Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Alaska Marine Highway - Alaska by car and ferry.


They do things differently in Alaska. Look at the photo again. Yes -  those tents really are set up on the back deck of a ship. This is camping out Alaskan style.

We are on board the M.V. Columbia for a 61 hour journey to Juneau, the only mainland US capital you can't reach by road. The Alaska Marine Highway is a system of inter-connecting car and passenger ferries which run from Bellingham, just north of Seattle, to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands on the far south-western tip of the state.

We are among the lucky few who have a cabin. More than half the six hundred passengers came equipped with blankets, sleeping bags and pillows ready to bunk down wherever they can. The well-organised have brought tents and transformed the open-air decks into makeshift campgrounds. Instead of tent pegs, canvas is secured to the deck with duct tape - industrial strength and lots of it.

Notice the duct tape

The sky is blue and the sea is calm, but even so the forward motion of the vessel creates a mini gale seeking out any loose flaps it can find and reminding the campers of the precariousness of their position.  During the night many lose their battle against the forces of nature. There are less tents in the morning.

David and I speak briefly to one of the campers just as the ferry is pulling out of Bellingham. With the confidence of a young man he is looking forward to the night's adventure.  In the morning he is gone. With our first port of call still many hours away I can only guess that he sought shelter in one of the interior lounges.

There is a solarium at the back of the ship, open to the elements on one side. Furnished with sun-lounges typical of those you might see at a hotel swimming pool it has several rows of heat lamps as well as a  perspex roof and sides to capture the sun's warmth.  Sleeping bags convert the lounges into beds where many of the cabin-less and tent-less spend the nights. Families have staked out spaces with blow-up air mattresses, eskies and assorted holiday gear announcing to the world that, for the duration of the voyage at least, this is their own small piece of the planet.

Many of those without cabins or tents bed-down in the Solarium


Our cabin is basic but comfortable. We have warm bunks and a window. Compared to our fellow passengers we consider ourselves fortunate indeed.  Tomorrow we arrive in Ketchikan for a five hour stop-over but today, the first full day of our voyage, we sail all day.

Among the few who have a cabin, we consider ourselves fortunate.

Our world consists of water - the water of North America's Inside Passage. It is broken only by uninhabited islands and the spruce pine covered, sparsely populated Canadian coastline. After a few hours, life aboard the vessel develops a slow rhythm. Relaxing in the forward lounge we watch for wildlife. We hope to see whales or at the very least dolphins. Some of the other passengers say they saw killer whales this morning. In the early afternoon my efforts are rewarded with a brief glimpse of an ebony body curving out of the water before sliding back under. There are a few whale spouts and it is gone. I learn to spot bald eagles in the trees.

"Look for their white heads", I am told.

There are so many I become quite blase after a while.

Sailing the Inside Passage.


The best excitement of the day is provided by the crew doing an anchor drill. Once a month or so the ship's anchor is lowered to ensure the mechanism still works. The ship stops and the Captain's voice comes across the public address system warning us not to be alarmed.

"There will be a violent shudder as the anchor drops", he says.

To an audience of passengers watching from the forward observation lounge the anchor is let free. We wait for the inevitable crash. Nothing happens. The anchor chain is stuck. First one, then a second crewman swings at the chain with a gigantic sledge hammer. On the third or fourth blow the chain flies free unravelling so fast that clouds of rusty corrosion rise up and envelope the crewmen. Then we hear the crash - a deep boom which reverberates through the ship.

Check out the sledge hammer.


The entertainment is soon over and the crew disperse. I go back to watching for whales.

For the next post in this series click - here

For all my posts on our Alaska Marine Highway and Alaska Highway road trip click - here

20 June 2015


46 comments:

  1. We did Alaska by ferry a few summers ago and it was the best. I love the ferry system! We went to Juneau, Haines, Skagway and Sitka - only as day trips on the ferry. We never got a cabin or pitched a tent. There sure were some unique people and beautiful scenery - lightshouses, waterfalls and a few breaching whales. I can't recommend doing Alaska by ferry highly enough!

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    1. We are in Sitka right now. Our first stop was a few hours in Ketchikan, then Juneau. Tomorrow we go back to Juneau and then to Haines. After that we will drive back to Seattle through Canada. Very few Australians have ever heard of the Alaska Marine Highway which is such a shame because it is a magical way to travel.

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  2. This is very interesting! I have read about this journey before but never imagined people camped in the deck. Reminds me of one of my coworkers. She kept mentioning she wanted to visited Alaska and I mentioned the ferry that goes from Washington to there (I read about it in a road tripping across the West book). She googled it immediately and kept thanking me for the idea. Looks like the perfect way to tour Alaska without paying to get on a cruise ship.

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    1. I can really recommend it. If you want a cabin though, you need to book early. The booking system allows you to reserve your journey for a few days just to make sure it all fits before locking it in. We are currently in Sitka and have two ferry trips to go.

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  3. Wow! I didn't know about this marine highway to Alaska, thanks so much for sharing this, will definitely do this when we get to Alaska, sometime in the next 2 years hopefully! Planning an epic North America roadtrip for 6 months, this will definitely be part of it :-) Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard

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    1. Make sure you get a tent and pitch it on deck - the kids will just love the adventure of it. On the other hand maybe you should book a cabin as well so you have somewhere to retreat to in the middle of the night. We had perfect weather. You would have to be hardy to travel this way in bad weather.

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  4. I didn't know about the Alaska Marine Highway either. We haven't done Alaska yet, but this seems a great way to explore the state.

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    1. It is a fantastic experience. One of the best things is meeting so many different people and exchanging experiences. We have made some great friends.

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  5. I've always wanted to take a trip on the Alaska ferry so I appreciate your tips!

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  6. What an entertaining read! I have considered making that trip., Looking forward to following your progress in Alaska.

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    1. All I can say is - do it. You won't regret it.

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  7. Love this, so amusing that people know that they are in for a floating camping trip.

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    1. I think it takes a special sense of adventure to camp out on a ship.

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  8. Years ago I travelled by ferry from Italy to Greece, being a backpacker I only paid for deck space.
    I huddled in the only covered area (whilst it was sumer it did rain) with the other backpackers in my sleeping bag for the night. I vowed never again.
    When I returned 5 years later I paid the extra for a cabin, though I have never seen tents on the deck.

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    1. It seems to be a fairly common thing to do on the Alaska Marine Ferry. The cabins are hard to get because you have to book early. The people I really admired were the families camping out with children. Not everyone slept outside. Lots of people slept inside in the lounges.

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  9. Like you, I think I would opt for a cabin. But what a marvelous way to see the Inside Passage on a more human scale than a huge cruise ship. And far more interesting passengers, I would imagine!

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    1. Talking to the other passengers and hearing their stories has been one of the best parts. The other great thing is the ability to stay a few days in the towns here and there before catching the ferry onto our next destination.

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  10. Love the idea of sailing the Alaska Marine Highway as Alaska is one of the few states we've never visited. Your description of your cabin as "basic" is certainly a relative comparison considering all those bunked in the solarium or on the deck camping out. I'm sure you felt very fortunate!

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    1. You are right - perhaps a better word would have been 'luxurious' - lol.

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  11. Great article. You were very lucky with the weather. I have taken the ferry and only seen the water and bottom 20 feet of the shore line.

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    1. David spends more time looking at weather reports than anything else when we are planning a holiday. He decided our best chance of good weather was in June but even so we have been very lucky. Lots of people have told us how fantastic the weather is right now for Alaska.

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  12. Looks great that the seas are nice an calm, I can't imagine having a tent on the deck with all that duct tape, afraid winds would take down the tent and all the belongings at any time.

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    1. I would worry about being blown off the back. Apparently the Inside Passage usually gets calm seas but we got extraordinarily sunny, windless days.

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  13. What an awesome way to travel to Alaska. I would be looking for the whales during the whole.trip. I do think I would prefer the cabin. Wonderful photos, thanks for sharing your trip!

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    1. Yesterday coming from Sitka to Juneau - I'm a couple of blog posts behind here - we saw another couple of pods of killer whales. It was magical - if a bit brief. Today, in Juneau we saw a bald eagle swoop into the water right in front of us and grab a fish with its claws. So far Alaska is ticking the animal sightings boxes pretty well.

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  14. Alaska is supposed to be one of the most beautiful states in the U.S. I've never been, but everyone who I've spoken to who's traveled there raves about it.
    Glad you enjoyed your trip.
    Thanks for sharing at http://image-in-ing.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-other-worldly-insect-world.html

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    1. Today we saw a bald eagle swoop down and grab a fish. I had left the camera in the car which was just as well because, frankly, I am not a good enough photographer to have caught it. I just got to watch and commit the sight to memory instead. As a photographer you would love Alaska.

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  15. You taught me something new, Lyn. I had no idea that you could sleep on a ferry. I assume it must have been pretty uncomfortable in those tents (or on the chaise lounges by this token), but you were lucky to be inside. I'm planning to go to Alaska in August too. Thanks for linking up to The Weekly Postcard.

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    1. You will just love Alaska. The tents are just crazy aren't they? To be honest I think they were probably more comfortable than the lounges provided the campers were well equipped. If I was younger and more adventuresome I think it would have been terrific fun. It is the sort of thing I could imagine my sons doing and just loving every minute.

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  16. My old stomping grounds! I lived in Alaska for 10 years!

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    1. Where did you live? We caught the ferry to Haines this morning - stunning scenery.

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  17. I've heard about the Inside Passage to Alaska but never seen pictures. Looks restive.

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    1. The water is very calm - so yes it is restive.

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  18. We visited the Inside Passage and your other stops in a more traditional cruise ship that sailed from Seward to Vancouver. Your method of transportation looks like it might be more interesting, but our group of 10 family members ranged in age from 13 to 90, so maybe not with that group. We did manage to see orcas and bald eagles though. We also lucked out with the weather for our cruise. No rain. Crew members told us we were very lucky.

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    1. You are probably right. There is a lot less general entertainment on the ferry - a couple of films, a nice dining room and that's about it. You really have to be happy to just sit and either read, knit or watch the water. We seemed to have quite a few knitters and cross-stitchers around us.

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  19. Lyn, I love, love, love the Alaska ferry system. I've done it a number of times, in and out of the cabin, and both are fantastic! Everyone should do it at least once! Thanks for linking up this awesome post on #wkendtravelinspiration!

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    1. It's great to hear from someone who has done it and loved it. It is quite an experience.

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  20. I had never heard of camping on a ship before. How fascinating!

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  21. We are heading up to Alaska next month. Flying though, wish we were going like this.

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    1. The Alaska Marine Highway is fun but exhausting. If we come again we would probably fly.

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  22. How fascinating! I'm not sure I'd be too keen on camping on deck and blowing out into the ocean. Looks rather peaceful otherwise.
    Thanks for linking up with #wednesdaywanderlust last week, sorry it took me so long to get around but better late than never :)

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    1. I think you have to be young and adventurous. I wouldn't do it myself but I know a few people who would just love it.

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  23. We looked into doing Alaska this way but ended up on an expedition cruise instead. I love seeing how others have experienced Alaska as well, and seeing how alternate trips play out.

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    1. Haha - we went the other way. We looked into cruising and ended up on the ferry system. I imagine there are pluses and minuses with both ways.

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