Gabby Goes to Sea/ the Clampets go to Alaska
By Gabby Fringette
Well then. The captain of the Kennicott just announced we were in for our first open ocean crossing. He said, in his polite and even tone, that we would be buffered by the Pacific ocean’s waves. He said we’d feel the boat’s movements. We’ve already been feeling it for the last fifteen minutes, and while it felt like a roller coaster, fun at first, try being on a roller coaster for more that ten minutes.
First, let me explain how I got to this point. As many of our county’s most avid gossip listeners know, my family is moving to the last frontier, Alaska. Alaska is 3,000 miles from California. This massive place does not actually touch the lower 48 in any place. We opted to drive 880 miles from our town in the Sierra Nevadas, through the sweltering 103 degree heat of Redding, through the demented hamster nest that is Oregon, then Washington up to Bellingham.
While the drive was an adventure in it’s own right, me snapping pics on my little pink Sanyo camera (nicknamed San-San) which thinks the year is 2010, while navigating for both the lead car, and the unique Topkick-homemade trailer combo in which we have our stuff.
What made the drive up more interesting, is we were going slowly because of the shoddy brakes, weren’t going to make any of the campsite reservations we had, so I, using our old trusty semi-reliable aircard modem, had to find campsites for us, and communicate this information to the Topkick. As it turns out, the walkie-talkies we bought for this purpose weren’t cutting it, so I used a cellphone. There was an often amount of screaming and missed exits. But still, the drive was breathtaking. From the Plumas-Sierra area along the gorgeous river, steep green mountains, I really am a sucker for mountains.
Camping wasn’t so bad. The campsites themselves were all very nice. I’m a fairly pretty lass, so it isn’t difficult to find a young guy to help me. At one site a young employee opened the store an hour early and got me ice. At a convenience store near one site, I received excellent customer service just for being polite. I swear, I’m not going out of my way to flirt. I’m just being polite, I’m a little surprised by their reactions, considering I’ve been so busy the past few weeks and then on the road, my personal hygiene has been a bit lax. Still, I suppose it’s a perk of being a girl.
But, very long story short, now I’m on a rocking ship out at sea. I’m sitting in the front viewing room, at the prow, and watching the mist. While we went though the Salish sea, there were dozens of islands and breathtaking mountain views. Now, on the open ocean, everything is obscured by mist. On the windy prow, you can see how legends of spirits and monsters can take hold. The chill of the wind sneaks up into your shirt looking for warmth, the boat rocks up and down, causing the weak to curl up on the seat next to you. My little brother, on the seat next to me, verifies this.
I took the other two little sibs to see the movie showing in the theater, and the seasick one went and laid down in the middle of the boat. Eventually the worst of the rocking stopped, and we were able to resume life as normal.
Getting on the boat was the tricky part. The vet didn’t give the beloved Cooter and Claire the right health papers, so we had to run around to three different people to get authorization, we had to cross a railroad and wind through gates and walls of other vehicles in the Topkick, and finally, driving onto the boat. The MV Kennicott is a passenger ship with a small but very loyal and dependent clientele. We were assigned our cabin by a very friendly purser, and we unloaded our stuff. Then the good part began. We took a slew of pictures of Bellingham, ate the delicious food in the cafe, and walked around. The Kennicott runs on Alaska time, even when in port at Bellingham.
Now, the boat is lovely. It has observation decks, a solarium, elevators, a cafe with great, reasonably priced food, a cheerful crew, a wide selection of movies playing in the theaters, vending machines, and the cabins are fantastic. The beds are comfortable, and if you pay extra for a bathroom, which I suggest, the shower is heaven. Every eight hours, we’re allowed onto the vehicle deck to care for our animals. Unfortunately, we aren’t allowed to have them on deck or in our cabins, we have to leave them in the car or in carriers on the vehicle deck. Claire and Cooter were dismayed at this. Claire was freaking out the first time, and wouldn’t even touch any of the big straps that held our cars down in case of emergency. She treated everything with suspicion. Cooter peed on the tire of the Alaska Marine Ferry truck. It is the only place he’ll pee. Since the first deck call, Claire has become much more comfortable.
I cannot describe the scenery. There are mountains. Maybe it’s just me, because I am a sucker for a good mountain, the colossal, near immortal nature of it. The sheer calmness and contrast, how huge and still it is even though it was born out of a huge, violent clash between the plates of the Earth. But we go through narrow channels, and around dozens and dozens of island, uninhabited, tree covered islands. Some are steep and rocky, little mountains, others are flat, and only just above the water. And then there’s the open ocean. If you stray too far from the canals, the boat rocks. Even seemingly tiny swells rock it. The best thing to do then is to lay down and take a nap. Motion Eaze can be had for $20.00.
I haven’t even talked about the whales! The first day, a few minutes out of dock, we saw a seal. And that was it for quite awhile. The little brown critter, flipped around in the waves, and waved to us, before disappearing in the waves. I suppose it might be used to people throwing treats overboard or off the dock. It’s a bad idea to feed wild animals, because it increases their dependance on humans, and they hang around us more. And while it was nice to see it in the water, I don’t want it harassing humans. So it found no treats from me.
We saw orcas. On San-San I got a mediocre picture. On TV you see pristine, crystal-clear pictures of animals. But in real life, seeing the animals just off the prow of your ship, even though it’s just glimpses of the orcas as they arch out of the water, it hits so much harder. It’s more impressive. They move so fast, they’re so large and sleek. I saw a baby swimming by its mother. It was fantastic.
But since then I’ve seen humpback whales, just the spouts and the humps, and sometimes a fluke.
I’ve also seen an absurd number of Bald Eagles. They’re everywhere. It was low tide when we went into Ketchikan, where I saw in the shallows more than a dozen starfish, and a number of crabs. Two crabs were squaring off. When you see these things on nature shows, it just doesn’t seem so impressive. You don’t have to work for it. But when you see just a glimpse of an orca from a windy, cool deck, it is so much more rewarding. You have to be patient, you have to be whipped around a little by the constant sea breeze.
One thing about Alaska, even the southernmost part, is it stays light very late. It stays likes until 10 at night, which can disrupt your sleeping patterns. It disrupts my saintly mom’s sleep patter and makes her as irritable as a regular human.
I met a very interesting woman, who for the sake of anonymity we’ll call Ruth. Ruth is an older woman, maybe 70, who is a cultural anthropologist. She works mainly with native tribes in the northwest part of the U.S and Canada. We talked for a long time about life, school, herbal medicine, and of course, culture. She had a friend we’ll call Todd, who works for the Forest Service. We talked about the rising pH of the oceans, and how it was spelling disaster for the planet. I’ve met a few other interesting characters, Beth, a woman here with her husband and granddaughter. They were going to get off in Ketchikan and drive around, stay in a yurt, and then go back to Kansas. She had a massive flock of mixed breed bantam chickens in the seventies, something that I, a crazy chicken lady, found interesting. But she was also knowledgeable about the climate and the health of the world. She spoke with The Fringe for a long time about it.
We went to Ketchikan the next day, it was a Monday and everything was closed except for a big gift shop. We stopped and bought a bunch of hats and some shirts that said ‘Alaska’ on them, which I thought was a really touresty thing to do, especially now that we technically live here. However, the mandatory hats kept the sun from our eyes as we walked Cooter and Claire. To describe Ketchikan isn’t easy. Quirky. Cool. Downieville. Though on the ocean and way bigger, Ketchikan reminded me of Downieville. Lush green vegetation on every sliver of exposed rock, grass, and even out of the buildings themselves. Built on stilts right up to the water, houses built on rocks and backed up to cliffs, the whole town forever in danger of high water. None of the buildings could be built in California, at least not today. Downieville only stands today because it was built when California was a little more like Alaska. We got back on the boat and bade it farewell.
Some of the people who got onto the boat at Ketchikan was a mother and her two daughters. One was a sweet, shy little girl of six or seven. The other was a very smart little girl of nine, who asked me lots of questions about the sun and solar system. They played with my little sister. When I say played, I mean they threw big foam blocks at each other, me, and the girls’ mom. Their stop was Juneau.
The girls and their mom, and Todd, the forester, got off on Juneau. We went ashore for a visit. Well, we didn’t actually see Juneau, because it was twelve miles from the dock, and our car was boatlocked by a bunch of other cars. We could have walked the twelve miles, but we didn’t have much time to do it in, and if you don’t come back in time, they won’t wait. It’s a looooong walk between Juneau and Homer. But still, what we did see reminded me very much of the coast in Humboldt county. It was lush and cool and there was so much green.
A few more interesting characters got on. An old man, originally from south of the Caspain sea, and his great-nephews were going to Yaketat, to go surfing. Alaska isn’t the place where you’d think of to go surfing, but people come from all around the world to go surfing there. They were living in Juneau. They’d been surfing there before, and according the the fifteen-year-old nephew, ‘it was fun.’
On Wednesday morning, we visited Yaketat. We slept in, and only had 45 minutes to do so, much of which was taken up with trying to get the dogs off the boat, deciding they were too much trouble, and then putting them back on. When we only had fifteen minutes left, ‘we’ decided to go and try and find a grocery store. Well, eventually, I figured we were cutting it too close, and fled back to the boat. I spent the run going between, ‘oh my god I’ve deserted my family,’ and ‘well I told those idiots we were cutting it too close, now when I get to Homer, how am I going to get in the house?’. I actually nearly ran by the Purser who was supposed to check my boarding pass. Well, as it turned out, I am not going to be living on my own until my family finds some transport between this tiny little town and our house, far, far away. As per usual, I overthought the situation, jumped to conclusions, overreacted, and they did, indeed, get back to the boat on time. I know as a teen I’m supposed to like the thrill of cutting it close and all of that trash, but it isn’t like Homer and Yaketat are neighboring towns. Actually, the Kennicott is the only of the Alaska Marine Ferry boats which goes there. So.
After that, we hit swells. Though, as I learned from people who took the ferry often, the sea was smooth as a lady’s mirror that trip, it still sent my brother and mother to sleep. They are so much alike, looking very similar and both having the same demeanor, it would almost be odd if he didn’t get seasick when she did.
Thursday went to Whittier. Whittier is an odd place, today it survives only on the fishing industry, it was originally a secret military base during WWII. There are two massive buildings from it’s early days, one has been painted a multitude of colors, and much of the population lives there. The other is far larger, and lives on a hill. It is dark and abandoned, each window broken out and it’s gray face leaked with black residue from each windowsill, it is a many-eyes beast who cries black blood from gouged sockets. It is, to say the least, foreboding. I had no interest to go near it, or even for a picture.
Whittier is a city of tunnels. To get to the town from the dock, you must go under the railroad in this even today semi-hidden tunnel. It has lights all down the roof, but it is still dark, cold, and the perfect place to ambush. The only think I liked about Whittier was, you guessed it, the mountains. They are huge, and mostly covered in snow. There are still banks of filthy snow on the ground. Whittier, though by the sea, is very dry. It is a gray place, and I didn’t much care for it. Except for the mountains.
We got back on the boat. Another arrival onto the boat was a girl named Mia (not her real name, of course). Mia is two years younger than me, and we have many things in common, from our hair, to our love of salt and vinegar Kettle chips. We exchanged contact information, and hopefully we’ll be friends outside of the boat. Though she’s tall and I’m short (shorter than her, at least, I’m actually average height), I have the feeling we’ll be able to get into very mild mischief. That is, if she can teach me to do my makeup over email and Facebook.
Mia stayed on the boat a very short time, because her stop was Chenega bay. She was on the boat for only a few hours. Chenega bay is a tiny place. The boat stayed for an hour and a half. Somewhere beyond the bay, there is an airport. We tried to walk down the long, long gravel road to find it, but to no avail. We ran out of time. We watched planes taking off and landing the whole walk. Chenega bay is charming. Tiny, but cool. There’s a church with a dome, and across the street was an older model of the dome, obviously having been changed out.
More swells as we began to cross the Cook Inlet to Kodiak. Not Kodiak camera, but the second largest island in the U.S.A, falling behind the Big Island of Hawaii. There are 13,000 people living on the island, and some Grizzly Bears. The Kodiak bears are renown for their size. But as we puttered around town, trying to find a grocery store. Kodiak was unremarkable, to me, at least. It looked like most towns in Humboldt county. Windy, wet, and on the sea. It was obviously crowded, something I’m not a fan of. One thing I adored were the little houses. They were built up on the sides of hills, and though packed like sardines, they looked like a nice place to live in. They were, oh how I hate this word, but they were quaint.
Maybe Kodiak was just overshadowed by my mounting excitement. It was Friday. The day we’d pull into port at Homer, my new home. I spent until eight that night absolutely pumped, we cleaned up our little cabin, I took one more run-around the ship, we said goodbye to our favorite purser, and at eight, we climbed into our vehicles. Mom, and my two youngest siblings and I, were in the Suburban. The Fringe and my other, still seasick brother, climbed into our Topkick. I’d like to say we just drove off, but of course, that’s never how anything goes. There were a lot of other cars getting off at Homer from Kodiak. I only say one get-up that rivaled ours in uniqueness. It was a homemade red-and-black trailer which looked a bit like a barn. It was just pulled by a pickup, unlike ours which was pulled by an ugly Topkick and painted white with mint-green 50’s ice cream parlor trim. Now, it’s safe to say we have the best realtor in the state of Alaska, probably the whole U.S.A. He was waiting for us up on shore to show us to our house, because it was a bit hard to find.
But it would be an hour and a half until the Suburban saw the light of day. For an hour and a half, I sat in the back, comforting Claire, who was freaking out beyond belief. She knew happenings were afoot. She also knew she’d spent the last ten days with heart-of-gold, raising-of-brain Cooter. And though they are best buds and like siblings, that’s too much even for Claire. However, she’d managed to untie herself enough that it looked like she was tied to the casual observer (like the Fringe) but that she had enough slack that she could get into the back seat and eat a bag of chips, four bags of instant potatoes, and part of a bulk bag of instant soup. That’ll be fun for me to clean. Eventually, we were lifted up on the huge elevator with four other cars. We drove onto the shore, parked, and wandered around looking for Martin. Eventually we found him.
“Where’s the others and the truck? I saw a u-haul and thought it was you, but I was wrong.” he said. At this I laughed.
“No, you’ll know it when you see it.” I said.
“I also saw a trailer that looked like a barn, and thought it might be you, but it was from Kodiak and had Alaska plates.”
“Yeah. Ours looks like an ice cream parlor.”
We then got a call from the Fringe, telling us that the R.V before them had been dropped off the elevator, and it would be an undetermined amount of time before they got it back on. So we went to the grocery store. The prices at the Homer Safe-way aren’t that different from the Quincy one. Supposedly it was supposed to be more expensive in Alaska. We came back from the grocery store, and the Topkick wasn’t up yet.
It was well on the way to midnight at this point, and though still light, it was getting colder. Mom and the sibs huddled together, but I was waiting as patiently as I could for the truck. I have been working the last year and a half for this moment. I said as much to my family as Martin let them into his warm car. I declined, I was actually plenty warm in my jeans and thin coat. For two weeks in the middle of the trip, I’d worn shorts and a tee. I ran out onto the deck to look at the mountains and watch the wave in the wind, and people were surprised. Now, at past midnight, long after when this princess should have been home, the R.V had been driven up off the elevator, and the Topkick took it’s place. I saw them, in the dark maw of the vehicle deck, the bike tired from the bikes on the trailer roof poking up just over the Topkick, as it drove out.
Martin lead the way, and we followed him up out of town, up a long hill and down a long hill, until we turned off. After the turnoff, we drove down the little road a ways more until we came to it. Our house. Our home. I ran around, and even though at nearly one in the morning it was just barely getting dark, the house was dark and quiet. We ate our late dinner, or early breakfast, threw our bedding down on the living-room floor, and fell to sleep. We were excited, but exhausted. We were planning on sleeping in really late the next morning. Or rather, that morning.
7:30 the next morning, we’re all awake.