When I was in the shipping business, I went where my employer sent me. Now that I’m in the family business, I go where my wife sends me.
Such were my thoughts in the evening of Wednesday, October 7, 2015, as the Alaska Airlines 737 maneuvered on its approach to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at the conclusion of a transcontinental flight from Boston. This aerial voyage had taken me over Ontario, Manitoba, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Finally, the aircraft descended and made a wide left turn which gave me a panoramic view of the region. For the first time in 31 years I looked upon downtown Seattle, Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, and the vast Pacific Ocean. I had last seen this part of the world from the bridge of the freighter Comet in the spring of 1984. After all this time, it felt good to be back.
But I would not remain long. A connecting flight aboard another Alaska Airlines 737, this one a combination passenger and cargo airplane, conveyed me northwest from Seattle and out over the inky black Pacific to Anchorage, Alaska. I had never been to Anchorage before; my employer had never sent me there. Instead, my wife sent me there—to visit our son and daughter-in-law. They had recently bought a house, and my assignment was to help them move their belongings. At 3:45am on Thursday the 8th, the plane touched down. A few minutes later, my oldest son James met me inside the terminal and drove me to his new home.
It felt disconcerting at first, after traveling thousands of miles, to arrive in a place where the people spoke American-accented English, used American money, and flew the American flag. A journey of similar distance but in the opposite direction from Boston would have yielded a much different result. Several years spent making transoceanic voyages had accustomed me to this. Today it felt odd to still be in the United States. Soon enough, however, I would see subtle differences and become aware of Alaska’s cosmopolitan background.
For a few hours every day, we moved James’ and Sarah’s belongings from their previous residence to their new home. The rest of the time we spent traveling and sightseeing.
Starting in Anchorage on Thursday, James and I visited Earthquake Park. Named for the infamous earthquake that struck the region on Good Friday in 1964, this site offered an open view to the west, north, and northeast. Across the water of the Cook Inlet stood downtown Anchorage with the snow-capped Chugach Range behind it. A spectacular view, even on a damp and cloudy day. In the city proper, we visited Resolution Park, which faced the opposite direction. A life-sized statue of Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy looked to the west over the Cook Inlet, the waterway that bears his name and connects Anchorage with the open Pacific.
Captain Cook is an iconic figure in the history of Alaska. Justly famous for his voyages of exploration in the vast Pacific Ocean, he and his crews made extensive surveys and drew detailed maps of the Alaskan coastline. They carried out much of their Alaskan explorations aboard the Resolution and the Discovery during the summer of 1778, at the same time that their military colleagues were attempting to put down an armed colonial uprising on the eastern seaboard of North America. I found it ironic that Alaska would one day join the country that was formed out of this rebellion. For his work, Captain Cook came to be honored not only with this statue, but with a downtown luxury hotel named for him and with numerous wall murals in its lobby portraying his ships, their crews, and the sites they explored. In the long history of seafaring, very few seamen have been honored with statues, let alone with buildings and paintings.
Friday’s sightseeing took place south of Anchorage. On the road to Whittier James and Sarah and I skirted the waterway known as Turnagain Arm. Named thus by Captain Cook because his two ships needed to turn around in it repeatedly to avoid danger, Turnagain Arm extends inland but does not lead to the seaport of Whittier. Instead, to reach Whittier we drove through a 2½ mile long combination railroad and highway tunnel cut through solid rock beneath the 4,100 feet high Maynard Mountain. Emerging in Whittier, we came upon its small but important harbor, situated on the western end of Passage Canal. This is not really a canal, but an arm of the much larger Prince William Sound. Cruise ships, ferries, and railroad barges serve this port, which is surrounded on all sides by the snow-capped Chugach Mountains.
Arriving shortly after we did was the ferry Aurora of the Alaska Marine Highway, the state’s coastwise ferry line. The Aurora backed gracefully into her berth, discharged and loaded passengers and vehicles, and then quietly got underway again. Moored nearby were the main attractions for us, the tug Gulf Titan and the barge Anchorage Provider, operated by Western Towboat and Alaska Marine Lines, respectively.
The Gulf Titan was an ocean-going tugboat that towed railroad barges such as the Anchorage Provider. These vessels are two of the fleet that runs the supply route between Whittier, Alaska, and Seattle, Washington. The Anchorage Provider’s main deck consists of railroad tracks, and her upperworks holds shipping containers. A shoreside crane would load and remove the containers on the top level, and railroad locomotives would push and pull the freight cars onto and off the main deck. As I studied this vessel’s configuration, I became impressed by her size. A non-motorized barge, she measures 450 feet in length and 85 feet in breadth, large enough to accommodate eight railroad tracks each 420 feet long. Fully loaded, she can carry 50 railroad cars and a combined total of 20,000 tons of rail cars and shipping containers with a draft of only 18 feet. James explained his role as a railroad employee in the process of loading and unloading rail cars. A precision operation, it requires an exact alignment of the barge’s rails with the shoreside rails, tolerates a ramp elevation of no more than a few degrees, and requires that the barge be kept on a even keel at all times. Wind and sea conditions, even in this sheltered harbor, can wreak havoc with this delicate process.
Despite these constraints, this tug and barge operation serves as Alaska’s lifeline. Consumer products of almost every description including food arrive in Whittier by sea and are then trucked or railroaded to Anchorage and other destinations. In the opposite direction, railroad tank cars bring petroleum products to the “Lower 48.” A fleet of three tug and barge units carry the seaborne commerce between Alaska and Washington. Additional vessels operated by Foss Marine and the Canadian National Railway carry cargo between Alaska and British Columbia. By comparison, the cargo carried by Alaska Airlines is a tiny fraction of that carried by sea, and consists of mostly small items and mail that need to be delivered quickly.
We did not see this operation in process, though. On this particular day, the cargo loading had already been completed, and the Gulf Titan and the Anchorage Provider reposed quietly at their dock. What they were waiting for remained unknown. It likely was not the weather, which was quite mild. Besides, that would not stop them. James explained that the one way voyage between Alaska and Washington normally requires six days; in poor to extreme sea conditions, though, it can take ten to fifteen days. Sailing on the open Pacific is not always a pacific experience, as I had learned aboard the Comet many years previously.
On Saturday we followed a different course. I took a ride on the Alaska Railroad’s weekend Anchorage to Fairbanks train Aurora. I rode only from Anchorage to Wasilla, though, a 1¼ hour long journey. James followed the train in his automobile, and Sarah returned to work. After a pleasant ride out of the city and through the woods and wetlands and with the snow-capped mountains always looming in the distance, I disembarked at the Wasilla station. James was waiting for me on the platform. We then returned to Anchorage, but with stops. The first of these was at a locomotive shop, where a volunteer crew was restoring and rebuilding an Alaska Railroad steam locomotive, Number 557. An ambitious project of several years’ duration, it is gradually nearing completion. James had spent many hours working on this locomotive, but was off duty today. He kept himself occupied with me instead.
Continuing back toward Anchorage, we stopped first at Lake Eklutna, a fresh water lake high in the mountains that provides the drinking water for the Municipality of Anchorage. Next we visited the Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church and Cemetery in Eklutna. A beautiful little building topped in the Russian fashion with onion domes and Eastern-style three-armed suppedaneum crosses, Saint Nicholas occupied a small site and served as a spiritual haven in a very quiet rural area. Much of the property contained the cemetery, itself a sight to behold. Miniature houses painted in bright colors covered the individual graves. James explained that these served to house the spirits of the deceased in the Russian tradition. James further explained that when the Russians came to Alaska, they brought Christianity with them, and they passed it on to many of the native inhabitants. To this day Russian Orthodoxy remains one of the most prevalent denominations of Christianity among the native Alaskan population.
After returning to Anchorage, we stopped at three more churches. The first and largest of these was the Saint Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral. A large and fairly new but nonetheless very ornate structure, it featured a multiplicity of onion domes and suppedaneum crosses. Similarly, the smaller Saint Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church and Parish Hall also displayed onion domes and suppedaneum crosses. I especially enjoyed seeing these distinctive symbols of Christianity from far-off Eastern Europe. Some may regard them simply as cultural icons, but to me they demonstrate the universality of the Christian faith and its acceptance by the diverse peoples of the Earth, the result of the early Apostles heeding the Lord’s instruction to “Go therefore, and teach all nations…” (Matt. 28:19). Finally, we went to see the Anchorage Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Built in an architectural style vastly different from the Russian and Byzantine churches, it also expressed the spiritual character of its denomination, especially in the statue of the angel Moroni summoning the entire population of the world to enter its hallowed halls.
Additionally, several Roman Catholic and Protestant churches stood in Anchorage, but with time in short supply, we unfortunately needed to prepare for my departure on Saturday night. Three days in Alaska were quickly proving to be insufficient. There remained so much more to see and do, including miles of rugged coastline and numerous sheltered harbors to explore. But for now, I had the long aerial voyage home.
Shortly after midnight, I left Anchorage aboard an Alaska Airlines 737 bound for Portland, Oregon. After takeoff the aircraft turned southeastward and flew over the Pacific Ocean. Sitting by a window on the starboard side, I gazed down through the dark night at the dark sea. It was faintly but definitely discernible. As the airplane neared the Oregon coast, the gradual approach of dawn turned the vast Pacific from a dark to a medium gray. From the air it appeared to be truly pacific, yet I thought of Robert Frost’s famous opening lines:
The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
And I thought of the thrashing the Comet had taken on her two-weeks-long return voyage from Japan in 1984. She had made several port calls here on the American West Coast before and after sailing transpacific to and from the Far East. I would love to make such a long voyage again, I daydreamed, perhaps aboard a Holland-America Line cruise ship! For now, it simply felt good to be back, I reflected, as the aircraft turned east and headed overland to the Portland International Airport.
After a short layover, I left Portland early Sunday morning aboard another Alaska Airlines 737 bound across the continent for Boston. Cloud cover hid the ground until the aircraft reached Montana. There I saw for the first time this state where James had gotten his start in railroading. The farmlands of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin followed. Then the airplane passed over the Great Lakes. Looking south, I enjoyed a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan, then Michigan itself, Lake Huron, and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario with Niagara Falls and the Welland Canal clearly visible. Lake Erie reached to the horizon in the south. Finally, the aircraft passed over Lake Ontario and then upstate New York. On the approach to Logan Airport in the late afternoon, the pilots took the airplane east over the Atlantic Ocean and then made a wide left turn to land into the northwest. A long and bumpy descent over the bright blue and calm sea followed, and then the plane touched down. Despite the inability to attend church, it was a restful and spiritual Sabbath for me, flying over and imbibing the magnificence of the Pacific, the Great Lakes, and the Atlantic all on the same day!
On the bus to New Hampshire, my thoughts returned to the Pacific. I felt a sense of gratitude for all my experiences on the great waterways of the world. Somehow, though, the Pacific was different, and ironically, I had never intended to go there. When the Comet arrived in New Orleans in December of 1983, I spoke with the powers-that-be at company headquarters about returning to the Waccamaw in the Mediterranean, as had been the original plan when I went on vacation. This plan was nixed, however. I remained aboard the Comet, transited the Panama Canal, and crossed the great Pacific. My initial disappointment about this went away quickly, and now I’m very grateful that I stayed the course. And I wish I could do it again!
From Panama to Korea, from the Comet to the Anchorage Provider, and from Alaska Airlines to the Alaska Railroad, the Pacific has repeatedly opened up a world of new adventures for me. I’m thankful for these unexpected but happy experiences, and I think of the scriptural injunction to “live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you” (Alma 34:38).
Between my employer and my wife sending me away on long voyages, I owe a lot in thanksgiving.
 I personally know of three other statues of seamen: Captain Rafael Semmes of the Confederate States Navy in Mobile, Alabama, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut of the United States Navy in Madison Square Park in New York, and Capitano Cristoforo Colombo in Genova. There may be others, though.
 Robert Frost, “Once by the Pacific,” in The Poetry of Robert Frost, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, p. 250.