While staying at Nomadic Research Labs, I made a reservation on the Alaska Marine Highway. All three of us (Big Red [our roadway conveyance], Teresa, and I) were scheduled to board the M/V Malaspina on Aug 8th in Bellingham, WA at 6 pm, arriving in Haines, AK on Aug 12 at 2:45am. (Nice pics of the boat are here.) We picked this boat for two reasons. First of all, the departure timeframe was perfect. (Our arrival time-of-day, on the other hand, couldn’t be worse!) Second, it was the smaller and slower boat. (We wanted to take our time enjoying the Inside Passage of Canada and Alaska.) We had originally considered cruises, but realized that the cruise experience wasn’t what we were after. We wanted something “real,” and so it was.
We got to Bellingham ferry terminal at the scheduled time, a full three hours before departure. A doggie or two were running round sniffing for drugs and bombs. Since we had our tailgate open, the security officer instructed the dog to jump up into our truck bed and sniff around. I’m sure he enjoyed the smells emanating out of our sleeping area. Regardless, we were glad they were there. After a long wait, we did eventually put Big Red on the ferry. The Coast Guard doesn’t allow you to stay in your car on the car deck due to safety reasons. We didn’t have a cabin reservation, so we head up to set up our tent on upper deck. Others already had set up their tent and/or settled into the reclining deck chairs under the windowed solarium cover. Teresa and I were going to be celebrating our anniversary on August 10th onboard the Malaspina, so we weren’t really looking forward to the tent situation.
We stopped at the purser’s desk on-board and were waitlisted for a cabin. But a few minutes later, we were in luck! We got the last cabin available, and it was also the cheapest… inside, two berth, with facilities. Translation: no window, a bunk bed (twin mattresses), and a shower, toilet, and sink. It was very small, and quite expensive, but absolutely perfect for us, and far better than a tent on the upper deck.
It is interesting to note that these are not private ferries. The whole boat is run by the Alaska state government with no concessionaires in the mix. The food served from their galley is ok… probably better than you’d find in school cafeterias, but not quite restaurant quality. Some of the crew were typical government leeches who clearly found no joy in their jobs, but others were incredibly helpful and friendly. The pursers, who act as a passenger liaison between crew and passenger, couldn’t have been any nicer. There is actually entertainment on the ferry in the form of a uniformed US Forest Service interpreter from the Tongass National Forest office. They showed a few nature video programs as well as some movies in the video lounge. The captain also announced points of interest along the way and had a pretty good sense of humor especially when we came upon a unique wildlife sighting in Alaska: a flock of artic flamingos up in a tree. The boat is quite large, with 4 accessible decks: car deck, cabin deck (with cabins, kid’s play room, and aft lounge), boat deck (most services on this level are including a forward observation lounge, cocktail lounge, another area with desks/plugs [but no internet access], cafeteria, and gift shop), and solarium/bridge (including public showers and video lounge).
My only complaint? The ferry stops were too short. One stop was only 5 minutes! Every now and then, we’d have three hours in a town if we were lucky. I wanted to check out Juneau but our stop there was only for an hour and the ferry terminal was 15 miles away from the city. Of course, the primary purpose of the ferry is transport, not tourism, so who can blame them?
The only towns we got to spend some significant time in were Ketchikan, Petersburg, and Sitka. Our ferry also drove right past a tiny community in Canada called Klemtu, making the entire village’s day. (They don’t see much traffic, ferry or otherwise!) These Inside Passage towns are all accessible via sea or air, but not by interior roads. Most of the communities are quite small, but Juneau, the state capital, has over 30,000 people. These communities depend on imports arriving air and sea. As a result, the cost of living is pretty high, and I can only imagine it going higher as fuel prices rise. I actually wonder about the long term viability of these towns as sustainable communities over the next couple of years in the coming energy crunch. Sure… some will survive, but they may be little more than subsistence fishing villages.
Sitka was probably our most interesting stop. We had nearly three hours, and there was a tour bus waiting. Normally, we like to explore on our own, but with such limited time, we were thankful to have a great 3 hour tour of Sitka, the former capital of Russian Alaska with a stop at Sitka National Historic Park.
We finally arrived in Haines at 2:45am to some ugly weather. We hung out in Haines for 48 hours while we unwound from our ferry trip.
Overall, we ended up with transport for our car, gorgeous scenery, and a nice crew. A pretty neat experience. We’ll see you in the Alaskan Interior!
See ya in the interior!