Out of The Blue

Riding Alaska's Marine Highway System
By Sherry Shahan
  |  Gorp.com

It is 6:30 p.m. and sunny as the M/V Columbia bids farewell to the lower 48. The 418-foot ship has loaded passengers for the 1,086-mile jaunt from Bellingham, Washington, to Skagway, Alaska.

Two hours earlier, passengers in cars and RVs crossed the steel grating into the ship's car deck. The remaining passengers—carrying tents or folding kayaks and pushing strollers and bikes—boarded amid an air of shared excitement.

Passengers without staterooms piled belongings on reclining chairs in the TV lounge and observation rooms. Those without sleeping bags could rent blankets and pillows from the purser for a nominal fee. Dozens of heartier souls staked out chaise lounges in the partially enclosed solarium, which has carpet and overhead heaters. Still others chose to erect tents and camp out on the breezy stern.

In 1960, Alaskan voters approved a bond issue to develop a state-owned Marine Highway System connecting isolated communities of the Southeast. Of the 1,000 islands that comprise the Alexander Archipelago, only three towns (Hyder, Haines and Skagway) have roads connecting to the continental road system. In fact, Juneau has the distinction of being the only state capital that's inaccessible by land.

The eight ships that now comprise the fleet for the Marine highway serve 3,500 miles of water and 33 ports. The 3 largest ferries—Columbia, Matanuska and Malasprina—navigate the 1,000-plus-mile route from Bellingham to Skagway. An estimated 415,000 passengers and 111,000 vehicles travel the Alaska Marine Highway system every year.

The first morning under way we wake to a typical gray fog. Standing on deck with hands around a warm mug of cocoa it wasn't hard to imagine a bald eagle nesting in one of the storm-ravaged spruce trees along the shore. As if on command, an eagle soars past off the starboard bow, and imagination becomes reality. The US Fish and Wildlife estimates that 10,000 adult bald eagles and several thousand immature bald eagles live in Southeastern Alaska.

As the ferry heads toward Ketchikan—550 nautical miles in 36 hours—the sea is gentle. Still, a windbreaker and snug cap offer protection against the chilly wind as Columbia cruises at 16 knots. We pass a variety of vessels, everything from freight barges and cruise ships to the trollers, seiners and gill-netters heading north to find fortune in the summer salmon season.

The following morning a steady drizzle seeps from the sky as we arrive at Ketchikan, the first stop and fifth-largest city in Alaska (with a population of 15,000). Passengers disembark for the two-hour layover, rushing to explore the harbor where family-owned cafes share waterfront space with tanning salons and wilderness outfitters.

Leaving Revillagigedo Island through Clarence Strait, the ferry navigates a landscape for which Southeast is renowned—secluded coves calling for exploration, rocky shores brimming with streams and waterfalls, mists of gradient grays and pinks conceding to an occasional fireball sunset.

Several passengers get off in Wrangell with plans to reboard another ferry in a day or two. Wrangell remains one of the most historic arenas in Alaska—the only city to have flown Russian, British and American flags.

The history of the island community flows with the Stikine River, a 400-mile watercourse that stretches from a glacier in British Columbia and spills into Southeast waters six miles north of Wrangell. The Tlingit Indians migrated down the Stikine to discover an environment rich in natural resources: fishing and hunting, shell and skin trading. Fur-bearing animals such as beaver, mink, and otter attracted Russian and British traders, who established a trading post in the early 1800s.

In 1872 the cry "Gold!" drew another influx of people to the river seeking a route into the interior. By the turn of the 20th century, the trading post had swelled into a town supported by the area's fishing resources and large stands of timber.

Since Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the United States combined, and more than half of its coastal cities lack connecting roads, it makes sense to create a highway on the high seas. But keep in mind that the Alaska Marine Highway is a public transportation system, not a cruise line, so while you'll see some of the most spectacular coastal scenery anywhere in the United States, you may be viewing it from the luxury of a pup tent.

Alaska Marine Highway Reservations are required on all vessels for passengers, vehicles, and stateroom accommodations. If the desired space is not available, a limited number of requests will be added to a wait list.

Any vehicle that can be driven or towed legally on the highway can be transported. Access to the car deck is announced periodically by the purser and you have access to your vehicle while the vessel is in port.

What to expect on board: Staterooms are available on the M/V Columbia, Malaspina, Matanuska and Taku of the Southeast System, and the M/V Tustumena serving the Southwest. Most cabins feature private bathroom facilities.

Passengers without cabins will find recliner chairs and spaces to roll out sleeping bags. Public showers are available.

For further information:

Alaska Marine Highway
P.O. Box 25535
Juneau, Alaska 99802-5535
For reservations: 800-642-0066
TDD 800-764-3779
FAX: 907-277-4829

Southeast Alaska Tourism Council
Dept. 807
P.O. Box 20710
Juneau, AK 99802
800 423-0568

Sherry Shahan is a freelance writer living in southern California.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 23 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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