While 40-mile-per-hour wind gusts blew a typical Southeast Alaska heavy, soaking, horizontal rain outside, there was a party going on inside one of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s oldest vessels.
The state ferry system kicked off its 50th anniversary celebration Wednesday in Ketchikan with live music, a salmon-appetizer contest, tours of the Malaspina and games.
Down on the car deck of the Malaspina, with the echoing strains of the Ratfish Wranglers’ “No Nookie Like Chinookie” in the background, Jacob Bruce grabs a slimy, silver herring, takes aim at the basket, and makes the shot.
The “stinky fish game” might not be its official name, but even as a nickname, it’s apt.
Michael Abbott is one of the game coordinators. Standing at the basket end of the game, he cheers on the young players and collects the flung herring, which are recycled at the end of each round.
“The stinky fish game is we have a bag of herring that the kids take, barehanded, that they throw into the basket and win a prize,” he explained. “And they get as many chances as they want.”
Linda Hall was in charge of another game, not a stinky one.
“This one is ‘throw the bear in the basket,’” she said. “So you have a spot for 6-year-olds, 7 to 12, and then the big people. So if you were going to try it, you’d have to stand back there.”
As visitors headed upstairs, the party was a little more quiet, but they and ferry employees alike continued smiling and enjoying the celebration. Many toured the ship by themselves, wandering through the decks, examining displays and admiring artwork. Others took advantage of organized activities.
Small groups took turns going up to the bridge, which is a two-stairwell journey from the main cabin deck.
On the bridge, surrounded by complicated equipment, Chief Mate Gabe Baylous, looking sharp in full uniform, answered questions, ranging from technical to curious. One young girl wanted to blow the ship whistle, but that, sadly, was not allowed.
Back down another set of stairs, on the observation deck, U.S. Forest Service interpreter Faith Duncan talked with a visitor about recreational opportunities on the Tongass National Forest. She pointed out cabins throughout the 17-million-acre forest.
The historic interpreter program has been cut significantly this year. Of the 11 ships in the
fleet, only the Matanuska will continue to offer the program. That ferry sails through the inside passage, from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to Haines and Skagway.
Also up on the Malaspina’s observation deck, and wearing an appropriate level of rain gear, was Kevin Walker, who is riding along for most of the anniversary voyage. He lives in Homer, but he used to live in Auke Bay. He said he installed computer equipment on the ferries 20 years ago that allowed the ships to confirm credit card charges before docking.
“Lots of times, they’d make a floppy disk and run up to the terminal after they docked,” he recalled. “In the terminal, they’d put the disk in their computer and check it, and say, ‘Oh, this guy spent all his money on vacation and can’t pay his bill. Don’t let him get off the boat.’ By that time, he’s off the boat and down the road. They wanted a system where they could check it at sea.”
So in 1993, at 4 a.m. on his 50th birthday, Walker said he shinnied up the Malaspina’s mast to get the wiring installed for that program, and it took longer than he thought. So long, in fact, that he almost had to take an unplanned trip to Skagway.
Now, 20 years later, he’s riding as a passenger from Ketchikan up to Wrangell, Petersburg, Tracy Arm and Juneau.
Back down on the car deck, the Ratfish Wranglers were still performing, as kids continued to throw stinky fish into a basket.
The party was winding down, though, and soon Capt. John Falvey, general manager of the marine highway system, came out to announce the winners of the salmon recipe contest.
Earlier, up at the Ketchikan Visitor Bureau’s Berth 3 center, judges tasted and ranked recipe submissions, which ranged from chunks of lightly smoked white king salmon to a salmon pizza. Among the judges were Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor Dave Kiffer and City Mayor Lew Williams III.
“It had a light taste of cumin and a little bit of a nutty flavor,” Kiffer said, describing with his mouth slightly full. “I truly enjoyed that one.”
When asked to name his favorite, he demurred: “We’re mayors. They’re all our favorites.”
Williams was equally noncommittal.
“Very creative,” he said. “Some of them came up with a really interesting combination. Any time they want me to test food, I’ll do it.”
First place went to Renee Ditton, who won a golden ticket. That’s a $500 coupon for travel on the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Falvey also took the opportunity at the close of the event to thank everyone who helped.
“We really appreciate the community of Ketchikan,” he said. “I thank everyone for celebrating with us today. My personal thanks.”
The Malaspina — along with the Matanuska and the Taku — was built 50 years ago in 1963. In addition to the dockside celebration, the Malaspina sailed around Revillagigedo Island, including a tour through Misty Fiords National Monument.