by Keema Waterfield
|We wait for the all clear to board on a black night, the moon stitching a diamond pattern on the Gastineau Channel, the white rails of the Matanuska ferry glinting like a carnival ride. I want to be out there walking a dog, stretching my legs between rows of idling cars like the young couple holding hands and strolling slowly while their yellow lab pees on every third tire. Instead, I sit my dogless butt in the back seat next to Tekla and Camden, reading comics. As the oldest, the back belongs to me and I take the job seriously, doling out snacks and blankets and distractions to keep Camden’s four-second attention span from driving Mom nuts.Our favorite car game:
“Mom, where are we going?” we ask in turns.
“Crazy! Wanna come?”
“Yes!” We are pretty sure crazy isn’t a place you can drive to.
By the time the first row creeps forward Tekla and Camden are asleep. I roll down my window and lay my head against the frame, breathing in exhaust and treated wood and ocean, anticipating. Ferry time is endless and cumulative, events strung together like Mom’s Buddhist prayer beads. Individual trips merge into one journey so that every morning when I wake I recall a humpback whale escorting us from the harbor, but I don’t recall that it happened years ago.
From inside our car the Juneau ferry terminal looks the same as Ketchikan or Sitka’s: a small, gray building with huge windows, a parking lot big enough to fade to shadows in the far corners, and a monstrous steel gangplank designed to rise and fall with the tide. The Juneau and Sitka terminals are both way out of town, on remote beaches with mountains rising up around them; Ketchikan’s terminal dumps you in the lower right ventricle of the city’s heart. The terminals look the same and smell the same, but in Sitka I feel my brother’s warm house waiting; Ketchikan, my grandmother and uncles and cousins; Juneau, the promise of pizza and video games at Bullwinkle’s.
Once our lane begins to move, it doesn’t matter where we’re going or when we’ll get there. I know that we will board slowly, each row of cars racing at turtle speed to a designated berth in the belly of the boat. We’ll park between yellow safety cones and grab our gear – a backpack apiece, a tent, Mom’s guitar and cello – and we’ll race upstairs to the solarium deck to find a place to camp in the open air. I plan to get there before the crowd, push a handful of lounge chairs aside, and set our tent at the starboard rail, just at the edge of the solarium roof where the overhead heat lamps will keep us warm and the wind and salt spray will tickle the rain fly. Then, I will sprawl out on a lounge chair and tap my heels three times and laugh because I’m already where I want to be. Ruby slippers be damned.
In an hour we will be underway, decks shuddering, lights dimmed, free to roam. No school. No classmates. No popularity contests or birthday parties or step-dads. Just three kids and a young mother and three hundred strangers going somewhere, eventually.
Southeast Alaska – residents call it simply the Southeast – is mostly made up of island communities protected from heavy Gulf waters by a thin strip of coast, connected by a series of waterways called the Inside Passage. A few of these communities – Ketchikan, Sitka, and Juneau – went from village to city after the Gold Rush, when folks settled on other lucrative enterprises like cannery work and logging. Most of the canneries are gone now, and the mills closed, but a lot of pioneering families built lives among the wet Sitka spruce and red-berried devil’s clubs and they couldn’t bear to leave, even when the jobs evaporated.
To get from one place to another in the Southeast it helps to own a plane or a boat, and a lot of people do. Those of us who don’t own a plane or a boat take the Alaska Marine Highway, sailing on merchant vessels that traverse the coastline from the northern tip of Washington to the Aleutian Chain. Thirteen ferries in all, ranging from two to four hundred feet in length. The bigger boats offer staterooms, multiple lounges, a bar, a theater, a play room, a restaurant, even gift shops. Their names are grand and inspiring: the Columbia, the Taku, Matanuska, Aurora, Tustamena, Kennicott.
It seems like five months out of any given year Tekla and I lived out of suitcases, doing our homework in the backseat of the car, or at a lounge table in one ferry or another. Camden had it easy, living with his dad in Sitka during the school year.
I finished first grade in Ketchikan, second in Juneau, and third in Fairbanks. In fourth grade, I attended four schools: two in Fairbanks while Mom finished her art degree, one in Ketchikan with Grandma Gorgeous Darling while Mom packed our things for the treacherous mid-winter Alcan drive from Fairbanks to the ferry in Skagway, then Harborview Elementary in the spring once Mom found a place in Juneau.
No matter where we hunkered down for winter, we knew we’d soon ferry back to Ketchikan for Christmas, and then again as soon as the first spring cruise ships hit the Inside Passage, dumping glitzy passengers into Grandma’s eye-popping tourist trap on Front Street. Before she changed the name to Madame’s and imported a turn-of-the-century Victorian brothel theme, the store was called Tom Sawyer’s, after the original owner.
I can still smell the heavily Windexed glass shelves, Grandma’s perfume, the sharp zing of brand new clothing, and the musk of fur lined moccasins. When it was still Tom Sawyer’s half the store held jewelry, the kind of stuff Mom herself couldn’t afford: diamonds and pearls and gold nuggets the length of a finger. The other half held boxes of smoked salmon, chocolates, jams and jellies, tee shirts, sweatshirts, umbrellas, Eskimo yo-yos, ivory, polished stones, key chains and totem poles, some smaller than my hand, others tall as Mom. After the renovation, Madame’s interior went from blue to burgundy and held more delicate collector’s items: finely wrought candelabra, Victorian dolls, handmade fudge. Madame’s employees were required to dress in costume, which involved a lot of satin and lace and cleavage. Grandma Gorgeous Darling, of course, was the Madame.
Before the renovation Mom wore long flowing skirts and short jumper dresses in bright colors to offset her eyes, wide and brown as Hershey Kisses. She sold ivory carvings and diamond rings on commission, earning enough – after repaying Grandma the price of our travel – to make it through another year of folk festivals and art school and raising three kids.
We learned not to expect lazy summer days lounging in downtown Ketchikan. Once the cruise ships arrived, our cafés, parks, stores, and docks became a sea of pastel sweatshirts, tee shirts, and rain slickers with Alaska stamped boldly over bears, wolves, sled dogs, forget-me-nots, and every kind of fish. I loved tourists, and I hated them. They saw everything through a camera lens, walked blindly into traffic, demanded to be served first. But as fisheries, mills, and logging companies failed year by year, tourism kept Southeast Alaska afloat. You had to learn how to make the sea of strangers seem exciting. I peddled Dixie cups full of salmon berries on the dock across the street from Grandma’s store in Ketchikan, and across the street from my favorite restaurant in Juneau, The Armadillo. Fifty cents per cup. I didn’t make a killing, but kept myself in candy and squirt guns.
I first worked for Grandma at age six, stocking shelves and tagging shirts for a few hours before running off to spend my earnings at the deli on my way to the public library two blocks away, where I read books and watched movies. By fourth grade I could reach high enough to stock millions of plastic totem poles and key chains with “Alaska” or “The Great Land” on the front, and “Made in China” stamped on the back.
The ferry system lured a different breed of tourists than the cruise ship customers taking over my favorite places. I thought of them as sightseers, and I loved them for their adventurous spirit. They roughed the Inside Passage without a heated swimming pool or dinner theater. Some of them slept right next to me on the solarium deck. They bought touristy stuff, but mostly spent their money on locally guided kayak trips or on helicopter rides to nearby glaciers during layovers.
Sightseers wanted to be in Alaska, smell my rainforest, hike my mountains. Because they asked, I told them what I knew: eat at the Armadillo in Juneau; take a tour with my step-dad and hit up The Back Door Bookstore in Sitka; stop in at Grandma’s curio store in Ketchikan and say hi for me, she’ll get a kick out of that. I also told them: no, we don’t live in igloos up north; yes, we have telephones; no, most people drive cars in the city instead of dog sleds.
Camden beat the hell out of every arcade game the ferries carried: Street Fighter II, World Hero, Hard Drivin’. Passengers gathered around to watch him play for hours, volunteering quarters. I say volunteering because I don’t like to call it panhandling, even though the term might be more accurate. Nevertheless, at five years old Camden was a video game wizard, and practically a millionaire in my nine-year-old estimation.
When Camden rode with us, Tekla and I spent more time in the kid’s playroom with its bright red plastic toddler slide, though we were all too big for it. We built forts out of giant Legos, played card games, and reminded Camden to go pee when he crossed his legs and started bouncing, or twenty minutes after he drank something, whichever came first.
Camden made a premature entry into this world a month after my fourth birthday. His stomach wall had not finished knitting together, leaving his intestines exposed, a condition called gastroscesis. Camden’s bladder has never given him the early alert signal most of us enjoy, which tells you to make your way to the bathroom before it’s an emergency. I didn’t care about any of that when he came home from the hospital, though. I loved hanging over the bars of his crib, tracing the scar running from diaper to ribcage like a zipper, singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
Maybe my brother didn’t always know his bladder was full and occasionally had to change his pants three times a day, but at four years old he could take a radio apart and put it back together. At five he’d begun building his own computer from spare parts. And total strangers spent a small fortune in quarters just to watch him play video games.
When we tired of watching Camden beat his own high scores, we moved to the movie lounge. We spread out blankets and piled up like piglets to watch The Little Mermaid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before storming the upper viewing deck to practice our ninja moves.
Camden only lived with us during summer and Christmas. When he lived with his dad, I worried he’d forget me. Forget that I changed his diapers, held his bottle for him, taught him to read.
Tekla doesn’t always love the ferry. One year, she doesn’t want to go to Ketchikan for Christmas. “We spend more time getting there than being there!” she protests.
“But getting there is half the fun,” Mom says. Which is why at the start of my fifth grade year I can draw you a map of the Matanuska ferry – where the bar is, the lounge, the arcade and the kid’s playroom – but I can’t tell you the name of a single one of my fourth grade teachers.
The summer after we moved back to Juneau and I finished fourth grade, Tekla third, we were invited to join a group of musicians called Heliotroupe, traveling on a grant from the Alaska Arts Council. Tekla and I were invited along as an afterthought, but we still felt like stars.
On the ferry we performed twice daily in exchange for passage between shows in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Petersburg. With us were a sitar player, a standup bassist, a mandolin player, several guitarists, a cello player, a fiddler, a Celtic drummer with his bodhran and penny whistle, and an actor. We took shifts in the cafeteria during lunch and dinner, stunning the diners with everything from blues to jazz to Beethoven and Irish fiddle tunes. The actor did monologues, striding quickly between tables and looking audience members right in the eye.
Tekla and I sang a capella: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along, The Rose. I sang melody while Tekla took the harmony. We didn’t pass a hat around, but people folded ones and fives into our hands, gushing. One woman, plump with cropped blond hair fading pale yellow, held our hands when she gave us each a dollar.
“I used to sing,” she said. “I gave it up, I don’t know why,” and she shook our fists, curled tight around the money like we were afraid she’d take it back. “Don’t you girls ever give it up.” The look in her eyes made me feel special and sorry.
Between shows the solarium deck transformed into a traveling folk festival. On a cool day the heat lamps burned the backs of our necks beneath the half open solarium roof. Lounge chairs spread out in a widening circle as music jams warmed up, sparked by as few as two chords laid side by side. Tourists left cameras with their spouses and borrowed a guitar or a fiddle. Some brought their own instruments. Splinter groups formed when the sun shone so that walking from starboard to port was like setting a radio to scan: old-timey jazz, blues, rock, the thump of a bodhran and wail of a fiddle.
Most memorable of all: my mother playing alone near the aft rail, cello between her knees, staring into the frothy sea as it parts, swells, and returns to itself. I climb the rail next to her, high enough the Purser will threaten to leave me at the next port for the thirtieth time if he sees me. Left foot on the second rung, right on the third, elbows dug in, I lean into the mist and watch islands swim up beside us – close enough to count twigs tangled in the seaweed – before fading into the horizon.
Every crop of land offers new possibility. Though I can’t swim I’m sure to make it if I try. I could do it. One more step, a hard dive out and away, angling through the riptide precisely so: a new home, just like that. I’ll eat seagull eggs and weave a net from seaweed and grass to catch fish. I’ll build my own boat from fallen trees. And a hut. If I have just one place to call home, maybe I won’t mind being somewhere a while. Maybe I won’t miss the only thing I consider certain and true and steady as she goes.
I mark how long it takes for the place I’ve lived so short a time in my mind to become a thin pastel line between sky and sea. I’ve been there, I think. I’m somewhere else now.
All captain’s decks are invite-only and full of sea charts, black sonar screens with little green dots, three-hundred sixty degree windows, and men dressed in sharp white uniforms with black and gold bars stitched to their shoulders. On a sunny day the wraparound view gives the impression that the world holds nothing but gray-blue water, rocky islands, and our boat carrying all that remains of humanity. The captain mans his steering console, confident as Noah.
I often wonder what it must be like to never leave the boat. I wonder if the captain knows his way around it better than me. Not for a long time did it occur to me that there had to be people who knew these ships better than me, janitors and repairmen, at a guess.
During one visit the captain twitches his drooping gray mustache and nods. “Orcas,” he says, reaching for his microphone to make an announcement. The decks below fill up so fast you’d think he’d ordered an evacuation. People line the rails like seagulls outside a cannery, mostly sightseers in sporty windbreakers and sun visors, a handful of kids running up and down the walkway in search of a view. I miss the wind and the salt spray of the open deck, though I know that, down there, I would strain to see over and around and between short, fat women and tall men with broad shoulders.
Black-and–white-finned backs roll out of the deep blue without a ripple, spout dreamily, and dip below the surface. I want to press my body alongside the nearest back, wrap an arm around that fin, and go places. Anywhere. Wherever. In a handful of breaths they are behind us, pursuing whale dreams. At the farthest reach of horizon a single orca launches skyward, a black and white comma. I’ve been where you are, I say to him.
I decide I could beat the captain in a game of hide-and-seek on his own boat.
In a lounge below decks, I practice telling stories with the Heliotroupe actor, a handsome young man with black hair and dark eyes. I open up to an imaginary audience, pull my shoulders back, pace myself. “If you’re scared, find one friendly face to look at on either side of you,” he says. “Or look right above everyone, like there’s a real tall guy standing way in the back,” he stares at a blank spot on the wall.
I’d had my musical debut at the ripe old age of four – Uncle Rocky’s wedding and the pews so full guests were huddled in the arctic entryway. We took the stage in frilly white dresses with thick tights and white shoes, Tekla taller than me as usual, which ticked me off because when people didn’t mistake us for twins they assumed she must be the oldest. So I fought to keep my hand above hers on the microphone stand as we sang one of Mom’s favorites, Thanksgiving Song.
Several sessions later and the actor finally gives me his nod of approval. I tell my first story to a lunch crowd already loose and laughing after twenty minutes of jumping bluegrass. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, I begin, launching into my favorite tale about a big-mouth frog who doesn’t know what to feed her babies and gets into trouble when she asks an alligator for advice. My palms sweat and I talk too fast and all eyes are upon me. Halfway through the story I forget what comes next and am forced to improvise. The audience is slipping away from me, stifling yawns and grinning behind their hands. Telling a story is not at all like singing. I force myself to slow down, relax my shoulders. The smell of fried halibut drifts from the kitchen. I can hear dishes rattling back there, the cooks laughing.
Looking an old biddy right in the eyes, I deliver the punch line. She smiles vaguely and rummages through a handbag big enough to stow a Yorkshire terrier, like Grandma does. She doesn’t clap, but most everyone else does. I want to keep telling stories until her two hands smack together in delight.
Once, sailing from Juneau to Ketchikan for Christmas, we are caught in a storm. Beyond the rails the sky is black and grim as eternity. Our ship bobs like a cork in a toddler’s bath. At first I brave sideways rain on the upper deck while everyone else hunkers in their seats, green around the gills. Eventually I get tired and wet and mosey inside, down to the big map by the mid-ship stairwell, hoping to divine our location.
The boat begins listing dramatically. I can’t fix my eyes on the map because it is bolted to a wall and I am not, though suddenly I wish I could be. The lights overhead flicker momentarily and I am excited at the thought of a power outage right here in the middle of who-knows-where, with all this wet hell around us. But the lights come back on and I think it’s probably for the best. Imagine stuffing all these people into lifeboats in this weather.
Out the starboard window to my right is furious black water chopping madly, spraying foamy spittle onto the top deck. To my left, the portside window shows black sky. Then, everything shifts; black water through the starboard window, black sky to port. I grip a chair bolted to the floor beneath the map and watch an abandoned Styrofoam cup roll twenty feet to the starboard wall in ten seconds, as though in a hurry to get somewhere. I decide I should be in a hurry to get somewhere, too.
Hall railings heave up at me and away and the ship seesaws through the dark night. I fumble toward our sleeping nest in the forward lounge. The solarium deck is empty tonight. Generators hum and the ship vibrates and lights are low in the lounge. A few restless folks are awake still, white knuckled in their seats.
Tekla sleeps belly up on the floor between a row of chairs, right arm thrown back in a tangle of strawberry blond hair, mouth open. I push aside a stack of books and stretch out next to her. Her chest rises and falls but I can’t hear her breath above the sound of the boat. I hold her hand in the dark, smile up at the ceiling, and wait for the ocean to swallow us.
We pulled into Sitka early, before the night’s rain had decided whether to stay or go with the morning. Sitka’s is the only port that actually faces the Pacific Ocean, though we travelled halfway around the island to reach it, through Chatham Straight, Peril Straight, and Neva Straight, until Olga Straight finally dumped us into Sitka Sound. The Sound is moderately protected by Kruzof Island from the harshest weather, and it is full of wildlife, anything the ocean washes in and everything the mountains slough off. It’s not uncommon to see whales, sea lions, sea otters, porpoises, fish, brown bear, deer, and birds of all sizes and shapes while pulling into the terminal. Eagles always draw huge crowds on deck. I don’t mind eagles, but you might as well stop to gawk at seagulls.
Imagine it: twelve musicians in various combinations of wool, denim, and leather, an assortment of bags and instruments strapped to our backs, hiking up the gangplank with cars stalled on either side. The air hung thick and moist, heavy with harbor smells, and it slapped the sleep from our eyes. Camden met us at the terminal with his father, Thom, a stocky man with thick black hair and a new wife. He and mom split before I’d started second grade and Camden went to live with him. After that, I often crawled into Tekla’s bed to hold her while she slept, so that if anyone took her they’d have to take me too.
Thom dropped Mom and the rest of the troupe at the Unitarian Church, then took Tekla and me home to stay with him while we prepared for the show at the Sitka Performing Arts Center. We watched Kung-Fu movies and Star Trek re-runs and drank homemade milkshakes on the floor, while Camden trailed his favorite Legos through the living room like a puppy with a special squeaky toy. I knew Thom’s house would never again be my home, but I pretended we were all one family until it came time to leave for the Performing Arts Center.
Thom sat through as much of it as he could after Mom, Tekla, and I finished our sets, but the performances stretched on and on, late into the evening. The early birds left, and still the auditorium remained far from empty. Some of the people in the crowd were folks we’d met on the ferry. They’d spent the day touring St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the first ever built in America, and Tongass National Park.
When the venue changes late in the evening we move on to an after party, but the music never ends, which is why when Thom waves us off at the ferry terminal two days later I am almost too tired to cry at the sight of Camden’s small face pressed to the car’s rear window. He lays one hand flat against the glass, pleading for Tekla and me to stay, or take him with us. Sometimes I envy him, waking in the same place every day, going to school with the same people, walking the same streets. But I couldn’t do it alone.
We are the last to board, hustling down the gangplank fast as our legs can carry us. I don’t have time to notice the tide, or the sun stretching catlike across the Pacific, or to feel what it means to leave yet another place I love, people I love. I toss my bag in a lounge chair on the solarium deck and run to the forward bow, climb the railing, and pretend my face is wet with ocean spray. The thing to do is look ahead: tonight or tomorrow we’ll be at Grandma’s in Ketchikan, and a few days after that, Petersburg. Seagulls ride the thermals above my head until we pick up speed and leave them behind. The rail hums and red hair swirls madly around my face as we enter Olga Straight. I know that Sitka is already a thin pastel line on the horizon, but I don’t look. I keep my face to the wind.