Southeast Alaska is known as the Panhandle:
It's a long, narrow strip of mainland coastline, plus 1,000 islands and the braided waterways that surround them.
In most places, there are no roads connecting the communities there, so Alaskans depend heavily on ferries: the Alaska Marine Highway System.
The ferries connect 35 communities in all, and not just in the southeast: The routes stretch for 3,500 miles, from Bellingham, Wash., in the south, all the way to Dutch Harbor, Alaska in the west, far out on the Aleutian Island chain.
In Southeast Alaska, the ferry route runs through the Inside Passage, a spectacular landscape of forest, mountains and fjords.
And that's what we'll get to see as we hop on the MV LeConte in Haines, heading for the state capital, Juneau. It will be a 4½ hour trip down the Lynn Canal, traveling at "schoolbus speed," as our Captain Brian Flory puts it: 15 knots, or about 18 miles per hour.
We get a prime vantage point up on the bridge with Captain Flory and his crew. As we head southeast from Haines, we pass by a colony of sea lions that have hauled out on rocks in a lumpy brown mass.
Flory has been known to stop the vessel for something amazing, like the time there were over 200 humpback whales within view.
"That was during the early morning hours," Flory recalls, "and we woke the passengers up for that. You run the danger of someone who doesn't want to get woken up at 3 or 4 o'clock to look at whales, but I figured it was important enough, because it was such an unusual sighting of so many."
As we sail, Flory and First Mate Aaron Isenhour scan the route through binoculars, looking for any smaller vessels we need to avoid.
This unique system is the only marine route to be designated a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
It is called a marine highway, after all, and that nomenclature is deliberate, Capt. Flory says: "The name, the Marine Highway System, is to try and jog people into thinking that it's not just a ferry on a back and forth, 10-minute run all day and night. We basically provide the moving highway as the deck of the ship."
The ferries are a vital link for these tiny communities, who rely on them to bring everything from construction materials to a mobile mammogram van.
"This is what delivers the groceries," explains passenger Wyatt Rhea-Fournier, who depends on the ferry to get him between Juneau — his hometown — and Haines, where he's just moved for a new job w the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He and his girlfriend (and their dog) have taken many rides recently, slowly moving their lives up north. "We don't have Costcos and Fred Meyers and anything in bulk, so everything is coming up and down here on the Inside Passage. This is our major artery."
For the smallest communities, especially, "we are their lifeline," says the ship's purser, Mary Dahle. She started working on the ferries in 1981, a job that allowed her to put herself through college, and over the decades she's come to know her passengers well.
She'll often welcome on board pregnant women from tiny villages, who are heading to the hospital in Juneau to have their babies. She'll be there to greet them when they head back, too.
"Every week we take a newborn baby home for the first time," Dahle says. "Last week we took a grandma from Haines down to Angoon to see a grandbaby she hadn't seen yet. And she spent a week there, and we just delivered her home this morning to Haines."
Dahle continues, "We get to see everything from babies coming home for the first time, to – we bring the caskets of the elders back to the villages to be buried. So we are part of the community's life. We are part of that fabric."
Our trip from Haines to Juneau is a relatively short one, but some of the southeast runs are well over 24 hours. You'll get on in Ketchikan at 1 pm and get off in Skagway at 6 pm the next day.
School sports teams in Southeast Alaska do this all the time to get to games hundreds of miles away.
The kids pile on the ferry and spread sleeping bags out on the deck floor. "It's a big slumber party," Dahle says.
A few days later, games over, they do it all again in reverse.
Capt. Flory tells me he had 260 kids on the ferry recently, heading to a music festival in Sitka.
I imagine there must have been a wild cacophony of music on deck, but Flory says, no: "We might even have said, 'leave your instruments downstairs.' You know, like 'check your guns at the door!' 'All trumpets left down on the car deck!' But they were a very well-behaved group, so it was kind of fun."
Purser Mary Dahle says you never know what you'll see on the ferry. It might be a passenger hauling a washing machine or a rocking chair back home. Or it might be the wedding party she remembers clearly: "Everybody had a dog, and we had 36 dog kennels on the car deck, going to a wedding in Tenakee."
Lately, the Marine Highway System has been hit hard by state budget cuts, losing nearly 30 percent of its state funding over the last four years.
Alaska has a state budget deficit of nearly three billion dollars, due to low oil prices and declining oil production.
As a result, ferries have been taken out of operation, service and port calls have been cut, and staff have been laid off.
"Budget cuts are a scary thing," Dahle says, "because we have been running at a pretty minimal schedule for communities to thrive, or survive, for a number of years. If you go to communities less, it's like closing down a highway for four days out of the week."
Privatizing the system is not an option, according to Capt. Flory. "The normal American model is, commercial enterprise can do that," he says. "Well, the reason we're doing it is commercial enterprise can't do it and make a profit. These aren't necessarily profit-making operations. They're more like an essential public service."
For example, Pelican, Alaska – population under 100 – gets ferry service to Juneau once a month, year round. It's easy to imagine a private company deciding that stop just isn't worth the money.
As we approach Juneau, I step outside onto the ferry's rear deck, where the American flag is snapping in a stiff wind. The view off the back of the ship is wild and gorgeous. Then I turn toward the bow. A brilliant rainbow arcs over the ferry, extending from shore to shore.
As if that's not enough, passenger Phyllis Sage has spotted something else: "It was a whale! He just came up by the rainbow arch."
Disappointed, I tell her that I missed it. "Well, you were looking up," Sage says, with a laugh. "It's a beautiful rainbow."
Suddenly, she exclaims, "Oh! Double! Double rainbow! Lookit, double!"
It's true. We have not one but two rainbows welcoming us to Juneau. You couldn't ask for a better finish.
The "Our Land" series is produced by Elissa Nadworny.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In most of Southeast Alaska, there are no roads connecting the towns. People depend on their ferry system the way other Americans depend on cars or public transportation. You bring home new babies on a ferry. It's how food comes in. So it's a big deal that the system is being hit by state budget cuts. NPR's Melissa Block took a ferry ride for her series Our Land.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Two to Juneau.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: All right, thanks.
We are boarding the MV LeConte heading from Haines, Alaska to Juneau, the capital.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right, propane, gas cans or firearms?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No.
BLOCK: It'll be a four-and-a-half-hour trip down the Lynn Canal.
(SOUNDBITE OF FERRY BOAT HORN)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let go of lines. Let go of lines.
BLOCK: And what better spot to take it all in than up on the ship's bridge with the captain and crew?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Departure round complete, car deck is secure.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Bridge copy.
BLOCK: As they set their course south and east.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: One-five-two.
BLOCK: Our speed on the LeConte...
BRIAN FLORY: School bus speed, about 15 knots or 18 miles per hour.
BLOCK: That's Captain Brian Flory, 18 years with the Alaska Marine Highway System.
FLORY: The name, the Marine Highway System, is to try and jog people into thinking that it's not just a ferry on, you know, back and forth. We don't just go back and forth on a 10-minute run all day and all night. We basically provide - the moving highway is the deck of the ship.
BLOCK: We're on a relatively short trip today. But some of the southeast runs are well over 24 hours. Get on in Ketchikan at 1:00 in the afternoon, get off in Skagway at 6:00 p.m. the next day. School sports teams in Southeast Alaska do this all the time to get to a game hundreds of miles away. The kids pile on the ferry, spread sleeping bags out on the deck floor. And a few days later, games over, they do it all again in reverse.
Captain Flory had 260 kids on the ferry recently heading to a music festival in Sitka.
FLORY: We might have even, you know, have said, like, leave your instruments downstairs, you know, like, check your guns at the door. So all trumpets and all left down on the car deck. But they were a very well-behaved group. So it was kind of fun.
BLOCK: What's not fun? Budget cuts. Alaska has a state budget deficit of nearly $3 billion due to low oil prices and declining oil production. And that means the ferry system has been hit hard, losing nearly 30 percent of its state funding over the last four years. They've had to take ferries out of operation. They've cut service and port calls. And they've laid off staff.
FLORY: The normal American model is commercial enterprise can do that. Well, the reason we're doing it is commercial enterprise can't do it and make a profit. These aren't necessarily profit-making operations. They're more like an essential public service is what we're doing.
BLOCK: Down below in the solarium, passengers while away the hours with cards and books, that is, if they can tear themselves away from the spectacular landscape we're passing by - the dense pines of the Tongass National Forest, snowy mountains off in the distance, porpoises cavorting alongside us. But for people who live and work in Southeast Alaska, like Wyatt Rhea-Fournier, this ferry isn't just a scenic cruise, it's a lifeline.
WYATT RHEA-FOURNIER: A lot of our little communities up here, this is what delivers the groceries up. You know, we don't have Costcos and Fred Meyers and anything in bulk, you know? So everything's coming up and down here on the inside passage. This is our major artery (laughter).
BLOCK: The ferry brings everything to these very small towns - construction supplies, a mobile mammogram van. And purser Mary Dahle has come to know her passengers well. She'll often see people heading to Juneau for medical care.
MARY DAHLE: We get to see everything from babies coming home for the first time to we bring the caskets of the elders back to the villages to be buried. So we are part of the community's life. We're part of that fabric.
BLOCK: As we approach Juneau, I step outside onto the rear deck. Well, this is just about perfect. We had gray skies as we were leaving Haines. Now we're almost all the way to Juneau. The sun is out. It's setting behind the snow-covered mountains off to the west. And there is a perfect rainbow arching over the ferry. And passenger Phyllis Sage has spotted something else.
PHYLLIS SAGE: It was a whale. He just came up by the rainbow arch.
BLOCK: And I missed it.
SAGE: Well, you were looking up. (Laughter) It's a beautiful rainbow - oh, double, double, double rainbow. Look it - double.
BLOCK: You couldn't ask for a better finish. Melissa Block pulling into Juneau on the MV LeConte.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BROOK'S "HUBERISM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.