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Riding The Alaska State Ferries To Adventure

Posted on June 22nd, 2011
Editor’s Note: Jim DuFresne, the main contributor to MichiganTrailMaps.com, just filed his second blog entry from his summer of wanderlust in the Last Frontier. We really hope he comes back some day.
I’m eating lunch at my favorite restaurant in Alaska. The food is good – I’m having a halibut burger with roasted red-skin potatoes – and some of the most affordable you’ll find in this land-of-high-prices. The view from my table is priceless. I looking out at mountains and glaciers and small wooded islands. Suddenly there’s a pair of dolphins and then a few seals pop up and before I can wipe my chin from the final bite of halibut a humpback whale surfaces.
Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

It’s an amazing sight from my table but best of all the scenery is constantly getting better. That’s because I’m on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry, steaming from Haines down to Juneau.

For almost a month I have been crisscrossing Southeast Alaska, updating the 10th edition of my Lonely Planet guide, Alaska. Within this vast roadless region that stretches stretches 540 miles from Icy Bay south to Portland Canal there are islands, fjords, mountains, glaciers and narrows but only two roads that go anywhere. To travel here I jump on an Alaska state ferry, those distinctively blue boats that carry passengers and vehicles and first appeared only a few years after Alaska became a state in 1959.

Today there are 11 vessels in the fleet, servicing 32 ports along a system that stretches 3,200 nautical miles from Bellingham, Washington, to Dutch Harbor, home of the Deadliest Catch fishing crews in the Aleutian Islands. The vast majority of the vessels and routes are in Southeast Alaska but these are not cruise ships.

They are nothing like a cruise ship.

Alaska State Ferry

An Alaska Marine Highway ferry.

Most cruise ships are Love Boats, huge vessels that carry anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 passengers, they congregate in three towns in Southeast Alaska; Ketchikan, Juneau  and tiny Skagway and they arrive in the morning and leave in the evening. There are times I’ve been in Skagway, a town of only 900 residents squeezed between two mountains, when six cruise ships show up and dump 15,000 people onto the cramped downtown area.  When you board a cruise ship for a trip to Southeast Alaska you always travel in a crowd.

That’s not the Alaska I want to see.

I want to see real Alaska, travel to small fishing ports with the people who live there. I want to be on a vessel that squeezes through the most narrow passages, like the Wrangell Narrows where state ferries thread their way through a 22-mile channel with the 46 turns, a channel that is only 300ft wide and 19ft deep in places. So winding and narrow is the Wrangell Narrows that locals call it ‘pinball alley.’

Sailing with the Alaska Marine Highway is casual travel, a relaxing, friendly pace. All the vessels are different, the only thing they have in common is they are named after glaciers. Right now as I write this I’m on the MV Taku, one of my favorites. There are several lounges to sit and take in the scenery, including the Observation Lounge with its 180-degree window view at the front of the boat.

There is a cafeteria where in the morning the chef cooks you eggs after your tell him sunnyside up. There is a jigsaw puzzle room on the MV Taku and a friendly pub and a solarium on the top level with lounge chairs where backpackers pitch their small free-standing tents and spend the nights. Others sleep in the lounges on blow-up air mattresses or rent a cabin.

The showers are free on the ferries so is the hot water if you brought your own tea bags and the microwaves if you packed along a can of ravioli.  Travel on the state ferries is very relaxed and very affordable.

Before my summer is over I will have boarded a state ferry a dozen times with trips that range from an hour and half to a day and a half. At every port I land at there are great adventures, particularly if you like to hike in the mountains.

Alaska State Ferry

Passengers on the Alaska State Ferry.

In Haines, I climbed the Mount Ripinsky Trail where from its 3690-foot summit  there are sweeping views of sea and land from Juneau to Skagway. In Ketchikan I spent Father’s Day following the Deer Mountain Trail and made it within 400 yards of the summit before heavy snow turned me back. In Sitka I’m hoping to hike the Gaven Hill Trail that begins close to town and ascends almost 2500 feet over 3 miles to Gavan Hill peak and then continues to a free-use U.S. Forest Service shelter where you can spend the night above the treeline.

And when my son arrives towards the end of my trip we have plans to hike the West Glacier Trail, one of the most spectacular hikes in the Juneau area that hugs the mountainside along Mendenhall glacier, providing exceptional views of the icefalls and other glacial features. This is in preparation for our ultimate adventure, a four-day walk across the Chilkoot Trail, including the steep climb over the 3525-foot Chilkoot Pass, the same route that the Klondike Gold Rush stampeders followed in the 1898.

And the common thread that connects all these wonderful hikes and adventures is the Alaska Marine Highway, an affordable and relaxing way to travel that gets you where nobody else will and allows you the flexibility to include every mountain top that appeals to you.

As a hiker, why would you ever book passage on a cruise ship to Alaska?

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One thought on “Riding The Alaska State Ferries To Adventure”

  1. Eric says:

    I have alot of friends and family in the lower 48 who want to come see SE. I push the ferry system over a cruise for all the reasons you mention in your write-up. Great story!!

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