The Poor Man’s Cruise Ship

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6/20/19  Sitka Hotel, Sitka, Alaska

The Alaska Maritime Highway (AMH) isn’t really a highway at all.  Yes, you can take your vehicle on it, and lots of people do, but the so-called highway is actually the Alaskan state-run ferry boat system that connects the towns of Southeast Alaska and up and around the south central coast and down into the Aleutian Islands.  Since roads simply don’t connect most of Alaska’s towns and villages, the ferry system provides the most economical way to move around this part of the state.  Of course, you can always fly, but that is substantially more expensive, unless you own your own airplane.

Wanting to experience Alaska as much like an Alaskan as possible, and wanting to save a bit of money, we chose to use the ferry system whenever possible to move around, especially in this segment of our trip, down in the panhandle.  For example, we could have flown from Juneau to Skagway in about an hour, but chose instead to take the ferry which took an additional five hours.  Some folks will probably not consider the cost savings worth the extra time, but, since we are never likely to set foot on one of those floating cities called a cruise ship, we decided this was going to be the next best thing.

The ferry system is not what it used to be.  When it first got going, Alaska was flush with oil money from the pipeline and was able to subsidize a system that provided a fair amount of luxury.  The ferry’s food system, for example, was noted for its crab and fish dishes, ranking with the best restaurants.  Especially the larger boats had cocktail lounges where people could drink expensive concoctions while slinking in leather-covered lounge chairs.  And they used to have on-board naturalists who, like park rangers, would brief passengers in the observation lounges about what they are seeing, or what they might see.  

The oil money, though, has now largely run dry.  They have closed the bars – something about the liability incurred when drunk passengers fall overboard.  You can still buy beer or wine, but only in the dining room and only if you also buy food! And the food, according to someone who used to work there, is now pre-cooked, vacuum packed, and nuked on board.  Even the sandwiches are pre-made.  The food is all serviceable and, compared to Alaskan restaurants, still something of a bargain.  It just isn’t gourmet fare any longer.

Another cost saving mechanism is to cut back on the schedule.  When I started planning this trip, I was hoping to use the ferry to go everywhere, at least in this portion of the trip.  I soon found, however, that some towns aren’t serviced every day.  Gustavus, for example, only sees an arrival a couple times a week.  So it ended up that we might have to spend a full week in Gustavus in order to move from and to the towns we wanted to see.  Since that wasn’t what we wanted to do, I figured out that at least one leg of our three-park visit had to be on an airplane because the ferry wouldn’t cut it.  (On the otherhand, the ‘air taxi’ from Skagway to Gustavus turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip so far!)

Our first ferry ride, from Juneau to Skagway was very pleasant.  The weather was good and the six hour ride up the inland passage wasn’t too long.  The slow ride, unlike an airplane, gives you time to appreciate the mountains and valleys, and, sometimes, the wildlife, a little bit better than from the air.

The second ferry ride, from Gustavus back to Juneau, was just four hours and, it too was a relaxing interlude.  We bought pre-packaged sandwiches and clam chowder from the cafe, and ate a OK lunch.  This ferry ride was on the LeConte, a smaller boat than the Columbia.  So there were fewer passengers.  I found an unused table and spent some time writing.

The problem with the ferry, at least with its current schedule, is that there aren’t enough boats to design a convenient schedule.  Furthermore, some routes go through shallow channels and so the schedule has to be adjusted for the tides.  We wanted to ferry all the way from Gustavus to Sitka, which seemed reasonable enough.  But it turns out that we have to change ships in Juneau and the second one doesn’t even board until 4:00 AM the next morning.  So, thinking I was just short of brilliant, I booked a cabin on the second half of the ride and figured we could get on the second ship and sleep awhile until it set sail.

But the ferry system doesn’t make that possible.  I called them to ask if we could get onto the second ferry, the Columbia and spend the night.  It turns out the answer is not really.  The Columbia wasn’t arriving until 2:00 AM and then they don’t start boarding until 4:00 – no exceptions.  So I figured, OK, they won’t let us board the boat, so we will just hang out in the terminal.  (As a younger man, I used to spend the nights in airports or train stations, waiting for my connection, and though I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant to do that again, I figured we could make it through.)

Views from the Ferry

But the ferry doesn’t make that possible either!  They shut down the terminal altogether and throw everybody out.  When I called they said we might be able to find shelter in a semi-covered shack for a few hours – along with the rest of Juneau’s homeless people.  So my plans crumbled.  We hastily booked a motel room back in Juneau, which also required a shuttle van ride, and a dinner at a really good Asian fusion restaurant.  Trying to save money ended up costing me more than a couple hundred dollars.

We ate quickly, walked back to the Super 8 motel, set the alarm, and went to sleep.  At 3:00, after maybe 5 hours of sleep, we got dressed, caught the van back to the terminal, boarded the Columbia, found our cabin, and crawled back into our new beds.  We slept, off and on, well into the morning.

Our ‘Stateroom’ – actually, just big enough.

The cabins were really much bigger than I anticipated.  They had two metal bunk beds, a bathroom with a shower, and a table and chair.  We paid the $25 extra for a window, but, if your intent is to sleep, you don’t really need the window.  Since our last ferry ride was almost twelve hours, having a cabin to rest in was a welcome luxury.  

The Columbia Ferry

The Columbia is the largest ferry in the system.  I don’t know how it made it, but this boat threaded its way through the islands from Juneau to Sitka with amazing finesse.  There were times you could almost touch the trees off the sides.  It amazes me how these captains can steer these behemoths through these waters, but they do and it was a beautiful trip.  We saw porpoises and sea otters, bald eagles, and, possibly, a whale spout.  So it is almost like a park day tour.  Having a cabin makes it almost a cruise ship, but cruise ships are much too big to get through some of these waters.

Threading through the islands.

Bottom-line, if planning an Alaska trip, I recommend you find a way to work at least one ferry ride into your schedule.  It is a low-cost option to either a cruise ship or an air-taxi, and, although it isn’t as luxurious as it once was, it is a key part of ‘going Alaskan’!  Be prepared, though, to make compromises with your schedule.