At the Bellingham terminal, a crew member ushered me toward the elevator on the lower car deck of the MV Columbia. Because I was roughing it, though, I chose the more challenging route up. Slowly, I ascended eight flights of stairs, my camping gear shifting on my back like an unhinged tortoise shell.
At the top, beneath burnished silver clouds, I scanned the deck for an open campsite. Tents occupied both corners. I eyed an available patch in the center, against a railing with vistas of the Washington state port. I claimed my land in true Alaska state ferry fashion, slapping a piece of duct tape on the steel deck.
The ferry system is the First Frontier for travelers who wish to explore the Last Frontier in the maritime version of the public bus. Established in 1963, the year-round commuter service is a workhorse, transporting Alaskans along the 3,500-mile Alaska Marine Highway.
During warmer months, the system is also a recreational pony and an alternative to the traditional cruise, as its 11 ships deliver adventure-seeking tourists to more than 30 points along the Alaska seaboard.
"These are our 'blue canoes.' They're part of us," said Tresham Gregg, an Alaskan artist who grew up riding the watercraft. "The nice thing about the ferry is that you make up your own experience as you go."
The six mainline ships offer multi-berth staterooms, but four walls and a private bath are overrated. Cruisers either short on funds or long on excitement can rest their sleepy heads on any available surface: cafeteria bench, plastic poolside chair, movie theater seat, carpeted floor space. They can also pitch a tent on an open-air deck.
In late August, I joined the ferry-camping community on the 600-passenger flagship of the fleet. The ship would shimmy through the narrow channels of the Inside Passage, sailing from Bellingham to Haines and back. We would stop 10 times in six communities.
For my week on board, I packed as though I were camping in the unforgiving outdoors. I stuffed my duffel with a sleeping bag, a tent, an air pad, a headlamp, and a fleece blanket. I also made a few adaptations based on the unusual environment: rain boots instead of hiking boots, a giant roll of industrial-strength duct tape instead of tent pegs. Plus scissors, so as not ruin four years of orthodontics ripping tape with my teeth.
Rookie camping move: I didn't practice setting up my REI tent before arriving at the ferry port.
Consequence: I tried to attach the main poles to the fly.
Then along came a Swiss traveler with an offer to help. As one of the first campers to board, Tomas had picked up some insider tips from the crew. For example, he instructed me to tape the bottom pieces of the corner loop ties to the deck. That way, the wind wouldn't be able to lift up the entire tent and carry it off like a soap bubble. He also secured the fly to the railing with rope. To test out his masterful work, I stood over my tent and shook it like a displeased Godzilla. It didn't budge.
With my tent stabilized, I set off to roam the 418-foot-long ship. The Columbia departed at 6 p.m., which meant that I had less than two hours before my land legs would start to wobble.
Using a map as a guide, I explored the two decks essential to my camping lifestyle. On the boat deck, I located the 22-hour cafe and its free hot-water spigot, microwave and cafeteria-style meals. For finer dining, I poked my head into the full-service restaurant, encased in tall glass windows, and scanned its menu of fish swimming beneath us. Toward the bow, I discovered the dimly lit cocktail lounge covered in velvet wallpaper, and the observation lounge, with stadium-style seating.
On the cabin deck, I slipped into the dark movie theater (several screenings a day) and the pocket gift shop.
After several loops around the boat, I felt confident enough to toss my map. Not long after, I faced my first challenge.
"On the starboard side, you will see a humpback whale," a crew member stated over the PA system.
I knew exactly what to do. I headed straight for the right side of the ship, walked toward the exit near the vending machines, and pushed open the doors to Alaska.
One might wonder: How do you survive 38 hours of sailing without a land break or any typical cruise ship distractions, such as shows, casinos, or spring break-ish pool contests?
When the Columbia set sail from Bellingham to Ketchikan, the first stop at the end of those 38 hours, I asked myself that same question and proceeded to answer it. Self, you will read, watch movies on your laptop, and sleep. Self received some bad advice.
First, the initial leg of the journey is mostly in British Columbia, so my mobile gadgets didn't work. (There's no WiFi on the ship.) Sleep was not a viable option either, since my tent was one honeycomb in a busy beehive. Nor was I tired, despite the four-hour time difference.
So I relied on old-fashioned entertainment. I talked to fellow passengers and settled into a white plastic chair with a courtside view of the slowly passing scenery - pods of orcas, a team of synchronized Pacific dolphins, and humpbacks blowing small geysers.
When the clouds started to leak, I retreated to the solarium. Here, beneath rows of heat lamps, bodies baked like wrapped fish on chaise longues. I also made countless forays to the cafeteria, where two cousins from the Tlingit tribe held court at a corner table. They'd turned the space into an exhibit of their craftworks, displaying animal-shaped earrings, beaded hair accessories, and medicine pouches made of seal fur.
For onshore sightseeing, the ferry occasionally followed an insomniac's clock.
The Columbia docked at all hours. We pulled into Juneau, for example, at 4:45 a.m. (northbound) and 12:45 a.m. (southward). My memory of the capital is fuzzy. I recall an industrial port and a parking lot with hazy yellow street lights weakly piercing the dark cloak of night.
The longest layovers at the most convenient times occurred in Ketchikan (three hours, 7 a.m. and 2:15 p.m.), Sitka (three hours, 12:45 p.m.) and Haines (11:15 a.m. to 8 p.m.). At all but two of the ports, the ferries tied up several miles from downtown, so I had to factor cab/bus/fast-walking travel time into my schedule.
In Sitka, a school bus shuttles visitors into town, 6.5 miles south, for $10. The Haines post is about five miles from the museums (hammers and history), American Bald Eagle Foundation and Live Raptor Center (owls, hawks), and Sea Wolf Gallery at Fort Seward (carvings and puppets). The glacier-iced destination has one taxi service, or you can always cadge a ride from an employee or a passenger with wheels. (I did both.)
Ketchikan's commercial area is fairly close to the ferry terminal. From the deck, I could see the squat skyline of the dynamic center, plus the white wall of cruise ships.
On my first visit to the so-called Salmon Capital of the World, I squeezed into the pickup truck of Eric, a genial kitchen staff member, and his wife, Susan. Despite the early morning hour, the couple took me on a driving tour of their hometown.
We started at Cape Fox Lodge, a hilltop hotel set in the Tongass National Forest that displays Native American artworks in the lobby and upstairs. A funicular carries guests down to the boardwalk of Creek Street, the former red-light district that's now a rainbow-colored strip of art galleries. On the return drive, Eric pulled over to inspect a thick dark smudge along the river's edge.
Standing against the metal railing, I watched a wriggling mass of salmon swimming upstream - headed straight for the mouth of a black bear.
My bright orange tent was the postman of camping: It braved heavy rains, strong winds, and flocks of seagulls. It breezily waved its fabric at menacing clouds. As for me - well, I was a bit more fragile.
On the first two nights, the weather traded off between clear skies and showers with drops so heavy that I thought someone was pelting my tent with gumdrops. The second morning, two campers dropped out of the pack, retreating to the solarium.
I'd avoided leaks, but puddles started to form through the bottom lining. Hours before dawn on the second night, I sleepily dragged my luggage to a sun chair so that it could dry under the heat lamps. I returned to my soggy tent and lay motionless on the air pad as floating on a raft.
That evening, I peeked inside the hollow shell and noticed shallow ponds. I made the call: I was going to crash in the solarium.
But I paid for my disloyalty. I woke up parched, sweatshirt off, bag zipper undone. My cheeks were flushed. I felt like a crispy baked potato that the chef had forgotten in the broiler.
The following night was wetter and colder. I ventured deeper indoors, to a children's play area in the observation lounge. My night's lullaby featured a whispering couple at a nearby table and a woman's sleeping bag that crackled like a candy wrapper.
After experiencing the other sleeping venues, I was ready to return to my original shelter. I was rewarded for my allegiance.
The sky was a dance floor of stars lit by a disco ball of a moon. Close to midnight, I heard shuffling and peered out of my tent to see a passenger moving his blankets to the open deck. Soon, several others followed. I crawled out and began to quietly rip the duct tape off the fly. I tied it back, creating an opening large enough to allow the moonbeams in.
Eleven ferries cover routes between Bellingham and Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The Columbia offers seasonal service from Bellingham to Skagway through Oct. 1. The Malaspina then takes over for the winter. Round-trip cost to Haines is $706 for passengers, including tent campers; cabins start at an additional $337 one way.