PUBLISHED: 5:22 PM on Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Pelican, briefly
Going on a day trip to Pelican is a little like spending a day climbing a mountain: You spend the majority of your time getting to and from the destination. But without the destination, you couldn't have the trip.

I thought a lot about this kind of thing during the first few hours of the ferry ride, as we left Auke Bay and passed Shelter Island and Point Retreat Lighthouse. My fellow passengers were mostly silent. I studied the cracks in the cloud cover and watched for marine mammals. I thought about the purpose of road trips, even if the road is the Alaska Marine Highway.

Katie Spielberger photos
  There are 15 students in Pelican's school. The middle school and high school students, who all have the same teacher, include (from left) Kenneth Mattson-Wolff, Cody Stewart, Sarah Stewart, Jasmine Mattson-Wolff, Ryan "Otter" Allard and Carl Phillips.
But you can only spend so much of a trip thinking about the philosophy of travel. Soon, the specifics of the present take over.

It was my first time aboard the Aurora, which spends most of the year in Prince William Sound. She quickly charmed me with her open bow deck, all booth seating in the dining area and bilingual galley signs in English and German (a crew member told me there are hordes of German tourists in Prince William sound).

A day trip to Pelican consists of approximately fourteen hours on the ferry and two hours in Pelican. In a town of 156, that's just enough time walk the mile-long boardwalk, take some pictures and drop by Rosie's bar.

Instead of Rosie's, I stopped in City Hall and chatted with Betty, who grew up in Pelican and remembers life before television and phones - a time when kids would swap comic books for entertainment.

What do kids do for fun today? I visited the school to find out, and met seven of the school's fifteen students. All middle and high school students are in one class. Everyone fishes with their parents in the summer. Their teacher mentions video games but they end up talking more about hiking, sledding and subsistence living.

"I loved being raised here," said Ryan, the only senior. "You get a lot of freedom."

Katie Spielberger photo
  A passenger looks out from the bow as the Aurora ferry approaches Cross Sound (top). The Aurora must maneuver among dozens of commercial fishing boats (bottom) while making its way into Lipaniski Inlet and the town of Pelican.
He said he was thinking of joining the Navy or the Marines after he graduates, but would like to return to Pelican to raise a family if he can.

Ryan offered to walk me back to the ferry. Along the way, he pointed out tall grass where Pelican youths like to play hide-and-go-seek.

"In the winter we dig tunnels," he told me, raising his hand up to eye level to demonstrate how high the snow can be.

Back on board the Aurora, everyone seemed livelier, and we smiled at familiar faces we'd spent an hour and a half apart from. A couple from Seattle discussed the merits of XTRATUFs with me. I saw a single newspaper pass between four strangers - anyone worried about the death of newspapers need only bring one aboard a ferry to be reassured of the print product's value.

Third Mate Matt Peake invited me into the wheelhouse and I chatted with him and Captain Gar Henning. Their political banter subsided as we left Lipaniski Inlet and headed back into Cross Sound, where the rolling seas of the ocean commanded undivided focus. Waves crashed on the shore. A minke whale surfaced and disappeared.

Back on deck, I watched for porpoises and exchanged smiles with a woman whose eyes were glued to the water. I had a long conversation with an able seaman named Phil.

How long does it take to form a floating community? As the day went on, I gradually felt more and more connected to my fellow travelers. I passed one woman whom I had never talked to on the street back in Juneau, and we exchanged an excited wave. There were 43 people on our ferry, about a third of the population of Pelican. Maybe a smile is all you need to acknowledge a floating community. When I asked the kids of Pelican if they knew everyone in town, they nodded immediately.

The Alaska Marine Highway's next day trips to Pelican are Sept. 16 and 30. For information and reservations call 465-3941or visit