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Motorcycles Aboard The Great Ferry Lines

Traveling along the Intracoastal Alaska Marine Highway System.

By Scooter Tramp Scotty

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Although this adventure took place sometime in the mid 2000s, I’ve decided to print it here for the benefit of any who would like to ride the huge ships that carry cars, semi trucks, motor homes, and motorcycles from the city of Bellingham, Washington to the distant shores of Alaska. For most everything that goes to Alaska travels along the Intracoastal Alaska Marine Highway System either by ship or by huge barges pulled by tugs.
Backed against the loading platform with the rear bay open and a heavy steel ramp secured to the shore, the 'Malaspina' waited for the loading of passengers and vehicles before she would get underway. The huge ship would not venture into open seas, as the familiar northbound journey always kept her close to the beautiful British Columbia Coastline.

In the giant parking lot a group of 25 motorcycles, including my own, waited patiently for the signal to board. Beyond the bikes the lot lay gridlocked with a small army of cars, trucks, campers and motor homes all awaiting the same signal. Among the motorcycles a congregation of riders milled around content in their conversations. Anticipation surged through the would-be passengers and it was impossible not to become caught up in the high everyone was riding. Most were retired folks who'd made reservations months in advance. It was a move that had earned them the luxury of a stateroom. Miss Adrienne and I would be camping on the deck with the other flakes. 

Eventually the signal was given to board. As the Electra Glide traversed the steel ramp leading into the enormous car deck, I felt like Pinocchio on his infamous ride into the whale’s belly.

With the bike strapped down among the others, we grabbed our gear and hopped an elevator to the top deck. At the top deck's rear section a large sundeck offered a spectacular view from high above the sea and it was there that our boot heels came to rest. The forward section was covered with a half-dome, Plexiglas windowed, solarium that resembled a clear-plastic cave. It’s ceiling was lined with electric heaters and the floor covered with plastic lounge chairs that would serve as beds to some passengers. The open deck behind it bustled with frantic passengers who fought to erect their tents and claim a piece of “turf” before it was gone. Once set up, tents were simply duct taped to the deck.

After standing back to contemplate this crazy situation for a moment, we decided to take a short walk around the ship. After locating a deserted little forward deck section we settled in and made camp there.

Once camp had been erected we set out to explore the ship. The lower passageways honeycombed through the interior opening up, at times, into huge rooms. Although we’d ridden many car ferries in our day, the 'Malaspina' was by far the largest. By no means was she a luxury liner, this floating palace offered a cafeteria, convenience store, TV room, large forward and aft lounges, bathrooms, shower-rooms and even a complete bar. In the evenings movies were run in the theater.

Since the magnificent British Columbia coastline is clogged with hundreds of islands separated by only tight waterways on which the ship travels, the experience was more like riding a riverboat than an ocean going vessel. From the rail I saw endless mountain ranges of impassable wilderness that rose from the sea to finally end in towering snow covered peaks. Over the following four days we would see few signs of civilization and it would be a fascinating experience to look upon such a complete absence of society. It felt as though we’d been transported into the prehistoric past.

Since we all lived among one another in our top deck campground the ship soon became a big floating party. Adrienne and I began to meet a lot of interesting folks. The air among most seemed charged with a kind of high powered excitement. At the ships rear railing I found one young guy with hands outstretched yelling, “I’m the king of the world!”

Although most passengers were interesting, not all were sane. There was one guy who wandering around carrying a briefcase and talking to Martians. While standing in line at the cafeteria he warned me to study the prices before approaching the counter less they learn of my ignorance through telepathy and screw me at the register. Some of us took to wondering if the guy was carrying dynamite or dead babies in that little briefcase.

Then there was another cat who spent his days in a wheel chair. But late at night, while the others slept, he'd come out to burn lonely hours pacing the deck’s perimeter as the cold steel chilled his bare feet.  What a trip!

In the forward lounge a bench seat and table sat against a picture window that faced the sea. Two middle aged men sat before a large supply of hand-carved ivory trinkets. The stuff gleamed of some strange, otherworldly beauty. I introduced myself. “I’m Bill,” the man smiled and stuck out his hand, “and this here’s Dan. Pull up a seat if you like.” I did. 

These guys handed piece after fantastic piece for my inspection. “Where do you get the ivory?”  Bill pulled a picture album from his briefcase. The color prints depicted many shots of these two pulling giant tusks from foreign streams as their canoe floated nearby. “We sell only ancient Mammoth ivory,” Dan said, “In the winters we go on overseas expeditions to find the stuff and in the summers we travel for fun.”

Two weeks later, on the shores of Seward Alaska, (a small fishing town located 160 miles south of Anchorage) Adrienne and I would find Dan on the crowded streets of the Forth of July celebration. We’d follow his half-lit stagger along the small-town sidewalks as Danny would lead us to the “Ivory” hotel. There, among a mountain of exotic art, we would find a seriously buzzed Bill grinning through a nasty mouthful of plastic Billy-Bob teeth. As the bullshit would flow into laughter I would learn that Bill owns several high end art galleries in India where his wife holds down the fort while he’s away.
Another snapshot would portray an authentic Wooly Mammoth skeleton standing in the center of his huge art gallery. The two business partners had known each other since high school and always spent their summers traveling on a bed of ivory. Devoid of much money, they simply negotiate in trade for lavish hotel rooms, food, and booze. But that day had not yet arrived as I sat in the exotic art section aboard the 'Malaspina' and eventually we bid the Ivory Boys adieu.

The entertainment factor aboard this ship seemed endless.  One afternoon we stepped into the cafeteria’s dining area and became reacquainted with three motorcyclists who had been in the Bellingham parking lot on the day of boarding. All rode dressers. I asked how much notice it had taken to reserve their state rooms and if it was worth it? “We made our reservations back in January (it was early June) and my room is real nice,” the biggest man replied.

So I asked if we could bring a camera to his place and snap a few photos for the benefit of any readers who might want to make this trip some day. The big man seemed happy to oblige and we followed to his lower deck State Room. Aside from a slight air of claustrophobia it was really nice. But I personally was happy to return to the top deck scenery of our open-air home.

Knowing of my love for machinery, Adrienne got the Crew Chief to set up a personalized engine room tour. On the fourth day, she informed me it was time to meet our guide. As with all the crew I’d met aboard the 'Malaspina', Doug was a mellow, easy going cat. Doug told me of the Road King that waited in the garage beside his wife’s Dina Glide. They’d been riders all their lives.

With the echo of footsteps clattering loudly off corridor walls, we followed Doug down a narrow stairwell. In contrast to the carefree passengers above, an entirely different world waited deep within the bowels of the ship. At the engine rooms entrance we were given soundproof earmuffs before being led through a watertight hatchway. I was immediately hit with a deafening racket that seemed to filter right through the heavy muffs. Doug paced off 20 feet before turning to stand proudly before two immense V-12 engines.
Each was the size of a U Haul truck and, as I'd soon learn, weighed 100,000 lbs and turns a slow 325 rpm (my bike idles at 500). The revs must be kept low lest the sheer weight of the huge pistons tear the engines apart. Each engine turns a 12-foot prop that offers adjustable attitude in order to change the ship’s speed. The ship burns around 60 gallons of diesel fuel per mile (about 320 gallons an hour) and holds almost 900 gallons of oil per engine. Besides the main engines, and among 100 other elaborate systems that must be constantly maintained, three massive generators, powered by huge Caterpillar motors, churned out high voltage that was then used to power lighting and other electrical needs.

Our tour ended in the control room where three men welcomed us with cups of hot coffee. Doug later took us to his stateroom for a look at the crew’s quarters. Humble, but certainly adequate. 

As the days passed by, each night became shorter and it was with a true sense of the unreal that we stood on the deck and watched the midnight sun shining brightly in the Northern Hemisphere. For the rays now reached us from beyond the polar ice cap or, if you prefer, over the top of the world. In fact, the light still shown brightly at 5:30am of the following morning as the 'Malaspina' pulled into port on the shore of Juneau, Alaska. Juneau is a city of 35,000 souls with 45 miles of roads, all dead ends since the city is only accessible by air or sea. Our ride on the 'Malaspina' would end here and we’d be laid over until 1am of the following night when the 'Kennicott' (another massive ship) would pull into port and pick us up.

We broke camp and grabbed our gear then hopped an elevator down to the car deck. There, beside the autos, campers and motor homes parked inside the warehouse sized belly of this metal monster sat my full dress Harley-Davidson which seemed insignificant as it waited in a corner with the other bikes.  With tie-down straps removed we reloaded our gear and mounted up. As I hit the starter button the sharp crack of the H-D engine echoed loudly through the ship. 

For me there has always been a tremendous excitement that comes when riding a motorcycle into new and unfamiliar territory. As we rode the steel ramp on to the shores of Alaska I experienced that euphoria all over again.

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Reader Comments

Love Scottie's stories, keep 'em coming.

timothy remus
Bayport, MN
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Editor Response We will.
Scott, Awesome story, I enjoy them all!

Louis Mester
Port Richey, FL
Monday, December 8, 2014
Always enjoy Scotty's adventures!

Shane Kohler
Longview, WA
Sunday, December 7, 2014

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