one along. All you need is a jacket with a hood.

"And if you really want to look like an Alaskan," she added, "wear Xtratufs."

I passed on the Xtratufs, rubber boots that are nicknamed "Ketchikan sneakers" because people wear them everywhere: to restaurants, churches, shops and to fish, which is what they were designed for. It was a fashion statement I didn't want to make.

Actually, they probably would have come in handy.

The next day I set out on my mini-Ketchikan tour in a misty rain, climbing hilly downtown streets crammed with frontier characters, serene viewpoints and enough photo ops to keep me busy for a couple of hours.

During the summer, visiting cruise ships sometimes dwarf the town and thousands of tourists pack its streets, but on this day I had it mostly to myself, and I browsed in shops on Creek Street, built on pilings over Ketchikan Creek. A century ago the buildings housed bordellos.

My next stop took me to the rain forest, wet and green and beautiful, with waterfalls and streams everywhere. I had entered the Tongass National Forest, the largest coastal rain forest remaining in the world.

The 17-million-acre Tongass rates as the nation's largest national forest, covering most of southeast Alaska. It has glaciers, bays, fiords, high mountains, lakes and rivers. More bald eagles and black bears live here than anywhere else in the world, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It seemed early in the season to spot bears, but I tried to be careful.

I didn't want to get eaten and miss the Golden Voyage.

On the way back to town, I checked out another of Ketchikan's highlights, its totem poles. At Totem Bight State Historical Park, I strolled through a pretty seaside park with 14 Tlingit and Haida totem poles and a clan house big enough to house 30 people.

The poles, most built from cedar, feature stylized human, animal and supernatural forms. A brochure explained that they told stories about ancestry, history, people or events. The setting, combined with the unusual artwork, had a spiritual feel.

Back in town, more totem poles awaited at the Totem Heritage Center, which displays 33 poles, some dating to the 19th century. No wonder Ketchikan is nicknamed the totem pole capital.

I glanced at my watch. Time to meet the Malaspina. I would spend the night on board the docked ship, which was scheduled to begin its run early in the morning.

When I saw the 408-foot ferry earlier, just after arriving in town, she was dressed to celebrate, with colorful signal flags flying. A community celebration had taken place onboard, with dancers and other entertainment. It was the first of many parties.

The flags had been taken down. Now, they'd go back up for the next celebration honoring the ship and the marine highway system.

They call it a marine highway, I was told, because it's the closest thing Alaska has to a highway. Most roads can't go very far because of the bays, islands, glaciers and mountain peaks, so in many areas the primary means of travel is by sea or air.

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