Slow boat to Prince Rupert: Camping aboard an Alaska ferry

Photo Credit: Betsy Trumpener

Slow boat to Prince Rupert: Camping aboard an Alaska ferry

👤Betsy Trumpener 🕔Aug 01, 2013

The summer weekend I travelled from Vancouver to Prince Rupert the long way—via Alaska—I slept on a lawn chair through the Inside Passage, gambled on deck with American bikers, and spotted a rare white spirit bear on shore. I dined with German med students, spied on orca whales, and later hitched a ride to Ketchikan with a couple of Colombians in a lime green VW bus. All during just 45 hours at sea.    

This weekend of wonder was no all-inclusive Alaska cruise. I took the sea channel less travelled. I chose the scenic, circuitous route, camping out on the deck of an Alaskan ferry.  

I wasn’t sure I was really up for it. I’d been sea sick before in a rowboat in a quiet harbour. It had been decades since I travelled with a backpack, ate with strangers and slept on train station floors.

But I needed to get from Vancouver to Terrace as inexpensively as possible. I didn’t want to fly. I couldn’t afford to ferry my car across to Victoria, then drive north to Port Hardy and put my car on another BC ferry to Prince Rupert. So, having left my car in the North, I rolled up my sleeping bag, packed up some books, rice crackers and peanut butter, and headed out with my backpack, my sea legs, and a $300 ticket to ride.

The plan? A day trip into the US. An Alaska ferry north and a couple more days at sea. A walk around Ketchikan, Alaska. Then a southbound ferry back into Prince Rupert in time for a late supper.  

From downtown Vancouver, I hopped a cheap Amtrak train bound for Bellingham, Washington. There I crossed a road and hustled inside the Alaska Marine Highway terminal, where I joined the line to sprint aboard the ferry, M/V Columbia. While cars and RVs rolled into the belly of the boat, and more affluent passengers moved suitcases into sleeping cabins, dozens of us foot passengers rushed to claim the best outdoor deck chairs. We’d spend the next two nights sleeping in the ocean air, reclining on plastic lawn loungers. So in search of prime positions, seniors from New Zealand pushed past Israeli backpackers. Families with rolling suitcases urged on kids carrying coolers, as we all clambered up the ferry’s slick metal stairs.   

I landed a prime lawn chair position: a window seat perched between the fresh air of the open seas and the solarium roof’s rain shelter. I rolled out my foam mattress, crawled into my sleeping bag, and took it all in. Those with the biggest backpacks claimed the back deck, where they started putting up tents. Strangers were soon laughing and chatting as they shared duct tape and knot-tying skills, and worked to keep their flapping tents from flying away in the ocean breeze. A young mother and her toddler unzipped a tent window with a million dollar ocean view.

An anxious American soldier with a Stars and Stripes tattoo set out a camo-clad teddy bear in front of his tent. He spoke in a very loud voice and avoided all eye contact, but he was sweet and eager to tell us all about the fighting he’d done in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was heading for a quieter posting now, in Anchorage, Alaska. For passengers like him, this trip was less a pleasure cruise than a long commute. There were soldiers on board, as well as teachers recruited to Dutch Harbour in the distant Alaskan Aleutian Islands, and a social worker en route to her new job in Whitehorse.

Whether aboard for work or pleasure, the long journey and the soft swells soon lulled us all. Along our rows of lawn chairs, strangers snored gently side-by-side. Couples ate cereal out of camping bowls. Boys read Game of Thrones. The scenery slid by: ragged green hills and even orcas spouting and jumping off the bow. Later, after a mauve sunset, people pulled on flannel PJs and wool caps and surrendered to the dark.

Morning brought the sight of fuzzy slippers and bare feet landing on deck and the welcome news that the ferry cafeteria’s coffee included free refills. People shared granola and banana chips. A stranger named Roger Fish from Jonesville, Tennessee sidled by to admit in a strange, sweet accent that, “I were watching yew sleep.” Later, he and his gang of friendly, rowdy Harley riders invited folks down to the lower deck to join in some games. I almost won at dice, but a teacher from Colorado took home the pot, retreating to the starlit bar with her windfall. A fellow named Richard, who’d just quite his IT job in Puerto Rico, was busy asking people what brought them joy and filming them with his iPad for his new project on joy of which he believed there was not enough.

We had joy aplenty onboard. Inside, the halls to the washrooms and hot showers were covered with giant murals of grizzlies and moose. Outside, we lay back on deck and watched green volcanic mountains slip by, some shaped like bread loaves. At Bella Bella, we waved at kids floating in the sea. When we crossed a rough passage of open water, someone passed out ginger candy and Gravol, and we all napped in a row on our lawn chairs, wrapped in a cool, thick fog.

The night before we reached Ketchikan, a group of us splurged on the cafeteria’s all-you-can-eat buffet. As we dined on carrot salad and buttered beans, I started talking about my elderly mother, who needed a hip replacement. There at the table, a German orthopedic resident named Tariq grabbed a napkin and started sketching anatomical illustrations of what to expect. He calmly told us the surgery was loud, but only because of the whirring saw.

As we cut up roast beef and devoured salmon, we were interrupted by an urgent ferry announcement. There, near Pitt Island, a rare Kermode bear had been spotted. Diners abandoned their plates to dash onto the deck to see the white bear: a sight so rare, the passengers so awed, that the ferry actually stopped and turned twice in the narrow channel to go back for a second and, then, a third look.  

It was dusk and the bear was hard to see, so people shared around cameras with telephoto lenses and we watched it, this beige-blond bear, fishing at the foot of a waterfall spilling into the sea. A sight so beautiful, the woman next to me shivered and then wept.

This moment of wonder brought home how wild and remote was this route we travelled. The beautiful scenery could also be unforgiving. It was nearby, in these same waters, that BC Ferries’ Queen of the North ran aground and sank in 2007. Two passengers were lost at sea.

The Alaska ferry crew took our safety very seriously. Within an hour of coming aboard, we were all called to a safety demonstration. The friendly crew told us what to expect in an emergency, including sliding down chutes into lifeboats. They assured us they were ready to knock on each cabin door and search under beds and lockers and inside camper vans to get us all out. The crew even charmed small children into trying on life jackets and snapping them securely. They helped a teenager practise zipping into a giant, red, hooded survival suit.

And then the crew took all the kids to the ferry cafeteria for free ice cream, as if to fix in their minds safety with sweetness.