I met Eddie Tobacco in line for dinner on Saturday night. He was unassuming, just a guy from Washington state heading to Juneau to visit his kids and meet his great-granddaughter for the first time.
The next day — that was yesterday — I was perched outside near the front of the ferry to ride out a rolling trip across the Queen Charlotte Sound when Mr. Tobacco breezed past, walking laps around the deck. On one pass he told me he’d gotten up to 260 pounds by sitting around doing nothing. On the next pass he told me his current weight was 205. On the third pass I got up and started walking with him. We walked for about an hour and had a good talk.
First, I found out that Tobacco is his given name. His family name was Tabacco until immigration officials on Ellis Island got hold of it. Then we talked about some other things like how wool socks are so much better than cotton and what to do for seasickness. Many barf bags were put to use during our relatively brief passage through the open waters of the Sound and even though I’m highly susceptible to motion sickness, I didn’t need one of them. I believe it’s because of my Sea Bands.
At one point, we navigated an awkward discussion about what my husband does for a living. You’d think by now I’d have worked up an elevator speech for that, but even Stewart still struggles with describing The Painting Experience to strangers — especially strangers who aren’t from California. Eddie was quiet the whole time I was trying to describe painting for process rather than product, then he politely changed the subject.
He seemed very familiar with the Kennicott and its meandering path through seemingly endless and identically gorgeous forested islands. He was the one who told me we were in the Queen Charlotte Sound and that it was the first and largest of three open passages we’d encounter on the way to Ketchikan. Finally, a series of pointed questions got him to admit he was a retired Head Steward for the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS).
He wasn’t boastful. At one point while we were walking he did point to some pipes showing rust stains and said, “You’d never of seen that before.” (This old boat is showing some wear.) Later he mentioned that the captain is a friend, but he didn’t do it in a name-droppy way. He was just saying what it is.
Because yesterday was an exquisite day and the conditions were right, Captain Wilkens decided to guide the ferry on an alternate route through a narrow fjord that glides past Klemtu, a small fishing village on Swindle Island in British Columbia. My walking buddy asked me if I might like to come up to the bridge for that.
This is one of those times when the grass on the other side of the fence does turn out to be greener. I’d longingly looked up at the bridge a few times since we left Bellingham, imagining what a view it must have and envying anyone I saw standing on one of the tiny decks that extend from each side like wings. Being allowed to pass beyond the point of AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY was like finding one of Wonka’s golden tickets. I could tell the four other passengers invited to the bridge for that sunlit, blue-green hour felt the same way. When we passed Klemtu, the captain sounded the ship’s horn and people came out onto the beach and waved. We all waved back like crazy.
While on the bridge, we saw a killer whale and porpoises and I spotted the first bald eagle of the trip. But what surprised me most was a pair of hummingbirds. They whirred up in front of us out there in the middle of the passage, as though to emphasize that delight may at any time announce itself with tiny, flashing wings — so you’d better look sharp.