I was going to Alaska, my first trip in months.
Early in the pandemic, back when we were getting news that California had just a handful of cases of COVID-19 -- and before the pandemic felt real -- I spent two weeks traveling several cities in California. I returned home just as the urgency flipped and the actual presence of coronavirus in the U.S. intensified.
I returned from California to my home in Kansas on March 6. On March 24, the stay-at-home order went into effect. Travel wasn’t front-of-mind for me during this uncertain time and all trips that were in the works were canceled but one -- a women’s fishing expedition to remote Southeast Alaska. July felt so far away in March that I kept the possibility on my radar. Even though I really wanted to go, there were still a lot of considerations.
I felt that if there were a perfect destination during this time of social distancing, a fishing expedition on an island might be it. Throughout the months leading up to the trip, the destination and the four journalists scheduled to visit kept in touch. We discussed logistics -- what steps would the lodge take to keep its guests safe; what was the protocol to visit Ketchikan, the city we would fly into first; what would we need to do before arrival?
So many considerations. My first and biggest decision was whether I was ready to fly. Since the time spent in proximity to someone infected and distance from that person matter most with the virus, many are afraid to take long flights. I would fly from Kansas City to Seattle, then from Seattle to Ketchikan. Definitely not a short flight.
An NPR article published in mid-May suggests: “Determine whether the trip is necessary -- and worth the risk and hassle,” before deciding to fly. Even though my Alaska trip wasn’t essential, it also wasn’t just a pleasure trip. My travel writing business has been hit by the crisis, and I needed the work this trip would provide.
Then I had to consider the destination. Although I was comfortable with spending three nights at the lodge, Steamboat Bay Fishing Club, because of the remote location (it’s the only thing on Noyes Island) and the strict protocol outlined by the lodge, I wasn’t as secure about flying into Ketchikan. We would spend the first night upon arrival in Ketchikan and another at the end of the trip.
At the time, Ketchikan had only had 24 cases of COVID-19 -- all recovered, many of them passing through on their way to larger cities. So the numbers felt relatively low and there weren’t any active cases at the time of travel. And Alaska had and has strict guidelines in place: Anyone traveling to the state must take a COVID-19 test 72 hours before arrival or be tested upon arrival and self-quarantine until the results come back.
This fact alone weighed heavily in my decision to take the trip. Although I knew there was a chance someone could become infected during those 72 hours, or there could be a new case in Ketchikan before our arrival, it still felt like the safest destination to travel to during these times.
Packing was a new experience. In addition to numerous disposable masks, I also started sewing a variety of cloth face masks -- I admit some were color-coordinated with outfits (the mask is the new accessory), but most were created for practicality: gaiters for on the boat when I would only need to pull the mask up when in the cabin, traditional cloth masks with pockets for filters for in areas where social distancing wasn’t as easy.
In addition to an abundance of face masks, I packed sterile wipes and hand sanitizer. TSA is allowing up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer until further notice. The wipes, I’ll be honest, were never used. I felt secure at the hotels and on the plane given new revelations that surface contamination isn’t a major factor in the transmission of the virus (plus, I diligently wash my hands, don’t touch my face, and use hand sanitizer).
Four days before departure, I received the test in the mail. I was given explicit instructions on what day and time to administer the throat swab, when to FedEx it back, and so on so that they would receive the test on the Friday before my Sunday departure. We were told results usually came by 5 p.m. that day. We all waited with anticipation; even though not feeling ill, I’d heard so many stories of asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases that it still made me uneasy. The results didn’t arrive by email until right before midnight. It was a stressful evening, but relief flooded in as my test was negative and I realized I could finally pack. I felt as prepared as possible before takeoff.
Traveling To Alaska During A Pandemic
Alaska Airlines has numerous safety procedures in effect: All passengers and crew must wear masks; floor decals remind passengers to stay six feet apart; through September 30, seating is limited and certain seats are blocked; and passengers board by seat number so those in the back board first. Plus, studies show that the frequency of air circulation on an airplane is comparable to the air filtration in hospitals.
Perhaps because I’ve flown so much in the past six years as a travel writer and never caught a bug while flying, the flight itself wasn’t a stressor. I was fortunate to have first-class seating from Kansas City to Seattle and enjoyed the seats that were larger and more comfortable than what I am accustomed to. Instead of meal service, I was offered a choice of two snack boxes. I chose the Tapas Picnic Pack that came with hummus, chips, olives, dehydrated mango, nuts, and dark chocolate. Although it wasn’t a traditional meal, the variety was nice.
I arrived in Seattle for a brief layover. The airport, compared to Kansas City’s sparse number of fliers, was packed. Physical distancing was pretty much non-existent. I considered buying a coffee but didn’t feel comfortable taking my mask off for long enough to drink it in such a crowded environment.
The flight to Ketchikan was uneventful; though no longer in first class, I did have all three seats to myself.
Arriving In Ketchikan
In Ketchikan, we approached a table to show our negative test results. If you did not take a COVID-19 test before arrival, you were sent to another line to take a test. Our group was staying at Cape Fox Lodge in Ketchikan, and the hotel had a driver waiting for us upon arrival.
What I wasn’t expecting upon arriving in Ketchikan was a complete lack of masks worn by residents. A mask mandate in Ketchikan failed. While hotel workers wore masks, in town, bar and restaurant workers and patrons did not. I only saw one person walking down a sidewalk wearing a mask. For the most part, streets were bare as the city had lost the 10,000 daily tourists who usually got off the cruise ships. Still, bars and restaurants were filled with residents and tourists from Washington State and other nearby locations, with no physical distancing enforced. It was surreal at first and gave a false sense of security (They must not need masks here!). Our first night in Ketchikan, we met with our group for dinner and returned to the hotel.
After four months of isolation, I’d only eaten at a restaurant twice, and both times were outdoors. By the end of my first day in Alaska, I’d already eaten inside a restaurant twice.
Early the next morning, we took a 45-minute seaplane flight to Craig, Alaska, before boarding a boat for about a 40-minute ride to Noyes Island and the Steamboat Bay Fishing Lodge. The four of us and our pilot wore masks; distancing isn’t possible in a small plane, but I comforted myself knowing that at least we all had been tested. Plus, the scenery flying over Alaska’s Inside Passage took all of my attention.
Again on the boat ride, all of us, including our captain, wore masks while inside the cabin of the boat. We arrived at Steamboat Bay, and my first glimpse was spectacular.
Settling Into The Lodge
Steamboat Bay’s employees immediately notified us of the regulations. Staff were to wear masks at all times; the kitchen is open and we could see the chefs wearing masks while prepping. Our temperature was taken each morning before departing for our days of fishing. There were four groups of four, and the dining area, called the Great Room, held an enormous single table that allowed for groups of four with space in between each group while dining. We were told to wear masks -- only to be removed while eating or drinking -- at all times when in this public area.
If a group wants even more distancing from others not in their group, Steamboat Bay has a second building called The Residence that accommodates up to eight people and involves no contact with anyone other than their assigned staff.
Still, only having 16 guests -- who had all been tested before arrival -- made me secure in socializing in this common room where we all enjoyed a happy hour and dinner each evening. I’ll admit the guests were pretty lax about wearing masks as we spent a couple of hours each evening in the Great Room with our cocktails and appetizers (they usually offer an hors d'oeuvres buffet but switched to single plates of food because of coronavirus) such as crab legs and hush puppies one night and duck sausage and bacon-wrapped scallops another, followed by a three-course dinner. The food, made even more so perhaps from so many months of eating at home, was spectacular. Beet and spinach salad, halibut and salmon in various preparations (the salmon corn chowder was delicious), and home-made-daily ice cream flights for dessert were some of my favorites. And the view of the bay from the Great Room or sitting on the deck couldn’t be beat. I felt a million miles from a pandemic.
The Medicine Of The Great Outdoors
For three days, our group fished with a skilled guide. In addition to catching numerous king salmon, coho salmon, lingcod, halibut, and rockfish, we watched whales and saw dozens of bald eagles, plus puffins, sea otters, and sea lions. The fish we caught each day was filleted, packaged, and flash-frozen for us to take home at the end of the trip. I had cleared my freezer in anticipation of this bounty and was thrilled to take home 40 pounds of wild-caught Alaskan fish. Halibut is my favorite, but I’ve been surprised at how much better fresh salmon tastes than what I’m used to buying in Kansas. It nearly melts in my mouth.
One of my friends on the trip rubbed my hands after a long day fishing, and I realized it was the first touch I’d received since a massage on my previous trip four months earlier.
I was elated to have this reprieve of sorts at Steamboat Bay, and daily on the boat, I was weepy from the pure release of emotions. No cell service -- and even though there was Wi-Fi, there wasn’t time for staying up on the news. To have such a break from the continual worry and overload of news information while in a gorgeous remote location was a perfect respite after four months of isolation, even if just for a few days.
After a final day in Ketchikan, we flew to our respective homes. Once home, I did wish that there was a COVID-19 test to take post-trip. It would have helped allay any fears of exposure when distancing wasn’t possible in Ketchikan and on the airplane. Instead, I’ve self-isolated and at 10 days am still symptom-free.
As far as future trips are concerned, I’m torn. I can’t imagine finding another getaway that has so many assurances -- a remote location, testing, and staff procedures -- but I will gauge each invitation on its own to determine when travel is right for me.