12 July 2010

The ferry!

I've been informed that it is my duty to elaborate on our journey by ferry, so here goes.

It turns out, the Alaska Marine Highway System has been around about as long as the state, largely due to the fact that Alaskans are nothing if they're not practical about their situation. Faced with a state way bigger than Texas where only two of the four largest cities can be reached by road, it was decided that car-carrying ferries would have to do instead. The system has been expanded to the point where almost every port on the southern coast of the state is connected, from the western tip of the Aleutians to the southeastern port of Bellingham, in Washington state.

Our ferry was the M/V Columbia. She is currently the flagship of the fleet, making the run up and down the Inside Passage from Skagway to Bellingham. When we were waiting to board in Skagway, there were indeed brave individuals booking passage all the way. I believe that meant that they were in for 4 days' sailing. More importantly, that can't be cheap. For us to take a 4-berth cabin, two adults, and a car it cost just over $450 from Skagway to Sitka (three stops down the way). The people next to us were going to Bellingham with an RV and a Suzuki Samurai.

The Columbia is actually a pretty neat ship. She has two decks of vehicle storage, complete with a car elevator. In addition to two decks of cabins, she has several lounges with comfortable chairs and a few diner-style benches and tables. She also has a "movie theater" that is also referred to as a recliner lounge because of the nicer furniture in it. While we were onboard, they showed Alice in Wonderland (no, I don't know which version). She also has an area referred to as a "solarium" that is basically a covered outdoor deck with windscreens on the sides and heater lamps overhead. The solarium is also equipped with stacking lounge chairs so that people can sleep out in sleeping bags. Beneath the solarium is a deck reserved for people who want to sleep out in tents (experienced travelers were obvious for their use of duct tape for securing tent flies). Again, Alaskans are nothing if not practical about their situation. I could see similar ferries in the mainland US discouraging these people from sleeping in deck chairs and in tents, but the Alaskan ferries provide safe, out-of-the-way space for them. Over the 18 hours we spent on-board, it was common to see people sleeping anywhere that was comfortable or warm.

On top of all of the other amenities, the Columbia also features a cafeteria and a full-service restaurant. After looking at prices, we opted to pass on the restaurant.

While I was exploring the ship at night, I actually discovered an interesting citation that had been awarded to the captain and crew a few years earlier by the Coast Guard. Apparently, they were involved in a rescue effort for one of those ridiculously overpriced cruise ships full of tourists* (contemporary account to be found here) and were recognized for their efforts. I like knowing that the ship I sailed on saved the butts of a bunch of Floridians in silly sweatshirts.

*Important note: though we were taking in the sights as we traveled and made a side trip or two along the way, we were TRAVELERS, not TOURISTS. A traveler is looking for the good, interesting, and useful things along the way in an unobtrusive manner. A tourist is tacky, noisy, inconsiderate, in the way, generally only good for milking for money, and gloriously unaware of any of this.

Only about an hour after we boarded, our first stop was at Haines. I'm sure it's a nice enough place, but the ferry terminal was about five miles out of town and we were all too busy resting to care about checking the place out. Though the animals were in the car two decks below us, we figured Nika (our dog) would be fine until we got to Juneau in a few hours.

Juneau was an interesting stop. When I realized that we were drawing near, I went up to the boat deck to catch the views without disturbing sleepers. Aside from nearly freezing my ears off, I discovered that the skies are pretty light at 10pm, although none of my pictures turned out at all. Nika appreciated getting out and I didn't mind the walk either, but again, the ferry terminal was too far from town for me to introduce myself to Sean Parnell.

We all slept very well on the trip from Juneau to Sitka and woke up with plenty of time to catch a quick breakfast and pack up our things before they opened up the car deck. All in all, this was a very comfortable way to travel (and customizable by budget - with no kids, pets, car, or cabin, it would have been $76 per adult) and we've already started seriously considering taking a "cruise" on the AMHS to see the Inside Passage.


I probably could have watched them loading and unloading for hours.

The inside of our cabin. There were four of these berths, two on each side, and they were surprisingly comfortable.

A very economical bathroom in our cabin, but I liked that it was all one piece and that there were drains on both sides. I could see myself cleaning a bathroom like this with bleach and a hose. They requested that showers only be used while at sea because then "dispersal" wouldn't happen in port.

Man, these guys are dedicated.

The kids loved it, when they weren't too busy being passed out.

Alaskans like their flag.

Yeah... I don't think this conforms to the Flag Act, but it's pretty awesome (not sure why there are only 11 stripes...).

Spending the night the cheaper way!

Juneau at night. 10:00 at night.


  1. Wow! It's so beautiful! Makes me want to take a looooooooong drive :-)

  2. We'd love to have you visit, but I do understand the distance!

  3. well worth waiting for ... nicely done. does this mean (since you are THERE) that the blog and postings are done? please don't stop. share all your wonderful adventures and discoveries with those of us still in bondage....


  4. No, not at all, Stef! We're planning to keep writing as long as this feels like it's still an adventure (so long as we're having new experiences and feel that they're worth chronicling). There's much yet to be told and much yet to be discovered!

  5. Stephen, I'm really enjoying reading your perceptions of the move to Sitka. Even though I grew up in Anchorage, many of them parallel my own. Oh, and if you've been wondering where your traffic from various former SSR's has been coming from...guilty as charged. :)

  6. I'll admit, there had been a few eyebrows raised at some of the flags showing on our live tracker! I look forward to meeting you in person when we're both in town at the same time!

  7. Stephen -

    I'm so glad you and the fam have arrived safe and sound! I've been enjoying your adventures, and look forward to hearing more about Alaska!