December 29, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 52
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Monday, Jan 20, 2020



Dark Passage: Night watch on the MV Columbia
Dark Passage: Night watch on the MV Columbia
by Rev. Barbara Allen, CMP - SGN Contributing Writer

[Editor's Note: SGN Contributing Writer Rev. Barbara Allen, CMP, writers about her meditative journey aboard the ferry MV Columbia from Sitka in Alaska to Seattle.]

It's pitch black darkest night.

No moon, stars, or lights on either side of the ship... just infinite black velvet.

After the MV Columbia left Sitka and headed south... Tired, I'd slept through a stop at Petersburg in my cabin, then awakened around 2 a.m.

I dressed and ventured to experience the ship in these quiet hours.

Along the way to the forward observation lounge, I went out onto port and starboard chilly decks, where the only light came from muted portholes.

Back inside, the lounge was totally dark.

I stepped into the cavernous black with caution and after a while my eyes adjusted to barely be able to perceive the aisle.

One careful step at a time, I walked forward, seeing only darkness and darker shapes in the night, to the front row aisle seat.

Looking out, forward, two tiny pinhead lights, far off.

There is no depth perception possible from any visible point of reference to help know how far away each of them is, from the ship, or from one another.

As we get closer to a light, and pass it, heading to the next one, yet another may soon become barely visible, then brighter as we approach and pass it, leading to yet another pinpoint of almost - illumination off in the dark distance. They are lighted channel markers.

Remembering Coast Guard training: Red right returning - Stay to the right of red buoys at all times. Conversely, stay to the left of green buoys.

But, in these waters, what is considered returning and what is considered outgoing? Is this ferry headed south from Alaska to the lower 48 leaving, or returning?

The ferry was built by Lockheed in Seattle. Is being Seattle area bound "returning", as spawning salmon return to their birthplace?

A powerful spotlight briefly sweeps the area ahead of the ship, winks off. I inquire of the shadow figure next to me whether the Captain has been lighting often.

The young man had gotten on the ferry at Petersburg, and was also headed for Seattle. I never saw what he looked like, just his dark outline.

"No" he says, as quietly as I'd spoken, "that was the first time."

We sit there in hushed dark silence watching as the ship weaves its way slowly, about 7 knots he guesses, through shallow, narrow channels, around small islands, unseen rocks, hazards, and peninsulas.

The ship draws 16 feet& we have only perhaps 21 ft. of water at times, a safety margin of just 5 feet?!

Perhaps it's as well that we cannot see the close-by shore of this narrowest channel. There are 70 such markers in just 20 miles of navigation. A mistake could be catastrophic!

We must make our way from one tiny point of light to the next, perfectly.

The captain does this lighting-up for brief seconds, as needed, to check out possible hazards as they appear on his instruments.

It's a mesmerizing, metaphysical, metaphorical experience, progressing south through these lighted guide points.

We sit in darkness until there are no more markers because the channel has broadened, sonar and compass now guide us through the night.

The young man had worked on a fishing boat in Kodiak all summer. He was returning to his parents' cattle ranch in New Mexico where he worked as a hand, and could ski nearby in winter.

I make my way to the small Spartan cabin, meditating.

Perhaps the ship that night was a metaphor for life, for entering a dark time, such as at winter Solstice, just before the New Year begins. It is an act of faith and trust that we'll get through the darkness without harm, and once again into daylight.

The ship's pilot has our lives in hand. Wise captains know that they, and we, are all in the creator's hands.

I remember that dark passage on the Columbia, where we made our way from one tiny point of light, to another, and did not fall off the edge of the world in the process, but lived to see daylight, great beauty, and home again.

There were no other narrow dark passages that trip. In a way, we, passengers and crew, have come through a symbolic re-birthing.

The next night, in the observation lounge, music is heard coming from the bar. Wondrous live music, guitars, keyboard, singer, voyagers, jamming spontaneously, splendidly, for the joy of it.

That night and the next, strangers party together to the sounds of live pickin' folk and country music, drinking Alaskan brews and other potions, in camaraderie, to the underlying rhythm of the ships engines, through smooth waters.

We may not meet again, but life can be unexpectedly sweet at times in the company of strangers.

May your voyage through 2007 be safe, enlightening, peaceful, beautiful, filled with wisdom, light and love.

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