Happy Medicine

In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

Somehow they slipped us Happy Medicine.

It’s like Beth and I—along with everyone else on board—have taken happy pills. People are friendly and eager to talk with each other. Good medicine.

Many kinds of people: retirees just traveling; younger people out to pioneer something-or-other in Alaska; tugboat hands; retired school principals and vacationing social workers. An old Deadhead and his wife from Maui, retiring (however an old Deadhead retires) to a cabin outside of Anchorage.

Phil, a gabby 80 year old retired hearing-aid business owner, just going for the trip, up and back. He’s recovering from treatment for skin cancer: looks like he went through one of the world’s worst sunburns and big pieces of dead skin are peeling off his face.


Thirty or forty high-school students got on in Ketchikan. They got off in Petersburg, chattering their way off the ferry, still in shorts and t-shirts while I stood on the deck wearing a coat.


We’ve passed other ferries: southbound, westbound. One cruise ship glided past us, a floating resort a dozen stories high.
We’ve had lots of sunshine. Today is the first cloudy day, but even so, the temperature is about sixty.

I wish the stairs to the solarium on the top deck weren’t so steep: an interesting crowd up there—guitar and drum cases amidst the sleeping bags. A sign says “No drinking/No drugging.” Where did my youth go?


Little fishing boats, sailing up and down the channels, setting out and pulling in nets. So much water and the boats look lonely and vulnerable. I wonder if they seem lonely to the people working on them. Probably not.


The towns are different from what I expected: I thought they would be weather-beaten and huddled. But they’re all up to date: new architecture, houses that look like the kind being built in any subdivision—even trophy homes with big windows overlook the water. Where does the money come from? Fishing.

We sailed into Petersburg last night. There
were hundreds of fishing boats under the dock lights.

Juneau. I watched the crew tie up to the wharf. They were good. Didn’t even feel the ship bump the pilings. The shore crew worked in their shirtsleeves. I wore a warm jacket while I watched them. We were fifteen miles out of town and there is no bus service: no sight-seeing.

Intricate and shifting patterns on the water surface, shadows and shades of green and grey and blue… A living kaleidoscope of water, mountains and clouds.

Wildlife sightings are announced over the p.a. system.

Two whales and orcas. The whales thrust their tails up and dove; the orcas went up and down, blowing, diving, up and blowing, diving. They were synchronized. Later, some grizzlies were scaring salmon at the mouth of a creek. Wonderful.


I’m sitting in the “forward observation lounge.” A couple of dozen people are in here, almost all in the front rows. Some are intently watching the show, armed with binoculars and cameras. A few are reading novels. One well-dressed man and woman are looking at a big road atlas and cross-referencing to a copy of the Alaska Highway Mileposts.

Shifting low clouds and it looks like rain. Big snowy ice-capped mountains off to the right. Glaciers like frozen rivers coming down from the ice caps. We’d see more if the clouds weren’t hanging in. But the weather is what I think Alaska weather should be like.

Cool and overcast. Down by the water the mountains are green, dark green and golf-course green, but it fades to grey very quickly. And the mountains come right up out of the water; almost no flat land.
The glacier-melt-beige water adds to the impression of the cold north.


We talked to quite a few people traveling without cabins. There are coin-op showers and laundry machines. The snack bar has 24-hour hot water and coffee and a microwave.


Coming south from Skagway. Skagway was a disappointment—Disneyland North: a town for cruise ship tourists. Back to Juneau. Again, docked a long way from Juneau. Cruise ships get to tie up downtown.


Just before we got to Sitka I talked to a Tlingit carver and an Athabascan woman who did beadwork. They demonstrated Native crafts on the big cruise ships. Both lived in Sitka. They said they made enough money doing that to last the rest of the year.

On the way into Sitka, rain squalls blew past us, but the sun was out while we were there. We rode a bus into town. Sitka seemed almost normal. Found a nice coffee house in a bookstore. What made the town seem real were banks and businesses mixed in with the tacky tourist gift shops and a preponderance of people who looked like they belonged there.


We got off in Ketchikan, and stayed four days. Nice weather when we got to Ketchikan. Good to be on land and in a town for a few days. Our hotel room had a coffee maker so in the morning we had fresh coffee. The hotel had a free on-demand shuttle bus. Oh boy!

The second day we went out to a Tlingit community south of town. When we got off the bus, an eagle was perched in a spruce next to the bus stop, watching us. The bus driver was a Tlingit woman; she said, “Oh, that’s good luck for you!” We took our friend’s ashes over to a totem pole park and spread them around one of the poles. Good place for Jan. Left tobacco for the spirits.

The third day in Ketchikan we hired a float plane and flew into a remote lake. I put some of my son’s ashes in the lake. Left more tobacco. I didn’t have much to say on the flight back into town. That night the rain poured down.

On the fourth day the next south-bound ferry came through; we were on our way home. This time we brought oatmeal and ramen noodles and ate our own cheaper food. Still drank their coffee, though…
Email Peter at nathasha@audacitymagazine.com and join him on the Online Forum to discuss his travels and other common interests.