Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Alaska Marine Highway - Juneau to Sitka by car ferry.


It is 5 a.m. The car ferry from Juneau to Sitka departs at 6.30 a.m. Our tickets say we should arrive two hours before the departure time. With the ferry terminal ten minutes by car from our hotel, we were up at 4 a.m.


Yesterday we called in at the wharf to check whether, in such a small place, it was really necessary to arrive two hours before the ferry left. The friendly, round-faced fellow behind the office counter was unequivocal - nothing less than two hours would do.

"We have three ferries leaving tomorrow morning. There'll be hundreds of cars. It will take at least two hours to load them." he said.

Then, as if to emphasise his point, he reached into his pocket, took out a green marker and highlighted the words "Arrive by 4.30 a.m." on our tickets.

We have now been sitting in a queue for forty minutes. Other than checking in at the ticket office, nothing has happened. Absolutely nothing! Apart from a few other tired-looking passengers, no-one else is about.

The car ferry to Sitka

We arrived in Juneau from Bellingham, near Seattle, a few days ago. In Bellingham we were required to check-in three hours before the Alaska Marine Highway ferry's departure time. Frustrating as that was, at least it was in the middle of the afternoon. Moreover, there did seem some point to it. The ferry stopped at six different destinations and had two vehicle decks with an elevator which could handle only one car at a time. Cars, trucks, RV's and motor cycles all had to be loaded according to the constraints of size, weight and destination. Even so the first hour after our arrival was spent waiting in line for something, anything, to happen. (For my blog post on our near catastrophe boarding the Bellingham ferry - click here.)

Fast forward one week and we are re-living the nightmare. We sit, we wait and nothing happens. Just in case you missed it - it is the middle of the night.  A few RV's and pick-ups, some pulling boats, are lined up beside us. No-one is stirring in them. It is as if they have been here all night, with the drivers asleep in their vehicles. There are only a couple of other cars. The locals are still in bed. So too it seems is the ferry crew.

It's just us and a few others. We are the silver car behind the red pick-up. Don't let the apparent daylight fool you. At this time of year it barely gets dark.

At 5.10 a.m a woman with a cheerful smile which bellies the early hour asks for our tickets and ID's. I hand over our passports.

"Just the two of you?" she says, "Carrying any dangerous materials?" she hesitates then adds "Or firearms?" as if guns don't fall into the category of dangerous items.

She looks at our passports. "All the way from Australia, huh. Wow, you've come a long way. Just stay here it will be a while yet."

I smile, but inside my head I'm screaming "We could still be in bed!"

The locals all know the system and finally start turning up about 45 minutes before the ferry is due to depart.

David doesn't do early mornings and he abhors this sort of pointless queuing. Combine the two and he gets very grumpy indeed. We have two more ferries to catch before we connect up with the mainland road system at Haines. After this morning, there is not a way in the world I will get him to arrive on time for either of them.

The ferry is quite nice once we finally get on board.

At 5.35 a.m. we hear a vehicle engine start. A truck towing a large RV pulls out of its lane and drives toward the ferry. Fifteen minutes later the lane next to us begins to move and by three minutes to six we have boarded the ferry, parked our car and found a couple of seats upstairs in the forward lounge. It starts to rain, D disappears in search of coffee and I fall asleep in my chair.

Awful weather


The Alaska Marine Highway is run by the Alaskan State Government. We are told that a private operator intends to introduce a rival service next year. All they have to do is promise not to require passengers to sit in their cars for hours on end, to no apparent purpose on cold, wet mornings and I am confident the rival service will be a great success.

Sitka at last.
For the next post in this series click - here

For my other posts on The Alaska Marine Highway and our U.S/ Canada road trip clickhere

24 July 2015

55 comments:

  1. What a cool ride! I'd be there as early as you were (I hate running to catch any sort of transportation because we're late) so I totally understand haha! The ferry looks so nice inside, oh my!

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    1. It was lovely once we were on board.

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  2. That is so annoying. You do the right thing and then wait, and wait and wait. Glad it was eventually worth it.

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    1. Fortunately we were able to see the funny side - especially when the same thing happened going from Juneau to Haines a few days later.

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  3. Sorry to say Lyn, but welcome to Alaska Time. It used to drive me crazy when I lived there!

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    1. It must have been an amazing place to live. In many ways we were lucky. We met some people who were going to Sitka on a ferry which left at 2 a.m.

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  4. Thank you for this post, Lyn. It convinced me I don't have to travel this route in Alaska. I'm still debating between going on a cruise vs. seeing Alaska independently, but since it's our first time I'd rather not face these issues. Waiting in line for two hours to travel by ferry is not exactly my cup of tea.

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    1. Honestly it was the pits but I suspect there is a fair bit of waiting in line on cruise ships too. The real problem was the early hour - the ferries all go at different times but you would have to be a mathematical genius to work out a trip where every ferry went during the day - lol.

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    2. And right there...that is the reason to take the ferry! The people and their stories. Fantastic, right!?

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    3. Thanks for linking up with #wkendtravelinspiration!

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    4. You are absolutely right about the people and their stories. We met people who we hope to remain friends with for a very long time and others who we had a great time talking to but will probably never see again. It was a great experience.

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  5. Ooh I would have been so annoyed and my hubby would've been very cranky! All's well that ends well? I can't wait to drive through Alaska.

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    1. We were far too tired to be annoyed - lol.

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  6. Nothing worse than getting up early for nothing :-( It will be interesting to see if competition changes how the government ferry manages things. Cheers - Ellen

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    1. Competition can't make things worse. The sad thing is that in every other respect the ferries were great and seemed to be quite well run.

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  7. Frustrating to say the least! We spent a fun afternoon on the ferry back from Sitka to Juneau as it was my friend's 50th birthday that day - and then we celebrated at a Mexican restaurant in a hotel by the airport. Not what you would classically think of as a big birthday celebration but memorable all the same.

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    1. Our ferry back from Sitka was also in the afternoon. We got beautiful weather and finally saw some whales - if briefly. Sounds like a great 50th celebration - not sure I did anything for mine. Unfortunately 60 is starting to come into view now - lol.

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  8. Sometimes, the adventure is not so adventurous. If nothing else, now you have something to look back on and, when things seem frustrating, say "not as bad as that time in Alaska!" #WeekendWanderlust

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    1. Haha - you're right! Honestly, it was a bit annoying at the time but we got over it the minute we arrived in Sitka.

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  9. All part of being a traveller I suppose! But it must have been worth it just for the experience of seeing Alaska (somewhere I've always wanted to go).

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    1. It was and frankly compared to flying long distances it wasn't that bad.

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  10. Looks like a nice way to still travel by boat despite the bad weather, I always love seeing things from a water vantage point.

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    1. You are so right. Ferries can be a great way to travel. We take them whenever we can. My favourite in the last few years was the car ferry from mainland Chile to Chiloe Island - now that was an adventure.

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  11. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your adventures in taking that ferry service. At first, I was saying to myself: "Why do they want to go to Sitka anyway?" By the end of the article, I had realized that the fun is all in getting there! Thanks for a great posting!

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    1. We really enjoyed Sitka. My next post is all about it. It is small but well worth the journey if only for all the bald eagles we saw.

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  12. You have expressed the thoughts of thousands of would-be ferry passengers queuing up around the world. Sorry for your situation, but loved your blog!!

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    1. Haha - I'm glad you like the blog. The queuing was frustrating but it was worth it. The whole Alaska Marine Highway experience was such an adventure.

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  13. Our that sounds like a lot of hassle - but your destination looks well worth it!

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    1. It was worth it. I wouldn't have minded the hassle so much if it hadn't been so early in the morning.

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  14. I love Alaska! My sister used to live there so we got to explore a lot. The car ferries are annoying but so are our US airports. Hurry up, then wait!

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    1. You are right, airports are a lot of hassle. Somehow it doesn't seem as bad in Australia. We're lucky in Sydney, the airport is so close to the city that there is a night time curfew so nothing leaves or arrives in the middle of the night.

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  15. Aw seems kind of pointless especially if you already had a booked ticket? I mean we had the opposite problem when we took the ferry in Scotland recently - we arrived super early, thinking hey we'll be there first, it's perfect...which we were, but then we realised the ferry had booked up weeks ago so we were alone in the 'standby' queue having a fit since we had a 2 day trip and accommodation planned on the island. 2 hours later we were on the ferry like nothing was wrong...

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    1. I am so glad you got on. I hate that kind of stress.

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  16. Having to wait for so long is always so frustrating! The good thing is the ferry ride seems nice. :) Alaska seems beautiful! It's one of those places I can't wait to visit.

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    1. I ended up sleeping for a lot of the six hour ride and it was hard to see much in the rain but we did quite a few ferry trips in Alaska and this was the only one we got poor weather on so I am not complaining. When we returned from Sitka, along the same route, we got great weather and stunning views.

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  17. Oh no, this is the part of Alaska we haven't been! Hopefully, the rival service is up when we make it there. But they say fishing is so good in Sitka!

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    1. We really enjoyed Sitka. We don't fish, but the eagles and totem poles were fantastic as was the atmosphere - much quieter than Juneau or Ketchikan.

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  18. Ironically, my friend just described a very similar experience of wake up early, hurry up and wait when she took the auto-train from Florida to DC. They must have the same loading process for cars:-)

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    1. Haha! My brother took a ferry in Scandanavia about a week ago and the wait was about four hours. He said one of the regular ferries was out of service and the line just got longer and longer. It would have been quicker and cheaper to have driven around the lake he was trying to cross.
      There are a lot of things we don't do well in Australia, but our ferry experiences have all been really good.

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  19. Ugh, there is nothing worse than pointless process. Unfortunately, this kind of phenomenon isn't limited to ferry services.

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    1. I agree but I suppose it could have been worse.

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  20. It's very annoying that you had to wait and wait and wait SO early in the morning, I would hate that! I guess you do what you've gotta do. Shame there isn't an alternative, maybe the rival service will be better in the future!

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    1. We could have flown I suppose but it wouldn't have worked with the car. D just isn't an early morning person so for him it was pure torture - lol.

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  21. Alaska is one of the few places I would love to visit, via a cruise rather than driving or flying. Thanks for sharing your experience of taking the car ferry from Juneau to Sitka!

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    1. I hope you get there one day, no matter how you travel.

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  22. I feel your pain on arriving so early! When I took the ferry from Seattle to Victoria, I thought there was no way I needed to arrive so much in advance. The line and procedures seemed to move pretty fast though. Hope your adventure was worth the wait!

    http://passportcouture.com

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    1. Thanks. It was well worth it. We really enjoyed Sitka.

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  23. Hilarious! That's travel for you! Loved the pics and the documentary.

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    1. Thanks. I always feel that travel should teach me to be patient, but so far it hasn't. Maybe i just need more practice - lol.

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  24. I'm with your partner, early morning and pointless line ups, no thanks!
    Thanks for joining in #wednesdaywanderlust

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    1. Unfortunately, sometimes it is unavoidable when you are away.

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  25. Hello Lyn, hubby and I have talked about taking this ferry. The wait time does sound ridiculous. I assume they have their reasons for everyone queing up extra early. We have done the Alaska cruise stopping at Glacier Bay, Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan, we loved it. Happy Friday, have a great weekend!

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    1. Hi Eileen, Who knows why they get you there so early for the ferry. I think that public services are the same all over the world - no competition so it doesn't really matter how they treat the customers, people have no choice. It is hard to believe that in this day and age they can't load the ferries more efficiently. I'm glad you enjoyed cruising Alaska - now you'll have to try it by ferry.

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