KING COVE -- She's getting on in years, but to the people who love her, the Tustumena is still the queen.
On a long July evening in Southwest Alaska, Jim Brittain and his daughter Erin-Anne watched for whales from the solarium of the Alaska Marine Highway System's quirkiest ferry.
The Tustumena is stout, freshly repainted blue, gold and white and creeping into her second half-century sailing some of the wildest seas Alaska has to offer.
All summer, she hauls high school sports teams, adventure seekers, bird-watchers, fishermen, trucks, construction supplies, trailers loaded with a year's worth of groceries, tractors, dogs, cats, Orthodox priests in black robes and the occasional goat or horse to communities from Ouzinkie to Sand Point to False Pass to Dutch Harbor, connecting the far-flung communities of the Aleutian chain to the state's road system via Homer.
At the same time, the "chain run," as crew members call the voyage, is also a draw for some determined tourists, curious about a ferry that appears to sail to the end of the world.
The elder Brittain had once been in the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska and had memories of terrible seas and queasy times along the Aleutian chain.
Now he lives in Miami. The trip was a chance to catch up with his daughter, and with Alaska.
A slow ferry to Dutch Harbor seemed like the right way to do that.
"This is kind of like a blue-collar cruise," Jim Brittain said as the velvety green peaks behind King Cove began to come into focus.
The Tustumena and the Aleutian run are at a crossroads.
Pockmarked and patched after a half-century of being thrashed by open ocean, the ship requires more than $1 million in maintenance each year. Officials say the ferry is nearing the end of her service life.
"She's an old dance-hall gal who has performed for years and years and satisfied the customers, but she's getting on in age," said Michael Queen, the Alaska Marine Highway System purser aboard the ship. "She's tired and deserves a rest."
A replacement design is set to be finalized by the end of the year, according to state Department of Transportation spokesman Jeremy Woodrow. The estimated construction cost is about $250 million.
About 90 percent of that sum is expected to come from federal transportation funds. But that still leaves a sizable investment for the cash-strapped state to make.
At the same time, with the route operating at a loss of about $8 million a year, some quietly wonder if budget cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System will eventually reach the Aleutian run.
People who live in the small coastal fishing towns the Tustumena serves agree the ferry occupies a singular place in the life of this part of Alaska.
David Morris, a retired ferry engineer, was also sailing aboard the ferry with his daughter in July.
The two were moving from King Cove, where they had lived for years, to Wrangell.
Most of their earthly possessions, including a dog or two, were traveling on the car deck below. Morris had brought along jars of home-smoked salmon to hand out to new friends. Southwest Alaska is remote, expensive and often weather-bound, Morris said.
The ferry is "not a cruise ship," he said. "It's a road to our homes."
The Tustumena's days may be numbered, but for one voyage this July, the old dance-hall gal was still a floating village, a place where human dramas play out on a stage of green islands, volcanoes, whales and sea.
As the ferry docked in King Cove around dinnertime, a Tustumena ritual commenced.
The ferry contains an old-fashioned dining room that serves three meals a day, during precise one-hour increments. There are waiters and napkins and chairs bolted to the floor in case of stormy weather. You can order a steak or halibut, or a burger with fries and a glass of wine. Cooks make the food in the galley; meals are not just heated up.
People from ports along the route -- places like Chignik Lagoon, Sand Point and False Pass -- can board without a ticket to pick up to-go meals in the hour or two the ship is at the dock. The floating restaurant arrives twice a month. The arrangement has given rise to one of the ship's nicknames: the McTusty.
In King Cove, a man in gym shorts boarded the ferry in the frenzied hour of loading and unloading and left with 12 containers of bacon cheeseburgers and cheesecake. Comfort food is not all the people want; sometimes, according to waitress Sheryl Thorsen, communities starved for fresh, inexpensive produce are ravenous for salads or fruit.
If the Tustumena had a den mother, it might be Thorsen, a sunny woman in red cat-eye glasses. Thorsen has been working aboard the ship for years. Unlike most waitresses, her place of work is also her home for up to half the year. The restaurant is her modest empire.
Working as a waitress aboard the ferry means serving the same people meal after meal after meal, sometimes for a week straight. Over meals that punctuate formless hours on the boat, Thorsen gets to know who takes coffee with cream and who prefers the dressing on the side. She learns where they're going and why. Occasionally her regulars become friends; one couple she waited on took her driving around Unalaska to see wild horses.
She worries about the replacement ferry, which is expected to include a cafeteria rather than a sit-down restaurant.
Thorsen muses: Will she become a gray-haired lady standing behind a cash register, ringing up muffins?
The job has other perks. Thorsen loves to watch the islands green up. On the first sailing of the year, they are a burnt-wheat gold, patched with lingering snow. The land turns bright and verdant almost overnight, with a carpet of pink flowers. At the end of the season, termination dust creeps down the peaks. She also likes the little traditions -- the lady in Chignik Lagoon who sells salmonberry cream doughnuts by the dozen. The children who sell Japanese glass fishing floats from the docks of False Pass and Cold Bay.
"She's my baby," Thorsen said, patting the linoleum of the dining room, trying to hide welling tears. "She's my girl. A lot of people feel that way."
She knows change is coming but has decided it's best to enjoy the old ship while she's still around.
Some traditions, like an October sailing known as the "pumpkin run," have already faded. During the October runs of years past, crew members would bring hundreds of pumpkins and deliver them to children up and down the chain. They'd even dress in costume and transform parts of the boat into a haunted house for local kids, with buckets of candy and fake spiders hanging from the car deck. The October run was canceled a few years ago, said Robert Dersham, a Homer native and the captain. With the Tustumena's age and the unpredictable weather, conditions at sea were just too hairy.
The Aleutian run attracts all sorts of people, riding for all kinds of reasons: A family from Sand Point that had traveled to Cold Bay to spread a sister's ashes. A church group led by two exhausted mothers. Graying couples on adventures from places like Minnesota and the Yukon, binoculars and copies of "The Sibley Guide to Birds" in hand. The latter group described themselves as people who did not want to set foot on a cruise ship but who wanted to see wild islands, bears and birds all the same.
There was a French woman who had sailed from Japan to the Aleutians in a two-person sailboat, looking ruddy and tired in weathered gear. A man with an elfin face neatly unpacked his bags of gear on the solarium deck and set up a camp for himself. He said he didn't like to talk to people much but volunteered that he'd traveled around Alaska for about two years and had seen a great many places. When he took his baseball cap off, a neatly folded layer of tinfoil could be glimpsed tucked inside.
The sky remained steadfastly blue as night deepened and the ferry pulled into Sand Point, greeted by the marina tang of diesel fuel and fish. The town's teenagers had assembled on the dock for no reason in particular. The Tustumena can dock almost anywhere, as long as it has three points of contact for its 300-foot length and the harbor is deep enough. A unique elevator system allows trucks, trailers and just about any kind of construction equipment imaginable to be transported to even the smallest ports. The design feature will be repeated in plans for a replacement.
The ferry can and will haul just about anything.
"The last trip we had two goats in a Port-a-Pet," said Dersham, the captain.
Humans can sleep in one of a few staterooms, with bunk beds and portholes, or rush onboard to claim a spot in the indoor observation deck. There, nests of sleeping bags and iPads and smoked salmon and crackers flourish. Alternatively, hardy adventurers sleep above on the solarium deck, which is partly covered but exposed to the outdoors and where the engine noise is deafening but the views are broad. Campers sometimes duct-tape their tents right to the deck.
Dogs barked in the back of pickup trucks as the ferry pulled away from Sand Point.
People waved. At this point in the journey there were 41 passengers and more than 30 crew members onboard. Southwest Alaska ferries see a fraction of the passengers of the Southeast system. In 2014, the ferry system recorded 76,356 passengers on its Southwest routes, compared to 242,648 in Southeast Alaska.
North Pacific Ocean
The Tustumena left the protected islands and towering volcanoes of the Alaska Peninsula to begin 23 hours navigating open ocean.
To get to its next port in Old Harbor, the ferry would need to traverse the yawning expanse of the Gulf of Alaska. Such crossings are one reason the Tustumena was designed as an accredited oceangoing ferry -- one of only two in the Alaska Marine Highway System. The other is the M/V Kennicott, which sails cross-gulf routes between Whittier and Southeast Alaska.
In addition to tougher hull requirements, the oceangoing design means the ship has fins that jut out like underwater wings, reducing jostling felt by passengers. Still, people tell stories about ship-wide bouts of seasickness.
Despite the ship's age and lack of some modern technologies, the crew is devoted to the Tustumena. The engineers know every bolt and obscure whine from the engine room.
"No doubt, it's the best boat in the fleet," said Jim McCarron, the chief engineer.
The crew was quick to say that the weather was fortunate on this trip. Those who work aboard all have a story of waves the size of a city block and the terrifying moment when the engine is cut because the ship feels nearly vertical cresting a wave.
The ocean was a gray prairie of sea, remarked one Midwestern passenger. The boat pulled gently, a ceaseless rocking.
The Internet didn't work, so people stopped looking at their phones and started talking to each other.
They ate steak dinners with baked potatoes and wine. Everybody dutifully filed into the Resurrection Café at 8 a.m. for breakfast. Hours were filled with card games and crossword puzzles or standing on deck contemplating the slight division between sea and overcast sky.
By now, the people sleeping on the reclining chairs and vinyl booths of the observation deck were on a first-name basis with each other.
A teenager from Palmer who'd been visiting family in Dutch Harbor led a sing-along on guitar.
Upstairs, the mysterious traveler with the tinfoil-lined cap performed a ritual that involved mixing a concoction with the gallons of vinegar he'd hauled aboard and carefully peeled what appeared to be a sweet potato.
Later, he could be seen clutching a rosary toward the stern of the boat, saying something into the wind.
Another stretch of North Pacific Ocean
As the hours wore on, two broad categories of travelers emerged. There were people who saw the Tustumena as a vehicle for a journey of self-discovery. And there were people who saw it as a way to get ATVs, concrete mix and a German shepherd home.
Bert Janes, a dignified 82-year-old competitive race walker from Murwillumbah, Australia, was on a solo trip around Alaska, manifesting a dream he had wondered if he was getting too old to pursue. Some 16 years ago, he sailed on an Inside Passage cruise and felt a pang of envy toward the passengers on the less formal ferries. He held on to the idea of returning to Alaska someday. Now in his 80s, he thought he'd "better do something about it soon," he said.
Then there was Te'Audra Sanders. She had come to Alaska from her home of Kansas City to study for a master's degree in environmental education at Alaska Pacific University. Soon leaving the state to live and work abroad, she'd wanted one last big adventure. She took the ferry to Dutch Harbor, where she met up with friends who took her scuba diving.
"I know," she said. "Scuba diving. In Dutch Harbor!"
Even though she spent her days surrounded by maps working at the Alaska Geographic bookstore on Ship Creek, the trip offered new perspective on the state:
"It's so big," she said. "I went to Barrow last month. Going from Barrow to Unalaska – it's overwhelming."
Sanders was lodging in a sleeping bag stuffed in a booth in the observation room. It was uncomfortable but cheap, and she was making friends.
"This is family," Sanders said, gesturing to a group she was playing cards with. "We've bonded."
There was Michael Sullivan, a bearded young teacher from San Francisco on a solo summer road trip.
He chose the Aleutians after looking at a Google map and seeing a dotted line all the way out to the middle of the North Pacific. It was enough for Sullivan to drive his Prius to Homer.
After several days of waterlogged camping in Dutch Harbor, he was making his way back to Anchorage. He thought he'd have some "unpacking" of the journey to do when he got home. The emotional kind.
Then there was Al Spalinger, who fell on the utilitarian end of the passenger spectrum. To him, the ferry was a bus to his roadless home.
Spalinger is a retired fisheries biologist with a handlebar mustache and a full complement of camouflage clothing who lives in Kodiak but owns the Izembek Lodge in Cold Bay, where he leads hunting and fishing trips in the fall.
He said he relies on the Tustumena to transport more than 10,000 pounds of groceries and supplies to his lodge at the beginning of every season via a 21-foot box van.
When the Tustumena was dry-docked for repairs all season a few years ago and didn't make the scheduled run, he had to pay several times the normal cost to expedite the freight by air to Cold Bay. The situation forced him to forgo bringing some construction materials altogether.
The ferry is "the best way to get anything you need" to the Aleutian Islands, he said. It is how cars and groceries and house building supplies arrive.
To him, the boat's role as an extension of the asphalt highway system is its reason for being, not to allow visitors to explore the far reaches of Alaska.
"Do any highways make money? No," Spalinger said. "It was not designed to make money. It was designed to provide access."
Dersham, the ship's captain, agrees that the ferry's reason for being is not to serve tourists but locals.
"It's a lot of fun to bring tourists out here, and it pays the bills," he said. "But our main mission is to extend the highway system to serve these communities."
To do that, the state subsidizes the Aleutian run -- and all other ferries -- heavily. The Aleutian run costs $8 million to $10 million to operate each year but brings in only $2 million, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation.
But ferries are increasingly being eyed as a place for the cash-strapped state to save money.
During the most recent budget cycle, the Alaska Marine Highway System took $11 million in cuts. No one has yet proposed cutting the Aleutian route, said Rep. Paul Seaton, a Homer Republican.
But there's an ongoing struggle, said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, to convince some legislators from landlocked districts of the importance of the ferry system to places that rely on it as a literal extension of the road.
"The majority of legislators don't benefit from the Marine Highway System directly," Stevens said. "But it's our way of connecting with the mainland. There's a lot of misunderstanding."
Soon puffins and murres could be seen skittering along the surface of the water. Bird life signaled land approaching. By dinnertime, the ship had pulled into Old Harbor, a picturesque village nestled deep in a bay on the southern coast of Kodiak Island.
After 23 hours, everybody was eager for a half-hour walk while vehicles were loaded and unloaded. Passengers spilled off the ship to amble the dirt roads and take pictures of the Russian Orthodox church, with its blue and white onion domes. A pack of friendly dogs followed. Two little girls gathered salmonberries outside the church.
Soon, purser Mike Queen's booming voice was instructing everyone to get back on the boat. Only the mysterious traveler, he of the vinegar and tinfoil, stayed onshore. Eventually, the VPSO delivered him aboard. He didn't bother to unpack his bedroll this time.
As the ferry made its way past Sitkalidak Island, whales surfaced alongside the boat. Both tourists and locals stopped to look.
By sunset, the people camping on the observation deck were calling themselves "The Family."
They included the French sailor, an injured fisherman on his way back from the Bering Sea, Te'Audra Sanders, David Morris and his daughter, and Erin-Ann Brittain from Kodiak.
They whiled the hours before coming into port at Kodiak shouting and laughing over an iPad-assisted game of charades. A few sipped wine from coffee mugs. A group picture was taken on the deck and plans for reunions spun.
For a moment, two young brothers from Old Harbor went missing on the boat. The crew mobilized, searching hallways and crannies. Everyone worried. It turned out they were playing cards in an auntie's stateroom.
Their parents bought popcorn and sodas, and everyone sat crammed around a little table talking to strangers about how expensive life in Old Harbor had become.
The sky faded and turned pink. The mysterious traveler microwaved a plate of raw onions. No one seemed to notice.
As it had hundreds or maybe thousands of times before, the Tustumena approached Kodiak after midnight. The harbor lights guided her into port.