Blockade, Part 1
As often as we have traveled in eastern Europe, Ireland, England, Gibraltar — all potential hot spots — it never occurred to us that we could find ourselves in the midst of an international incident on this continent.
Canadian fishermen, charging Alaskan fishermen with violations of fishing agreements, blockaded Prince Rupert Harbor in British Columbia, preventing the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from leaving on its northbound route.
With us on it.
We got there Saturday, July 19, by train from Jasper, Alberta, where we left our motor home. We were to sail north to Juneau, Alaska, next evening.
We checked into a hotel and strolled out for a nice seafood dinner before I called the Alaska Ferry terminal to check on rumors of a blockade. The dispatcher said he didn’t know whether this ship would leave or not, but that all remaining debarkations for at least a week had been canceled and that the ship currently in harbor, M/V Malaspina, represented our one and only chance to get out.
You never saw four people — our daughter Mary and Rainer, from Germany, and Dave and I — shift gears so fast. The cab we called was at the door before we could get down the steps with all our stuff, hastily thrown together, including snacks we had stashed in the fridge. The room was wasted, never used, but paid for, and it was sort of good to know it was still ours if we had to come back in the middle of the night.
In the ferry terminal, we got our tickets reissued and quickly passed through customs. It was raining rather hard as we made the short walk from terminal to ferry in an eerie scenario.
A fleet of fishing boats, some tiny, some hefty, surrounded the big ferry, boats jockeying this way and that, occasionally tooting horns and shooting up flares. The sidewalk glistened in reflection, and the sky was bright red.
All I could think of was “And the rockets’ red glare....”
But at least we were safe on board, in cabin 122.
And exhausted! Took showers, stowed stuff out of each others’ way, and went to bed. It was dark and quiet and cool and we slept well, even though the bunks sagged.
Our cabin was on port side, where most of the fishing boats were, and when we woke in the morning, they were still there.
We weren’t going anywhere soon. Estimates were that about 80 boats were in place, but many had left, and more had come in.
We caught bits of their radio traffic now and then; it reflected their pride in their solidarity. A newspaper a passenger brought from town — there was an effective news blackout on board — said that earlier a U.S. packing ship and a protesting fisherman had collided.
One story was that the Canadian tried to cut off the American and got hit. No serious damage, but what no one could understand is why neither the Canadian nor U.S. Coast Guard escorted the American out of danger.
I think the greatest frustration was the apparent unwillingness of the Canadian government to enforce maritime law. Isn’t the holding of a nation’s ship again its will an accepted act of aggression?
It’s an exaggeration to say that we were being held hostage — after all, we could walk off “The Mal” at any time. Technically, both ship and terminal were “in” Alaska, even to the point that ship’s clocks were set for the Alaska time zone.
But the trouble was, when the customs agents were not on duty at the terminal, we would not have been allowed back on.
It is important for people to understand that this was not a cruise ship with a bunch of wealthy folks partying on board.
Of the 150 or so people who boarded with us, many were working folks just trying to get home or to their jobs. A very small number were foreigners (Venezuela, Switzerland), and a few were Canadians. Most were Americans.
One woman was severely handicapped and in a wheelchair; there were a few families with young children, as well as about a dozen teens traveling alone.
I’d guess that the majority were retired or nearly retired people — at least those who elected to remain aboard appeared to have the time to wait it out.
Before long, as the hours passed and we began walking the deck of the Malaspina for exercise — eight laps equalled a mile — it dawned on us that it was going to be a long wait.
Breakfast segued into lunch, lunch into dinner, and, with the sunset still glowing in the western sky, we turned in, fully expecting that during that second night we’d hear the horn blow to announce our departure.
But Saturday became Sunday, and Monday became Tuesday.
Prince Rupert is really one of those places of which you can say, “You can’t get there from here,” or anywhere, for that matter, except by ship or air.
Our camper was hundreds of miles away in Jasper. The folks on board who had cars with them had the option to drive either to Hyder or to Haines or Skagway by way of Whitehorse in the Yukon.
That’s 900 to 1,200 miles, most of it through Canadian territory and over poor roads.
Eventually, a top official of the ferry company came on board and, hearing the plight of some of the young people who simply didn’t have enough money for several days’ worth of meals, announced that our meals would be “on the house” for the duration.
He also promised that arrangements might be made to fly out those who could not wait.
But we could and we did. Come back next week to see how long ....
[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is SallieS@Juno.com.]