In the summer of 1930, fifteen-year-old Matthew Clayton's mother dies, leaving him alone in Vancouver. Using the Union Steamship ticket she gave him, he sets out in search of his father, who is logging somewhere on the rugged West Coast. Matt boards the SS Cardena and begins an incredible voyage up the Inside Passage and through the isolated coastal communities the ship services.
On board he befriends fellow passengers Monica James and the high rigger Will Cameron, both intent on finding a new life, and Emily Carr, a soon-to-be-famous painter searching for a new direction in her art. What each of them finds comes as a surprise as they journey aboard the legendary steamship Cardena.