Alaska for Real: The ferry way

The ferry crewmember shared a conspiratorial smile with me as we crept up on the lounge. We peeked around the doorway.


“Do you see them?” she whispered.

I scanned the “walk-ons” who had boarded the ferry minus a cabin reservation and who had, instead, set up housekeeping all over the ship, including in this lounge. In the rows of comfortable, padded chairs in the ferry’s signature navy blue color people were chatting with each other like old friends, though they might only have met minutes ago. An elderly woman was spreading bedding on the floor, getting ready to retire for the evening.

“They’re in the middle row, she’s making a bed,” I whispered.

She looked, saw them, and gave me a thumbs up before crossing into the lounge to give the elderly couple a key to a cabin where they could sleep on comfortable bunks rather than on the hard steel floor with its thin carpet.

My mom had seen them earlier looking exhausted. They were friends who weren’t well off who had severe medical issues. They also weren’t the type to accept help. My mom had presented the issue to the purser, asking if she could anonymously pay for a cabin for them.

The purser instantly and enthusiastically got into the spirit of the thing, as did all the other crewmembers involved in the conspiracy.

I’ve always thought the fleet of the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) a good place to observe human kindness and generosity, and this was reinforced for me in a very personal way when I recently boarded the M/V Columbia, flagship of the state ferry system.

The ferry was scheduled to leave in the early a.m. so I asked for a wake-up call at my hotel, giving myself 15 minutes to get up and moving before the shuttle left. Unfortunately, the desk forgot and called me as the shuttle was about to leave. I have low blood pressure issues and getting up and moving fast out of a dead sleep does not work for me.

By the time we got to the terminal I was in bad shape. I found something salty to eat, hoping to raise my blood pressure, but I was close to bottoming out. My hands trembled too much to attach labels to my luggage.

The terminal was empty except for the couple who had come with me on the shuttle.

“I’m sorry,” I said, unaccustomed to asking for assistance. “Can you help me?” I explained the situation briefly.

They came over instantly and without fanfare did my labels for me. When it was announced, a few moments later, that we could board the ferry, the man took the heaviest of my bags and put it on his wheeled suitcase.

“We’ll stick close to you and make sure you get on the ferry okay,” the woman reassured me matter-of-factly. Which is exactly what they did. When I recovered I thanked them and asked about them. They were Ben and Diane Adams and were from Wyoming, though they had family in Alaska. They would be getting off in Sitka at the first stop. While they were talking, I kept thinking how they looked so comfortable on the ferry; they fit right in with its low-key, friendly zeitgeist.

My ferry trip had been arranged at the last minute so I was a “walk-on.” The ferry was almost empty; most of the passengers were locals. Everyone smiled and chatted with each other like reunited friends, though most of us were meeting for the first time. I met one couple who knew people from my tiny village. I met an older man in the snack bar who had worked on the ferry for many years, though he was now retired. We shared our Alaskan experiences and as night wrapped around the ferry’s windows he asked if I had a cabin. When I said no, he asked where I’d be sleeping.

“I’ll bring you a blanket and a pillow,” he said with a grin. “Everything’s comped for me. I get them for free.” Sure enough, later that evening he brought me a blanket and not one, but two pillows.

As I settled onto my bench seat at the back of the observation lounge, I noticed that I had the huge room almost entirely to myself. The only other occupant was an elderly man on another bench seat nearby. He was curled up, trying to use his bill cap as a pillow.

I carried the extra pillow over to him and shook his shoulder. He looked up at me questioningly. “Someone gave me an extra pillow. Want it?” He accepted with a grin.

Early the next morning when it was announced that we’d docked in Petersburg I got up to check out the still slumbering city and noticed a single mom with two small kids on the solarium deck trying to take a selfie with little success. As I watched, a woman walked up and said, “Would you like me to take a photo for you?”

The single mom gratefully accepted the stranger’s offer and now has on her phone a beautiful shot of her and her kids with the dawn colors in the sky and water behind her.

It’s the ferry way. All around, on every deck, people were casually helping each other out in large and small ways.

• Tara Neilson lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at


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