Reflections on a fair, thoughts on a ferry

Two weekends ago my wife and I took our four-and-a-half-year old daughter and almost two-year old son to the Southeast Alaska State Fair, and though we barely spent 36 hours there, we did just about everything there was to do.



….rode the carousel, pet baby farm animals, got our faces painted — well, one of us did — sat in the cockpit of a Black Hawk helicopter — well, one of us did — and ate multiple meats on a stick as well as three different varieties of fried bread dough.

..heard live string band after live string band after live string band, interrupted only by an uncomfortably erotic performance by an acrobatics troupe from Portland.

…got balloons, lost balloons, cried, then got more balloons in a seemingly endless cycle all weekend.

…camped in torrential rain.

…spent half the kids’ college fund at Mountain Market (their sign’s right — the coffee really is “to die for,” although maybe it just seemed that way after a long, sodden night in a tent with a couple of dangerously over-stimulated pre-schoolers).

…drove to Chilkat Park and Chilkoot Lake and it only took me two days to stop confusing the two.

…[at Chilkat Park, no, wait, Chilkoot Lake — d’oh!] saw a grizzly rear up on its hind legs and charge a guy walking his dog. While thankfully, this proved only a mock charge — the guy and the dog were fine, albethem a little freaked out — some small part of me wishes the grizzly had mauled them, because I had a point blank view and my iPhone camera all set to video. Pity. It would’ve gone viral.

…almost played beer pong with our campground’s party contingent. But then I figured I’m a 36-year-old father of two; I should try to maintain some level of dignity. Maybe if they were playing “A**hole.”

…drank whisky alone in a camping chair, like a grown up.

In fact, if our State Fair experience lacked in any way, it was only in one respect: no gigantic vegetables. Just as well, if you ask me. I’ve been to the state fairs up in Palmer and the Tanana Valley, and truthfully, like professional acrobatic troupes from Portland, I also find gigantic produce to be uncomfortably erotic. Especially the zucchini. Thankfully, prize-winning produce grown in this part of the state turns out to be a lot more realistically sized. Don’t get me wrong. What I saw at the Southeast State Fair was still big enough to arouse my interest; it just didn’t make me blush.

But the highlight of our trip — or, at least a close second after the meat on a stick — was the ferry.

Now, I hadn’t ridden the Alaska Marine Highway in a while, and honestly, I’d forgotten how cool and quirky and fun it can be. In some ways, boarding the M/V Matanuska this past weekend was like rekindling the sparks with an old flame (good thing I remembered to properly stow my propane tanks in the designated flammables locker).

For one, “driving” the Alaska Marine Highway provides a wonderfully telling detail about life in Southeast Alaska in that any road trip here involves a leg at sea.

More than that, though, the ferry is a pretty darn pleasant way to travel, pardon my French. Especially compared to air travel (especially with little kids).

Ah, where to begin… It’s a lot cheaper, a lot roomier and you can spread your stuff — not to mention yourself — all over the place, not just in the overhead bin or under the seatback in front of you. Our boat to Haines even had a little playroom. Added bonus, I got to kick out a bunch of teenagers so my kids could play there. Playing the old crank is such a delicious reversal sometimes, like earlier this summer at a vacation beach house in North Carolina when I had to go ask our neighbors to turn the music down. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have, but the constant Jimmy Buffet was driving me nuts.

Of course, let’s not forget that the ferry travels in all kinds of heavy weather and usually isn’t delayed due to some paperwork glitch or blinking light they need to fly a part up from Seattle to fix. And should its engine flame out, I won’t plummet to my death. On the contrary, I’ll just float there in the cafeteria eating fish n’ chips until the Coast Guard arrives.

Speaking of which: not even on the fanciest jumbo jet will you ever find a deep-fat fryer. If getting there is half the trip, why not spend that half availing yourself of the Alaska Marine Highway cafeteria’s amply-stocked condiment bar? We’re talking unlimited tartar sauce, relish, blue cheese AND ranch dressing. You can almost hear them beckoning: “Hello, sailor, what’s your pleasure?”

Now, I’m not saying the ferry is perfect — if it were, they’d allow alcoholic beverages in the solarium. But the cocktail lounge opens at something like 11 am, serving draft beer and mixed drinks in real glasses. And there’s an out-of-tune piano for you to dazzle your friends with the only two songs you know: the opening riff from Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home” and the theme from “Star Wars.”

Now that’s traveling in style.

• “Slack Tide” appears every other Sunday in Neighbors. Read more of Geoff Kirsch’s work at


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