The Ferries and the Last Frontier

Travel Stories: In a four-part series, Eva Holland explores Southeast Alaska by state ferry

Passengers in the observation lounge of the MV Matanuska (Photo: Eva Holland)

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.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

16 Comments for The Ferries and the Last Frontier

junny 03.28.12 | 3:41 AM ET

“Skagway was the logical starting pointóthe northernmost panhandle port, and the only one, besides Haines, where the road to the rest of the world intersected with the old sea routes.”
You are absolutely right, I agree with you opinion about Skagway.

Rodney Dowager 03.28.12 | 9:37 AM ET

A top knotch piece of writing. I have often dreamed a life of a crawlerman in Alaska. It has a noble calling, man against the elements. One of my friends is from skagway, he says it has got a real eerie frontier town feel.

Ryan Ver Berkmoes 03.29.12 | 11:40 AM ET

I love the Matanuska. A classic old ferry with with wonderful crews. It’s all so real, from the frill-free but fine food to the simple cabins to the solitude of sitting on deck and watching, say, an orca go by. Everyone should travel SE Alaska by the ferries, it’s Top 10 worldwide in my book - literally. And a great piece of writing Eva.

CB 03.29.12 | 8:13 PM ET

Another great story Eva! Alaska is the only state I haven’t visited and I’m dying to get there!

Ron 03.30.12 | 12:13 PM ET

Bring back some memories when I worked seasonal in Sitka & took the ferry from Haines to Sitka each fall & back to Haines each spring to drive to Anchorage.  1980-85 it was something my little family used to look forward to.

Chuck 03.31.12 | 6:57 PM ET

Was hesitant to read yet another story about the Inland Passage but your’s, Eve, was totally different and a great read.  While I love ferries - and live on an island - I’ve not yet experienced the Alaska State Ferry system.  And though I’ve been to most of the cities/towns/hamlets you’ve talked about, travel was all by air.  You may have finally pushed be into another ferry route sooner than later.

steve 04.01.12 | 6:51 PM ET

Great piece of writing and an even better way to daydream on a dreary Sunday afternoon. Thanks!

research papers 04.04.12 | 11:25 AM ET

So interesting! Thanks for sharing.

GypsyGirl 04.04.12 | 2:25 PM ET

Wonderful piece, Eva! I’ve got a soft spot for Skagway; drove up the Alcan from Montana, and south on the Cassiar Hwy back into the lower 48—staying a total of eight months. There was lots of whale activity that year and some friends and I took the ferry from Skagway to Juneau (and back) watching humpbacks breach and bubble!

Tom 04.08.12 | 3:35 PM ET

Very interesting article, id like to know more about travelling by coach or bus.

Travel Packages 04.12.12 | 2:19 AM ET

A classic old ferry with with wonderful crews. Itís all so real, from the frill-free but fine food to the simple cabins to the solitude of sitting on deck and watching, say, an orca go by. Everyone should travel SE Alaska by the ferries, itís Top 10 worldwide in my book - literally. And a great piece of writing Eva.

Murray Lundberg 04.29.12 | 12:24 PM ET

Excellent article, Eva. Although I live in Whitehorse too, most of my Southeast Alaska experience is via cruise ship - I’m boarding #11 on June 1st. Although I can appreciate the character of the ferries and its riders and have spent many hours on them, the lounges on cruise ships provide stories from around the world. I do prefer the feel of Skagway and Juneau in particular off-season, though - when the jewelry stores and trinket shops are closed and the Red Dog and Alaskan bars just have a handful of locals in them.

Rene 05.06.12 | 8:38 PM ET

Fantastic article! Thank you for sharing!

internetten para kazanma 05.07.12 | 6:22 PM ET

Great article. Thanks for sharing

Party bus 05.15.12 | 8:58 AM ET

great story about great place thanks a lot for sharing with us, keep posting this kind of articles will always make this blog unique from other stories blogs.

Chris Chinniah 05.23.12 | 2:59 AM ET

Even though it might be far, and to some of the younger generation this port town might be boring, I still think Alaska is a place worth visiting. For the sheer experience of cold winter and icy seas and old infrastructure, this could be a very different kind of holiday getaway.

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