The long day before ended in Haines Junction with a late evening moon three-quarters full setting over the mountains to the west of our motel, making for a fine period to the end of the day's sentence, and I rose refreshed in the morning after a night of nearly ten hours' sleep. The accumulated fatigue of the days on the road and the anticipation of each day's new wonders has built until despite my eagerness and preparation I am weary. Thankfully, I'm not weary of the riding: no, not that - that would be a curse indeed. No, just tired in a way that steady, long attention to a task gradually draws one's energy down. Today's ride would be mercifully short, just over the mountains and through Kluane National Park down to Haines and the ferry terminal, only a hundred-fifty miles.
As we were starting off at near noon, we chanced to try for lunch at the local version of the "Tastee-Freez", a small place that advertised pizza, burgers, and ice cream. Now there's a bit of a queer thing: ice cream seems incredibly popular up here, and that's one of the last things I'd have expected given the cold of most of the year. Maybe it's not the locals eating it, though; maybe it's the tourists . Anyway, a small group of bikers (Milwaukee-Twin type) were already there, and the light banter and curiosity that ensued was one of those little interludes that punctuates the different tastes and focus of the riding community: the thing they found most odd about our machines was the way we parked them up on the center stands instead of on the side stands. I never cease to be amazed at the different things people see. After eating, we pointed ourselves down the Haines Highway toward the mountains in a fine, warm mid-day air, stopping just to take a photo of the sign marking the fact that we were no longer on the Alaskan Highway.
Within only a few miles the air began to turn cooler, and by fifty miles, we were stopping to dig out fleece jackets and heavier gloves, reinforcing the point that one must be prepared for anything in the way of conditions up here. Soon we were up in the clouds, and the temperatures were down in the mid fifties, the rain spitting intermittently. These mountains border the coast, and the moist cold air drives right up into the valleys in a kind of micro-climate much different from that of the valley we had just departed. After Haines Summit (not very high at only 1,029 meters, about 3,100 feet) it was downright cold and I was glad of the warm gloves and heated grips. One comes down off the mountain range at the U.S. border station about forty miles from Haines where we were quickly passed through and on our way. Only a little while later, we were paralleling the Chilkat River, home to the National Bald Eagle Nesting Preserve. The water looked high and fast and had the gray silty color of a river cutting the mountainsides steadily, bringing the debris down to the ocean. The eagles must have been on break or something, because they were nowhere to be seen as we came past, but it is a dramatic place nevertheless, with the fast-flowing water and the islands and the high water.
The town of Haines was originally home to Fort Seward, named for the Secretary of the Interior who executed the Alaska Purchase from the Russians. The fort was erected in 1904 during a period of disagreement between the Canadian government and the U.S. over exactly where the borders should be drawn, and the establishment of the fort saw to it that intentions were made clear. There's a large parade ground on the hill overlooking the Lynn Canal channel, and many of the original buildings still stand. The fort served later in its life as an Arctic training post for soldiers in the far north, and was decommissioned and sold as surplus property in 1942. Several families of soldiers who had served there bought it sight unseen, and moved there to live, beginning the modern era of the town which today is mostly a cruise ship port, fishing center, and home of a fairgrounds for the region. It's a quaint little berg, with a friendly, colorful set of inhabitants, and in one of those rare twists of fate, I enjoyed one of the best Mexican breakfast burritos I've ever had in the Chilkat Bakery and Restaurant, and had a nice chat with the proprietors of the Pair-A-Dice Tattoo Parlor, where they assured me I had more than enough time to collect some nice ink should I desire to. J I didn't.
We stood nearly a day ahead of our original schedule at this point, and stayed late in the Hotel Halsingland which occupies one of the original Fort buildings. It's a pleasant older hotel with a nice watering hole and modest prices, and a little more "color" than the other more pedestrian places in town. A load of laundry, a little time in the book store (where I acquired a copy of Robert W. Service poems for the boat ride), a little in the gift shops, some time putting the back streets, and then it was off to the ferry terminal. There we met two young men from the S.F. bay area who had ridden their sport bikes to Prudhoe, away up on the north slope, as far as one can go, and on a dirt road to boot. Their bikes looked ridden hard and put up wet, pieces hanging, pieces missing and broken, but they had gone as far as they could and were now heading home. We also met a lanky fellow on a Harley who had ridden up from Florida alone, and we passed some pleasant hours exchanging stories and chatting with the other folks. Finally around eight P.M., we were allowed to board, a frenzy of parking, tying down machines, and transferring gear up to the cabins and decks. The Alaska Marine Highway system's boats cater to a rather "free-lance" set of travelers, and it was amazing to see the small army of tents quickly erected on the "solarium" deck aft, their guy lines held down with duct tape (the all-purpose attachment device), and sleeping bags spread out on deck chairs and chaise lounges. What a bohemian crowd! Many appeared to be hikers and young people out for the summer, chasing the next "buzz" and just moseying from place to place up in the Last Frontier.
As we found our way into the Purser's area to claim our cabin keys, I was utterly amazed to find Ted Wasserman, our long-lost third party. You'll remember that his bike broke down in Whitefish, Montana, just as we had linked up two weeks ago (he coming from New Jersey across the country by a different route), and the last we had seen of him had been the back of a sturdy U-Haul rent-a-truck disappearing toward Coeur d'Alene. After days of suspense as to how things had come out, here he was, on the boat ahead of us, his new Honda Ace Touring lashed down right next to us on the lower car deck. There's quite a story there, and I trust he'll tell it at some later time, but it must stand as testimony to the motto "Never give up!" He'd been to Skagway, flight-seen Denali and several spots of interest, fished for salmon with Dyea Dave (pronounced 'Die-yEE' - a Skagway local of some interesting background), and schlepped himself onto the damn boat ahead of us! I was impressed by his inventiveness and vigor, and relieved that things had worked out for him.
As I write this piece, we're just exiting the protected part of the Inside Passage south of Ketchikan and are venturing out into open water for the first time since departure. The good ship Columbia is swaying side to side, and many eyes up on the decks are scanning for whale sign like the lookouts on one of Herman Melville's whaling ships. While in Ketchikan we were dwarfed by three enormous cruise ships of the luxury sort in port to disgorge their thousands of tourists into Creek Alley to take photos of Dolly's (the bordello that made the Alley famous in earlier days), and to the legion of shops to buy carvings and gold, Rolexes and local art work. We've another full day and a half before we reach Bellingham and point our machines east toward Missoula, and the rest is doing me good. I was glad to get on the boat, and I expect to be glad to get off the boat, and in-between I'm making an effort to catch up on all the thoughts I have running around in my head. Frankly, it's all begun to run together, there's so much of it, but it's a simple, hearty confusion borne of much pleasant and educational experience, from the first days on the Cassiar to the Bald Eagle Foundation museum in Haines, and everything in-between. A part of me has already begun planning out the return legs in my mind ..
"There's a land where the mountains are nameless,
Tom Bowman, from the Merchant Vessel Columbia, July 8th, 1998. Alaska Sojourn rolls on .
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