Bicycle Book

On the Ferry North

Something’s Out There

A Bicycle Journey into the Wild


D. S. White



I had been driving north through Bellingham one day about a year ago when I saw a sign pointing to the ferry terminal and I went down to the dock to take a closer look. The passengers getting off the boat from Alaska had a kind of ruggedness to them. Yet aside from the rough clothes and the weather beaten faces, there had been a glow in their eyes. I could only imagine what life must be like in the wild and I began to dream of a journey there on my own.

The last several months had been spent in preparation for going north on my bicycle. The ferry ride through the Inside Passage is one of the most anticipated stages of a trip to Alaska. The ferry departs out of Washington once a week in the summertime and today I planned to get on board.

By mid-morning I was in the middle of repacking my things, reconsidering every item I had brought with me. This would be my last chance to stop by a store and pick up something, before I left what they like to call the lower forty-eight, before I was alone in the wilderness.

John came over to see what I was doing. My camping gear, food, clothes, camera and first aid kit had all been strewn out across my campsite. He took in the scene with a look of bewilderment, joking that a bear must have attacked me in the middle of the night. Then he joined in my sense of deliberation.

The real problem was that I had no clear idea of what I was going to need once I arrived in Alaska. I was sure that the plastic dish for storing unfinished meals could be left behind. As a result of the long distances I was covering on my bicycle, there hadn’t been any unfinished meals.

At the same time, I wasn’t sure whether I might need some of the other things I had hauled this far up the road. The extra weight they put on the back of my bicycle hadn’t been a problem yesterday, but it was still too early to tell. Long distance cyclists like myself constantly consider the weight of every item they bring with them. The lighter you bike is, the farther you can go without being exhausted. But to ditch something now and later find out I really needed it might be disastrous. It might mean the difference between success or failure. When I explained my predicament to John, he offered some good advice.

“If you can leave it behind now, you can also get rid of it later,” he said.

He thought I should wait to make these decisions until I was farther north. Alaska was a vast wilderness and places to stop and buy things were few and far between. His attitude towards reducing the weight on my bike at this point was the opposite of the rider who had verbally tried to reduce me to flames the day before all because I wasn’t carrying fleece. I considered John a friend and listened to what he had to say.

By noon, the decisions all made, I was ready to ride on. A coastal fog had set in and a light rain was falling. I dug out my rain gear and put it on in the cold.

“You want a lift into town?” John asked.

“Thanks, but I need to finish this on my own.”

It was one more chance to test myself before getting too far away from home. He looked at me from the driver’s seat, nodding as if he understood, then swung the arm which shut the door to the bus before driving away.

The road continued on as it had the day before, climbing over elevated hills and traveling through heavily wooded countryside. I approached the outskirts of Bellingham from the south and soon recognized the road I had driven down the year before. I followed it to a little café and went in to eat.

Not wanting to strip out of my rain-gear in front of the other customers, I took a seat and hid behind a menu. I ordered a plate of fish and chips with the pretentious mindset of heading out to sea. As I ate, water dripped from my jacket onto the floor and formed a pool below my chair. I apologized to the waitress for the trouble and left a good-sized tip on the table when she went to get a mop.

“Are you taking your bicycle to Alaska?” a woman standing by the door to the ferry terminal asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Where are you from?”

“Seattle,” I said.

“Why’d you ride your bike here?” she asked.

My senses started tingling. Was she friend or foe? Although she carried a tone much like a newspaper reporter, I realized she’d asked a fair question. I rated her conversation as neutral.

There was the train, the airport shuttle bus, and other, more direct forms of transportation between Seattle and Bellingham. For some reason, I had chosen to take the slower route. But I had no answer for why I’d done that. I didn’t know exactly why I had ridden so far. Why not fly to Bellingham? Why not fly all the way to Alaska? Why not fly to the North Pole? Why go on a limited budget with a simple means of transportation, if going north was all I was after?

The more I thought about it, something told me that riding my bicycle mile after mile across the land everyday would give me a better understanding of what life on this planet was all about. Somehow, going the slower way would be better, in the end. In today’s hurried-up world, where the ends are more important than the means, going the slower route might actually be smarter, if you are after something more than what resides at just the surface level of what life has to offer you. This leads us to the second maxim in this book.

MAXIM 2: Taking the slower route may be better in the end.

I looked at her and shrugged, not yet able to explain what kind of person I was, before entering the ferry terminal to purchase my ticket north. I guess in a way I didn’t want to be superficial. I wanted to earn my place on the ferry. That, along with the fact that I didn’t have much money to spend, it all added up to the possibility of an adventure of a lifetime. Taking the easier way doesn’t exactly lead to a lot of excitement in your life.

The crew on the ferry seemed divided between those who were sympathetic with and those who were disgruntled by the passengers climbing on board. I was yelled at twice, once for being in the wrong line at the ticket counter and once for bringing my bicycle on the ferry at the wrong time. When the ship’s chief engineer said there wasn’t room for a bike, I almost retorted, until I realized he was joking with me. He had a mischievous look deep in his eyes as he took in my ride and the mountain of gear planted at odd angles on top of it. Instead of verbally cutting his head off, I smirked at him and asked where we could hang a bicycle rack over the back of the boat.

He led me to a room at the far end of the ferry and told me to tie my bike up against a wall. On one side of the room was a workbench. Tools were locked in place above it, on the wall. The rest of the space was used for storage. Due to the three-day voyage ahead, I wanted to secure my bike fully. It took some time as I tried to come up with something resembling a sailor’s knot, in the vain hope that it might impress someone. By then, someone did walk in, but only to ask in a rough voice if I was a member of the crew. I finished in a hurry and got out of the way. Passengers without a motorized vehicle were expected to get on last, so I returned to the dock to wait in line.

On my way through the ferry terminal, crowded by now, adventurers all busy securing backpacks and tents and travel gear, I stopped to talk to a man waiting at the ticket counter. Leaning against his leg was a mountain bike much like mine. On the back of his bicycle was an assortment of camping gear, similar to the stuff my bike carried. He looked nervous and reminded me of myself. Only days ago I had left home, sick to my stomach in anticipation of what lay ahead. This was someone I could talk to.

“I’m from New Zealand,” he said as I shook his hand.

“I’m taking my bike to Alaska, too,” I explained.

“Hey, it’s good to know I’m not the only one,” he said, looking relieved. “My name’s Matt.”

I quickly agreed. I hadn’t been certain if the idea was sane at all when I’d left home. Seeing him made the idea of riding a bike across Alaska sound more reasonable. He purchased a ticket and I helped him get his bicycle on board, showing him where I had stowed mine. Then I cautioned him that we had better get out of the way. We went back to the terminal to line up.

Matt was taking a different approach to cycling than I was. I wanted to ride as far north as I could, to see the Arctic Ocean, all in one long stretch. He was going to combine the use of his bicycle with the ferry system to see Alaska a little at time. His first scheduled stop was in Ketchikan, where he would ride around town for a few days and stay at local campgrounds. After getting a good taste of the region, he would jump on the next ferry up the coastline, repeating the approach at the next town on the map.

There are many inexpensive ways to travel like this around the Pacific Northwest. The Alaska State Ferry, the British Columbia Ferry, and the Washington State Ferry together make up one of the busiest sea-bound transportation systems in the world. And for those who don’t have all summer or even a couple weeks to spend on the voyage, weekend hops across Puget Sound from Seattle can take you to places as remote as Olympic National Park and Vancouver Island. It’s a bike camper’s paradise.

When the time came, we went on board. Tents were quickly set up on the open deck at the top of the ferry, as space was in high demand. The wind tried to blow them overboard, but the corners were taped down tight. The solarium was also on the top deck. The port and starboard sides of the solarium were transparent, as well as the top; however, the aft end of the solarium had been left open. At night you could look up and see the stars, and in the day, the sunlight warmed you like flora growing in a greenhouse. Reclining lawn chairs in the solarium were filling up with sleeping bags and I sat down on one and stretched out. This would be my bed for the next three nights. It was cheap and somewhat comfortable. If I’d wanted to spend some money, I could have stayed in one of the cabins, but that wasn’t why I was here.

The vessel we were on was called the Malaspina, named after a glacier in Alaska. It was the largest of the three boats I had been on since leaving home. It had a sun deck on the top, a boat deck, a cabin deck, and a main deck. On the boat deck was a cafeteria and a forward observation lounge. On the main deck were the cars. According to maritime law, we were not allowed access to the main deck, except for short intervals, which would be announced throughout the trip. My bicycle was on the main deck, along with the cars. This meant that I couldn’t get to my gear just now. Between being soaking wet from the morning’s ride, and the mad rush to claim some territory for sleeping, I was beginning to feel a little miserable. My sleeping bag, dry clothes, and food supplies were all out of reach.

The cafeteria opened up and I went down below for something to eat. We were prohibited from using our own cooking stoves on the boat, but a microwave in the kitchen was available upon request. I sat down after purchasing a bowl of steaming chili and a hot cup of tea. The prices were reasonable and the warm food began to cheer me up.

Right after leaving port the air began to clear. You could see for miles. The oceanic view of the land was more beautiful, beyond anything that I had expected. To the left were islands covered in trees and fog, and the mainland was to the right. The sun filled in places here and there, and in time, the weather warmed up and my clothes began to dry out.

In the evening, when the call came for the main deck, I went down below to look through my equipment. When I returned, I rolled out my sleeping bag and climbed in to sleep. We passed the city of Vancouver late in the night. I awoke to see the lights on the distant shore. The fresh smell of the sea filled me with awe and, for the first time since leaving home, I began to believe that anything was possible.





One comment

  1. I wasn’t aware of things like sleeping in tents on the deck of a ferry. Even before I go on to the next part, I am still in awe of your decision to ride all that way on a bike. To think I once thought London to Brighton (52 miles) was a stretch!
    Best wishes, Pete.

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