Our first day on the island is Reid’s twenty-sixth birthday.
We loaded Reid’s Jeep onto the ferry in Sitka around nine the night before. When the boat docks in Juneau, we celebrate by deboarding and driving with a few friends to the nearest beach shelter for an hour of campfire and hot cocoa from scratch. We exchange a round of hugs and then go back to sleep in the Matanuska’s solarium, as the boat pulls away from the dock.
A brother and sister, who departed the boat in Juneau, gave us the two pillows they rented from the purser. We sleep on them. Then we pass on to two other travelers when we get into Petersburg at ten in the morning.
We don’t stop in town, but beeline to the highway so we can get across the island to South Mitkof in time for the once-a-month boat to Coffman Cove. Lupins, buttercups, daisies, indian paintbrush, and big fronded fiddle heads line the road. I’m tempted to stop to take pictures, but I don’t because there’s really no second options if we miss the ferry.
There’s a group of cars parked outside the locked gate to the ferry lot: we are relieved to have made it on time. We pull in to wait and open some granola bars.
Everyone is waiting. One couple plays music out their car windows, and we all watch the large man in the large truck play fetch with his tiny French bulldog. He holds a stick out, and the dog jumps four vertical feet to attach itself to the wood like a vice clamp. Then the guy just shakes the dog as it dangles for awhile, until it lets go. They both seem equally satisfied by this arrangement.
Two hours later, we are still waiting. We have eclipsed loading time, boarding time, and in fact, our scheduled departure. None of the people in line seem particularly put out by this. They have wild flower bouquets in their cars. They are reading magazines, making lunch out of their towed campers. Thinking about the agony of having to wait 14 minutes for the L train in college makes me feel like I have changed species.
One woman finally goes down to look at the dock. It turns out that the crew didn’t remember the gate was locked. They have been tied up to the dock, also patiently waiting, to see if anyone on their purchased ticket roster would show up. The misunderstanding gets sorted, but there’s still no key to open the gate, so the purser gets a pair of bolt cutters and busts open the lock.
Then there are couple state DOT guys who need to unload four or five dump trucks worth of gravel before anyone can get on (there’s no place to get gravel on Mitkoff, so they ship it in from Coffman, pile it up in the ferry lot in enormous pyramids).
“We’ll go when everyone’s loaded,” the purser tells us as they make their trips. “There’s no schedule or anything.” This was not exactly true, but it has become true.
When we do finally get on, I run into the purser as he’s walking out to the deck. There’s a cigar in his mouth — Wait, it might be a large meatstick? No, it’s a cigar — that he puffs away on as we pull away into the channel. HIs afternoon cigar, that he gets to smoke on the deck of his boat, as we steam toward America’s third largest island.
When we do finally get across, we’re a couple hours late. An acquaintance we’ve never met in person originally offered to meet us at the terminal, so we ask every woman there (both of them) if they are named Misty. They are not. But the second woman says she’ll just take us to Misty’s house, and promptly leads us over to a big house undergoing renovation, a golden chain tree blooming outside. She waves good bye as she pull away in her pick-up.
Misty is not expecting us, and neither is her daughter Mckinley, or her cat, but when we show up, they’re all happy to hang. Reid helps Mckinley build herself a small garden outside while Misty and I drink a beer in the kitchen and talk about growing up in a small town. It turns out the cat isn’t allowed inside at all. Misty offers us her guest cabin to stay in, which we take her up on — it comes with a hot tub, a photo of four-year-old McKinley standing on a dock in front of a pile salmon and rockfish, and two black bear skins.
We walk to the beach; a humpback whale starts breaching offshore. We walk by the house of the near-famous Ethel Frances, whose electric bill comes to her house addressed simply to “The Buoy Lady, Coffman Cove, Alaska,” and since she sees us standing outside, she ushers us in for a tour. She shows us her killer whale skull, the letters Katherine Hepburn sent her, her beach-combed collection of ancient stone tools from the old villages on the island, a photograph of her laughing, holding a bear cub in each hand. It takes us a long time to leave.
We go the one bar in town to buy wine for dinner, and end up staying for a beer, since Larry the Timber Feller (as in, one who fells timber professionally, not the slang for an adult male) rang the bell just before we got in. Larry is on a steady Coors train, and tells the bartender that we need to be rolled into the free round of drinks.
“Are these your kids?” the bartender asks.
“I don’t think so,” Larry says.
After introducing myself to the Oklahoma girls sitting next to me, who are waiting for their husbands to return from their black bear hunt, Larry is the only person we talk to for the rest of the night. He tells us that he’s just gotten back from California, where he was cutting redwoods
“They’re the tallest trees I’ve ever cut,” he says with beery reverence. “But not the biggest.”
“Where are the biggest?” I ask. He looks at me like I’m an idiot.
“Here,” he says. "The biggest trees in the world are here.”