CHIGNIK -- "Brace yourselves," the ferry official cautioned. I stumbled as the car elevator lurched upward, making its slow, clanking journey from the bowels of our Alaska Marine Highway ferry to the Chignik dock.
We were an informal parade. Dozens of passengers streamed off the boat, our feet clomping on wooden boardwalks that carried us across a creek, over green-pink tangles of fireweed and angelica, to a small unmarked building that filled the air with the sticky-sweet scent of doughnuts.
The sign inside the door assured us "unattended children will be given espresso and a free puppy." The proprietor looked harried but happy, filling a cardboard box with freshly made doughnuts for $1 or $2 each. "I couldn't keep the business going without the ferry days," she said.
We squeezed past the line of people still waiting to get in, munching still-warm doughnuts as we retraced our steps on the long, wooden dock. Chignik residents passed us going the other direction, clutching cardboard boxes of hamburgers and fries from the Tustumena's onboard restaurant.
A few minutes later, we untied and motored off. The boat would be back two weeks later.
900 miles at sea
This is the most remote run the Alaska ferry system makes. Every two weeks between May and September, the 51-year-old Tustumena leaves Seldovia for the 900-or-so-mile run to Dutch Harbor, stopping at Homer, Kodiak, Chignik, Sand Point, King Cove, Cold Bay, False Pass and Akutan along the way.
Outside the boat, fog drooped over meadowy-soft hills, their green sides slashed with layers of folded rock. A ring of sightseers circled the bow, their hair and bright, new raincoats whipped by the wind, thick straps of binoculars and cameras around every neck. Whales puffed nearby. The gray-blue sea was so smooth it was almost greasy. The captain assured us that this was anything but normal.
Inside, the Tustumena was a gently rocking slumber party. Backpacks and sleeping bags were strewn across benches and aisles. A man snored loudly in one of the blue vinyl reclining chairs. Duct tape secured a pair of tents to the floor of the solarium, beside the roaring engine exhaust.
We all squished together. Unlike the larger ferries that service Southeast Alaska, the "Trusty Tusty" has only a few places to house folks too cheap or too sociable to spring for a stateroom. A Disney movie played on an endless loop in the theater — repeating three times before we finally shut it off.
Part of the adventure
At midnight, a crab fisherman lambasted National Geographic's "Deadliest Catch" in a voice to wake the whole boat. Unlike most slumber parties, this one spanned the range from retirees to college students to infants. Our days and nights were punctuated by foghorn blasts, loudspeaker announcements and a scramble of feet and gear as passengers shuffled in and out at 11 p.m. or 4 a.m. port calls.
We arrived in Dutch Harbor, 3 1/2 days later, with 108 people on board. Some of them were getting right back on the same ferry heading east. For them, the ferry ride itself was the adventure. There were people from New Jersey and Washington. People who'd spent years dreaming and planning this journey to the Aleutians.
For others, the ferry ride was only the beginning of their adventure. A dog strained against its leash while two young boys played on the ferry elevator.
"I think they're a little nervous," their mother commented, gesturing at her sons. "But they're excited to live on the ocean." She had never even seen the village where she'd be living and teaching for the next nine months. There were several other teachers on board, some single, some with families, heading out to new jobs and new lives in Sand Point, King Cove, Akutan and Dutch Harbor.
The pair of benches we'd claimed was piled with drybags — stuffed with packraftsb rain gear and 300 pounds of food for an eight-week journey across Umnak and Unalaska islands. I'd never set foot in Dutch Harbor before. This was the beginning of our adventure, too.
For others, the ferry was an ordinary but essential link. A family from Wasilla stepped off to visit family at Sand Point, carrying a pair of identical twin babies. Another man boarded there, passing out smoked salmon to everyone who was still awake on the observation deck, yelling "Tourists!" derisively to anyone who refused it. The loudspeaker reiterated the ferry's "no running" rule, while we tried to slow the patter of our kids' stocking feet. A gray-haired man came over to shush our late-night bedtime story.
Back in September
"Your kids are just so f---ing beautiful," Mother Teresa declared, plopping down beside us on the bench to swap stories of hiking and paddling near False Pass. Teresa and Arlene were Aleuts from False Pass, headed to teach culture camp on Akutan. They claimed their table on the ferry with a perfect miniature replica of an Aleut kayak. "I'll teach the kids to make those," Teresa said.
Two blond boys and Father Andre, a Russian Orthodox priest, gathered around our packraft, peppering us with questions about the boat's toughness and stability. The boys got on in Kodiak, returning from a visit to their old home in Dutch Harbor. They were going to culture camp, too. The Russian Orthodox priest was traveling with his family from King Cove to False Pass, the Tustumena linking the far-flung towns of his parish.
The last ferry of the year leaves Dutch at the end of September. We'll hop back on and cross our fingers that the journey will be a tenth as calm as this one was. We'll be dirtier and hungrier then, but I hope our neighbors won't mind.
The Trusty Tusty is a cross between a cruise ship and a Greyhound bus, cramming us all together. Soon, perhaps, it'll be replaced with a brand-new ship. And, hopefully, the decades-long slumber party will continue.
Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia and author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski" and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska." The latter won the Outdoor Literature category in the 2014 National Outdoor Book Awards. You can find her at groundtruthtrekking.org.