(Alaska: Pt 2) When we scrambled off the bus I couldn't believe how big the ship was and I was overwhelmed by the smell of diesel fumes. It was cold and gray and the metal hull had paint flecking. Ship docks are normally in industrial are...as, so it was pretty gloomy. I was nervous and intimidated. It was all very alien...uncharted territory...and this was going to be my home for the next few months.
The ship looked to be about 4 or 5 stories tall. It was called a "processing ship". It's normal duty was to head out into the ocean (such as the Gulf of Alaska), and anchor far out at sea. The fishing boats (like we've all seen on "Dangerous Catch") would make their way to the processor and giant cranes on the ships deck would help unload the fishing boats into its giant interior. Then workers inside the ship would begin processing the fish. Sort of a working city in the middle of all that water.
It would serve a different purpose for us. The ship would ferry us on the long journey (3 days) from Bellingham, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska. Once we arrived, it would be our home: we would eat, sleep and bathe on the ship....then we would walk the long gangplank each day to work in the processing plant in Alaska.
The crew that was already instilled and working on the ship was a rough bunch. They had long hours, dirty jobs, and cramped, barren living quarters. It wasn't a great life - and they were hard people. (I would soon learn that most of them were truly hardened criminals, running from the law or just hiding in general. Some of these were very bad men.)
The massive engines rumbled to life. The entire ship vibrated and groaned and we were underway.
The loudspeakers came on and told us all to go to the main deck. We stored our bags and started climbing narrow steel stairs until we hit daylight. It was 'Gumby Suit' training. We were told that if we were to fall overboard, that the water around us was so cold that we would die within 3 minutes. Sobering information. The giant bright orange neoprene suits on the deck around us would save our lives. They looked EXACTLY LIKE the old animated Gumby character - the only part of your body exposed was your face, and the neon color would hopefully help search & rescue operations locate you. We all practiced putting them on in case the warning came that we were sinking. (It was a GREAT "first lesson": we took life on the boat very serious after that.)
The trip to Alaska was amazing. We traveled along the coast and I spent most of my time on the massive deck soaking up the view. The water was deep green and the coast grew more and more pronounced. Steep hills covered in majestic trees plunged directly to the waters edge. Mist often capped the hiltops, the white smoke making the trees even more dramatic.
The ship was covered in industrial machinery, crates and cages, so I would make my way into the ships control room way up high to watch them pilot the massive boat. On our third day the captain pointed out just off our bow and growled "there ya' go". I was surprised as he handed me his binoculars, so I turned and put them to my face. My jaw dropped as I got to experience a pod of Orca's slowly tracked us, just between our ship and the shore. I was amazed at their quiet grace, their giant black and white bodies emerging from the emerald waters and smoothly slipping right back in.
Now I had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Alaska, but life on the ship was ok. The seas were calm (spoiler alert: the ship ride back was the exact opposite - leading to the largest "mass vomiting event" of all time; but THAT'S another story :P). We all slept in stacked bunks. My "bedroom" was a thin mattress barely bigger than me, and I pulled a gray curtain on a thin rope to give myself privacy. It wasn't high enough to fully sit up, but I had a light I could turn on and read by, and I taped up some reminders of home overhead.
I discovered that one of the brighter spots on a seagoing vessel is the kitchen. Everyone on board gave the cooks much respect, and they deserved it. They were like rockstars and for good reason. Knowing that long hours, hard work and little to do with your meager downtime made people crazy, they took extra measures to feed us well. I mean really well. Meals were the highlight of every day and for good reason: they were a lavish affair. Steaks, fish, pasta, fresh vegetables and desserts. (Side note: we still all lost weight.)
The Port of Ketchikan soon appeared and the ship's crew went into action to get the giant vessel docked and secured. We wouldn't leave this spot for the next two months.
The spidery gangplank was lowered and we were now a part of Alaska. I walked down the springy walkway and into one of the greatest adventures of my life.
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