Alaska By Ferry
This summer, I was lucky enough to make a solo trip to Alaska. While this wasn’t my first visit to the state, with such a large area to cover it’s easy to visit often and never see the same place twice. During my previous trip, I found out about the Alaska Maritime Highway System and vowed I’d come back and travel the ferry system.
During my route planning stage, it was difficult to choose where I wanted to go. The ferry travels over 3,500 miles from the Aleutians to Prince Rupert, BC and it seemed that every place I looked at was more beautiful than the previous. I settled on the Inside Passage traveling from Juneau to Ketchikan. The Inside Passage is a protected waterway extending from Puget Sound to Skagway, Alaska where a line of islands parallel the coastline. It makes for still seas and gorgeous narrow passages.
When I boarded the ferry in Juneau it was characteristically foggy. I headed up to the solarium, a heated outdoor area on the back deck set up with reclining deck chairs. Well, normally it is heated. I found out that the heater was broken. Since it was summer, the temperature was still very comfortable with a blanket to protect me against the chilly sea wind during the day. I was also lucky that the fog cleared as we got out of Juneau, and I was treated to a beautiful sunny day.
The view is exquisite. Most of the coastline remains untouched, and I was aware that my view would have been very similar if I was one of the first sea visitors to this area. While there were probably more wildlife to see for earlier visitors, I still saw a large amount. Whales appeared several times and were so peaceful to watch. Bald eagles flew above, and I saw seals and sea lions as well.
I also found it very relaxing to realize there was nothing I could do but sit down and enjoy the ride. I would call my husband or children when I came into cell reception and they’d ask where I was. I’d tell them still on the ferry, and they’d be shocked at the pace I was traveling. If traveling by air makes the world feel smaller, traveling by ferry definitely makes you remember it’s a very big place.
I had planned to forgo the optional expense of a stateroom to sleep in. Since I was solo, I thought it would be fun to sleep out on the solarium, but I ended up heading below deck to a lounge to sleep when the night air got too cold for comfort. I will say the crowded lounge floor was far less comfortable than the reclining deck chairs, but the warmth was a necessity. If I was able to take a warm sleeping bag, I would have been fine in the solarium – heater or not. I talked to a family that had pitched their tent on the deck and had quality equipment. She said they were quite comfortable.
The ferry is not only fun to ride, it’s also a necessity. The only way into a lot of places in Alaska are by plane or boat. Residents will travel to purchase new cars, then bring them back via ferry. During one of my trips, a new fire truck for Petersberg, Alaska was on the car deck. Also, many of the stops are notorious for their fog which makes air traffic difficult or impossible for long stretches at a time. The ferry may be slow, but it is very reliable. It is also very budget friendly. It is a fraction of the cost of air travel, especially for shorter distances. One huge drawback is the lack of WiFi and the lack of cell reception. While this is very understandable, it would make the length of the journey easier to stomach.
I jumped off the ferry in Sitka, Petersberg, Wrangell and made my final exit at Ketchikan. While cruise ships make stops at several of these destinations, your time in port is usually pretty limited. With the ferry, carefully planning your trip can allow you to spend as long as you’d like in an area. I spent several days in Wrangell and was able to take tours, like a daytrip to LeConte Glacier, that would have been impossible to take during a short shore visit during a cruise.One interesting quirk of riding on the ferry is that all the crew are state employees. Signs posted throughout the boat remind you that you are actually committing a crime if you tip them. While tipping may not be the norm in some countries, it was very odd for this American not to tip her government issued server in one of the full service restaurants on board.
I look forward to my next trip to Alaska, and I definitely would like to work another ferry journey into it.