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Seán Dwyer

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MV Columbia

Photo © 2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) [GFDL 1.2


Why take the ferry from Washington to Alaska? Alaska Airlines flies to several destinations in our largest state. I can reach Anchorage far more quickly by jet than I can reach Ketchikan by boat. For the same reasons that I enjoy long train rides, I want to sail through the Inside Passage by water because I can’t see many details of the route from the sky. I don’t have the eyesight of an eagle.

My desire to take a ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway System has even more to do with a desire to escape routine. I love my life, but when I first conceived the notion of sailing to Alaska, I had a frustrating job and a life so stressful that my weight dropped from 120 lbs. to 105, and eventually to 98. It was on one of the more brutal days of that stretch in 1989 that I decided I needed to get out of Bloomington, Indiana. I had not yet visited Alaska, so I decided it was my destination.

I was sitting at my desk in the office of the pizza place where I was a Manager-In-Training (MIT). I worked 60 hours per week, and I happened also to be working on a PhD in Spanish and teaching two Spanish classes at Indiana University. I had a wife and two small children, and teaching paid $600 per month. Rent was $350. Times were tight, if you haven’t done the math.

After the dinner rush ended and I started catching up the paperwork, I took a moment to eat and rest my brain. That was when I decided to call the pizza franchise in Ketchikan, the closest city to the contiguous 48 if I decided to drive up there for a new job and a new outlook on life.

The guy who answered the phone probably never had a call like mine.

“Are you hiring MITs?”

“We sure are.”

“If I come up from Indiana, how would that work?”

“Just hop on the ferry from Washington and we’ll set you up.”

The ferry.

I found the phone number for the AMHS and called. A very nice woman walked me through the process: board in Seattle or Bellingham (wherever that was), get a cabin or sleep under the stars, land in Ketchikan and start a new life.

It sounded good. Travel to Ketchikan would help me complete a goal I’d had for 15 years, to visit all 50 states. I had about 40 taken care of at that point. If I went up there to work for a while and liked it, I could come back for the family and resettle. There was just one way to know if the move would suit me. I did know I was burning out quickly in my current scenario.

I never took the ferry to Alaska. I couldn’t disengage from my 80-hour work week or my PhD program. I finally quit the pizza business and ran out of money for school, but I still didn’t go to Bellingham to catch the ferry to Ketchikan.

I forgot about the adventure for long stretches of time, but the ferry kept tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me that we had a date. In 2010, I moved to Bellingham, now the southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Every time I drive or walk through the Fairhaven district of Bellingham, I see the sign that points to the Alaska Ferry Terminal. From Friday morning at 8am to Friday evening at 6pm, and sometimes on Saturdays, I can see the docked ferry, massive and eager to make its run, at that terminal. Each time I see the sign or the vessel, I have reminded myself that I have to take the trip to Ketchikan.

Sometime in mid-2013, my writing mentor, Cami Ostman, suggested that I take the premise of this blog, which is to show writers good places to sit so they can Write Out (as opposed to sitting at home and allowing petty distractions to reduce their productivity), and create group Write Outs. I started finding venues in the area, but at least a short drive from Bellingham, where we could sit as a group and enjoy our work time together. After writing for a few hours, we shared our work. My colleagues turned in consistently strong, beautiful work. There is magic in a Write Out.

At a gathering this spring, I was asked when I would be organizing the next Write Out. I said I would come up with something local, but I had my heart set on doing the ferry Write Out. A writer mentioned that there was a strong chance that Alaska would cut service to Bellingham soon because of budget issues. I decided I had to get the ferry trip done this year. I started asking the people who had been interested in this mega-Write Out if they wanted to come along, and no one could.

Here I go. Apart from internet-connection issues, I’ll be posting what I learn about this adventure along the route. Certainly, from Sunday to Wednesday, I’ll be able to post from Ketchikan.

What have you written this week? Talk to you soon!

5 comments on “Ready to Board the Ferry to Alaska

  1. Donna says:

    Wow, what a trip down memory lane. I can’t help but smile when I think back on the Indiana days–though I totally get that you might have a different view. You do have an uncanny way of circling back around to things, Sean. Enjoy Alaska!

    1. caithiseach says:

      Lots of good times, Donna. One tough stretch, really, and the rest was great. I thank Bloomington for you, for one thing.

      1. Donna says:

        Igualmente. It’s funny how many of the friendships that I formed there are still so important to me, even after all these years.

  2. susanissima says:

    What a delightful idea to write out on an Alaskan Ferry and in AK. Looking forward to you posts. ¡Buen viaje!

  3. Room to Think says:

    Great post, Sean. I just knew that you must be doing wonderful things in the (too-long) time since I’ve seen you. And now I know. I hear nothing but good things about the Alaska Ferry trip. Bon Voyage! Or I should maybe say, Hasta Luego, amigo.

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