In 1963, the Beatles released the iconic single “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream Speech,” and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
And, the M/V Malaspina made her maiden voyage for the brand new Alaska Marine Highway System.
Fifty years later, that ship still sails the Inside Passage. She kicked off a celebration of that anniversary with a 12 hour jaunt around Revillagigado Island, the entryway into Alaska.
It’s no surprise that rain greets passengers as they board the Malaspina early Thursday morning. But in typical Southeast fashion, nobody seems to mind. The boat sways to the music of The Point Band, a local Ketchikan outfit, and soon disappears around the backside of Revilla Island, out of the reach of cell phones, and, well, just about everything else.
The Malaspina is filled with people reflecting on its long history. It’s hard to find someone who didn’t meet their spouse onboard, or grow up with the ferry. But some, like Jim and Rhonda Rogers, used the trip around Revilla just to celebrate each other.
“Tomorrow is our anniversary, so this is our anniversary trip,” says Rhonda Rogers.
Like any couple that’s been together for nearly four decades, it’s easy to forget the details of how they met. But a little bit of forgetfulness seems to be OK onboard the festive ferry.
“It was on Kenai, on a canoe trip,” says Rhonda. “I changed canoes twice before ending up in his. He strategically placed himself in my canoe, and I tell people I chased him until he let me catch him.”
“Just to be clear, I am head of the house, but I have her permission to say so,” says Jim.
The Malaspina spends the day drifting down Behm Canal, past natural wonders like the volcanic plug known as New Eddystone Rock, and finally into the indescribable beauty of Misty Fiords National Monument.
The ferry’s journey around Revilla, which used to be an annual event, hasn’t happened in recent years out of concern over competing with private business. The crew onboard is excited to navigate unfamiliar waters, but Captain Chris Biagi is just happy to be surrounded by his colleagues.
“Probably the best thing about working out here is when I get on and see who the crew list is gonna be,” says Biagi. “When I see some old friends and get the chance to spend some time with them, sometimes I really look forward to that. I only look as good as the crew lets me be.”
For Louie Self, the Malaspina’s pilot, it’s easy to see why he loves the ferry. On the bridge, he gestures toward the seemingly endless expanse of the Tongass National Forest ahead.
“For us, it’s this,” says Self. “They pay us to do this. To be able to drive a boat through this and be able to offer the service, it’s pretty cool.”
The passengers of the Malaspina’s Revilla Island trip all have a ferry story, from current Borough Mayor Dave Kiffer to former Juneau Mayor Bruce Botehlo.
One might think when these veteran ferry riders reflect on the importance of the Alaska Marine Highway, they’d strive for something lofty. Like how the ferry helped develop the economy of coastal Alaska, or how they made lifelong friends over drinks in the Malaspina’s lounge.
But in reality, a simpler theme emerges when talking to the people onboard the ferry.
Jerry Needham moved to Alaska in 1954. He remembers when the ferry first came to Ketchikan in ’63, and he later worked on the ships as a steward. His words encapsulate the sentiment of many onboard the Malaspina.
“The ferry changed it for us, who lived here, because we could get out of here without having to go on the airplane,” says Needham. “I don’t like planes for one thing, but it’s too big of a hassle, it wouldn’t be a vacation for me. I’d way rather go on the ferry.”
The Malaspina’s Golden Voyage celebrating the Alaska ferry’s 50th anniversary will take it all the way up the Inside Passage. From Ketchikan, celebrations are planned in Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines and Skagway.