The Ferries and the Last Frontier
Travel Stories: In a four-part series, Eva Holland explores Southeast Alaska by state ferry
Part 4: At the Potlatch
It was 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon, and Ketchikan was offering me a mixture of snow, rain, and hail as I attempted to explore its steep, narrow streets. I gave up on sightseeing, walked down the boardwalk above the Thomas Basin, where fishing boats dozed quietly in their berths, and opened the door to The Potlatch Bar.
As I stepped inside, everyone paused. It was a moment plucked out of a spaghetti western: the stranger outlined in the saloon doorway, the line of locals looking up in unison, silence descending upon the place.
I walked through the room and took the last empty bar stool. On my left, two bearded men watched me, and as I sat the older one leaned down and whispered something in the younger one’s ear. They both laughed. Two seats to my right, a native guy in bulky beige coveralls looked up from his Bud and said, “You’re the second good-looking woman to walk in here today.” He nodded to the old woman between us, deep wrinkles around her mouth and a Pall Mall wedged between two fingers. “She was the first.”
“I figured,” I said, and the old woman laughed and wheezed.
The bartender asked me for some ID, and as I handed it over I heard a woman down the bar mutter “passport.” Then, louder, she asked me the question that everyone in the place had already answered.
“Just visiting, are you?”
I told her—them—that yes, I was. “Well you came to the right place,” said the old woman on my right. “The Potlatch is the best bar in Ketchikan.”
I settled in with a beer and tried not to look entirely out of place. After my silent entrance, the bartender greeted every new arrival by name and drink of choice. “Hey Les,” she’d say. “Screwdriver?” She poured freehand, filling glasses half or two-thirds or three-quarters of the way with rum or vodka or rye before adding a splash of mix. The Righteous Brothers leaked out of the jukebox, and cigarette smoke curled around the fluorescent Miller sign on the wall.
After a few minutes, Beige Coveralls bought me a beer. Several minutes later, Les the screwdriver-drinker sent one my way, too. The woman next to me—Miss Carol, the bartender called her—sipped her beer and started talking. She told me she’d been coming to the Potlatch since the bartender had been a child, tagging along while her mother poured an earlier generation’s stiff drinks. Miss Carol told me about herself—how she’d moved south for a few years, to Nevada, where her husband’s family lived, and how after she’d been widowed she’d come right back to Ketchikan.
“I called my daughter and I said, ‘Daddy’s gone. Come on down here and get me,’” she said. The woman down at the end of the bar—the one who’d spotted my passport—hollered for the younger bearded man on my left to pay the bartender for her next drink. “Aw, come on, ma,” he said, and up and down the bar the Potlatch locals laughed together.
After another couple of rounds I’d been accepted into the family, however temporarily. I’d beaten Young Beard at pool—“Kick his ass!” Les yelled from the other end of the bar—and bought Miss Carol a drink and had her buy one for me in return. Coveralls had played “When a Man Loves a Woman” on the jukebox, just for me. It was still shy of dinnertime, and I could feel myself being seduced by the easy, smoky, boozy familiarity of the Potlatch. This would be an easy place to lose yourself every day.
I watched the regulars come and go. They arrived alone, and for the most part they left the same way. The Potlatch wasn’t a place where you came with a crowd of friends and huddled around a table together. It was a place where a collection of individuals, loners, could opt in to society for awhile. In that way, it seemed like Alaska in miniature to me—Alaska, a paradoxical community of people whose dearest shared values are privacy and isolation, individuality and the right to a life free of crowds.
It occurred to me that each of the ferries was a sort of floating Potlatch Bar, too. The boats offered a chance for the locals to emerge from their roadless communities, wedged tight between mountain and ocean, and come together for a short while—for a chat in the observation lounge, a game of cards in the cafeteria, a drink in the bar. The essential nature of ferry travel in Alaska was about more than its seagoing history, or its seemingly unchanging scenery: It was about the lives people had carved out for themselves here in the hard north, all the strings they had cut when they left their homes down south, and the new, untethered existences they’d designed instead.
The next morning, I boarded my final ferry with a hangover. It would be nearly 30 hours before we docked in Skagway. In the cafeteria, I knew, dice were rattling on tabletops, and cards were being dealt. The MV Matanuska’s bar was open for business—Larry might well be on duty, serving up Bloody Marys just like Mary taught him—and wherever I went on the boat, I knew I’d find an Alaskan local with a story to tell. But I didn’t have the energy to keep my promise to Mary, or to hear any more ferry stories. All I wanted to do was go to my cabin, stretch out on my thin bunk, and watch the coastline go by until the ship rocked me to sleep.
As I locked the cabin door and pulled back the blankets, I told myself I wasn’t being antisocial. I was, instead, participating in an essential Alaskan tradition: a retreat from the crowds, to a view of the mountains and a place of my own.