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Alaska Marine Highway

The Alaska Marine Highway (AMH) is the only long-distance ferry service in the United States that offers sleeping cabins and multiple day journeys. There are a variety of routes and, therefore, different itineraries to develop. Unlike a straight cruise, you can stop over for a day or two or longer, and the main routes operate year-round, though the frequency will decrease in the off-season. Why the 24/7 over 365 days? Well, the capital city Juneau has no highway connections to the outside world nor does Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg or Sitka plus a whole bunch of small towns. It’s ferry or fly.

Alaska Marine Highway’s flagship Columbia. * Photo: John Rain

The Alaska Marine Highway is in a category by itself in more ways than one.

11 August 2020: Here is an update to the planned off-season service currently under review, given that the State of Alaska’s Marine Highway funding has been substantially reduced. As most Panhandle communities have no road access to their neighbors, nor to the rest of the state, some level of service continues for the fall and winter and into spring 2021, but with drastic cutbacks.  The most profitable service (and most popular with visitors) is between Bellingham, Washington and Southeast Alaska. This service will keep operating first with the Kennicott sailing every two weeks as the traditional route is extended to South Central Alaskan ports. Ports are Bellingham, Washington, (bypassing Prince Rupert due to Canadian government closure), Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, (not Skagway), then across the Gulf of Alaska to Whittier, Cordova, Homer and Kodiak. Service operates October 2020 through January 6, 2021 then is suspended to March 18, 2021 when it resumes.

Matanuska’s weekly Inside Passage service begins February 10, 2021 from Bellingham (bypassing Prince Rupert). Port calls are Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, Skagway, Kake and return.

Tustumena begins operating April 15, 2021 from Homer, Kodiak Island to the remote Aleutian Island chain.

For those interested in the status of two other ships with cabins, the Columbia is laid up though in operating condition, while the Malaspina needs $18 million for repairs.

Historical Background

When Alaska became a state in 1959, transport by land or sea to most of the Panhandle cities did not exist as the former Alaska Steamship Line had recently ceased operations. One short-sea route did operate, a small day ferry between Skagway and Haines to Juneau. Then in 1963, the state inaugurated regular ferry services with three brand-new vessels — Malaspina, Matanuska, and Taku — that offered cabins, a restaurant, cafeteria, bar lounge, heated solarium and lots of deck space. Road and rail access from the Lower 48 connected to a weekly ferry from Seattle (now Bellingham, Washington) to the Panhandle; by road and rail from Prince Rupert, B.C. located just south of the Alaska state border; by road from Haines if coming from Anchorage or Fairbanks; and eventually from Skagway when a road opened to/from Whitehorse. The Yukon Territory capital straddles the 1,523-mile Alaska Highway providing road connections through Canada to and from the U.S. Lower 48. Two of the three original ships are still running (not Taku) along with others, and some relatively for short interport trips. All the state ferries are named after Alaska glaciers and the state flag — the Big Dipper pointing to the North Star on a deep blue background — provides the ship’s funnel marking.

For a first-hand account of cruising on the AMH, have a gander at Ted’s wonderful article, “Finding My Route to Alaska.”

Petersburg is a thriving fishing and yachting port. * Wild Iris Photography

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

Columbia (built 1973 & 298 cabin berths), Kennicott (b. 1998 & 306 berths), Malaspina (b. 1963 & 233 berths), Matanuska (b. 1963 & 222 berths) and Tustumena (b. 1964 & 59 berths). Deck passengers are not included in these figures. The outstanding longevity of this fleet is a testimony to good initial engineering and maintenance over the decades.

Passenger Decks

Columbia & Kennicott have four passenger decks and the others three. All vessels with cabin accommodations have an elevator.

Passenger Profile

Alaskans traveling to and from the Lower 48, Americans, Canadians and foreign tourists, especially in the summer months. All ages in all categories.

Taking that constitutional. * Photo: Ted Scull

Price

$ to $$ – The lower end of the fare schedule would include transportation as a deck passenger, then extras such as cabin berths, meals, vehicle, bicycle, kayak, and a pet add to the total cost.

Itineraries – N.B. Because of the budget cutbacks, many services will be drastically cut back from October 1, 2019 or eliminated entirely for the foreseeable future. Go to the Marine Highway website (see below) for specific information.

The length of the ferry routes stretch from Bellingham, Washington and go north through the Inside Passage, then arc west into the Gulf of Alaska and southwest along the Aleutian Island chain to Dutch Harbor, adding up to some 3,500 miles. Basically, the individual routes are the Inside Passage (Washington State via Panhandle cities to Skagway); Southcentral Alaska; and Southwest, Kenai Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. The most popular trip is from Washington State (a port north of Seattle) to the Panhandle and return (7 nights). Others involve stopping over. For instance, use the weekly service in either or both directions between Bellingham and Ketchikan, the latter located at the south end of the panhandle region. N.B. Cutbacks have curtailed the frequency of services. From there to Skagway in the north, you now have less frequent services between all the main towns making stopovers more difficult to arrange. Many interport passages are a short few hours in the daytime and do not require a cabin.

The route from Washington north to the Alaska Panhandle & Skagway. * Photo: Alaska Marine Highway

  • The mainline route begins at Bellingham, Washington, some 90 miles (150 km) north of Seattle, with the first stop in Alaska at Ketchikan (38 hours), then Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, Skagway, Kake and return via Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell and Bellingham, WA.
  • N.B. This service has been suspended for the foreseeable future as the port of Prince Rupert has been closed by the Canadian authorities: the more frequent service has its terminal at Prince Rupert, B.C. and calls at Panhandle ports in both directions.
  • Day ferries service other small Panhandle towns, also all isolated from the highway system.
  • A regular route operates (every two weeks) from  Bellingham, WA via Juneau and Panhandle ports then crossing the Gulf of Alaska to several ports including Whittier (42 hours).
  • Southcentral ferries serve towns such as Cordova, Valdez, Whittier, Homer;  a Southwest ferry operates from Kodiak on Kodiak Archipelago to ports along the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Island chain to Dutch Harbor. This last route, using the well-strengthened Tustumena encounters some of the roughest weather in the world; some adventurers actually sail the route hoping to experience extreme weather conditions.
Included Features

Everything is a la carte except the basic fare. Senior fares are available. Cabins, food and drinks extra. Tipping is minimal or non-existent.

Why Go?

Majestic mountains, deep fjords, glaciers, seascapes, forests, wildlife (birds, animals, whales), history (Russian occupation especially at Sitka and the gold rush), Native Alaskan culture, kayaking, hiking, fishing, totems, and Juneau (Alaska’s capital with an excellent state museum).

When to Go?

Mainline routes operate year-round, and every season has its positives. Ferries are most crowded and packed in the summer months between certain city pairs. Spring and fall will be chilly especially around water, and in winter months the Panhandle will be as cold as the coast of Maine and much colder in the interior areas, such Anchorage and Fairbanks. Winter will also see very little daylight, more in the Panhandle than in the interior parts of the state.

Anan Creek, Wrangell. * Photo: Wrangell C&V Bureau

Cabins

If traveling in the main season, book as far ahead as possible (months ahead) as cabins sell out fast (some cabins have windows and some do not). Vessels with cabins are Columbia (45 4-berth, 56 2-berth, 3 wheelchair accessible), Kennicott (48 4-berth, 58 2-berth*, 3 wheelchair accessible), Malaspina 45 4-berth, 26 2-berth, 1 wheelchair accessible), Matanuska (21 3-berth, 79 2-berth, 1 wheelchair accessible), and Tustumena (6 4-berth, 17 2-berth, 1 wheelchair accessible). *Kennecott has some 2-berth cabins without wash basin or linens supplied.

Public Rooms

The Columbia has two forward observation lounges. All ships (except Tustumena) have a cafeteria for all meals, observation lounge, solarium, a movie lounge and a children’s playroom.

Dining

The Columbia has both a table-service restaurant as well as a cafeteria and Tustumena has a dining room only. The rest of the fleet operates with a cafeteria. The food preparation uses high quality ingredients, and the selection is varied.

Activities & Entertainment

The staff may present some wildlife information and on-deck talks in the manner that the National Parks guides used to in the summer time. Budget cuts eliminated the latter, along with separate bar service, and souvenir shop.

Skagway, the most northerly stop on the Inside Passage and a place full of activities. * Photo: Skagway C&V Bureau

 

Special Notes

If traveling between late May and early September, be sure to book cabins and vehicle space as far in advance as you are able. The main services from Washington State and throughout the Panhandle are protected from Pacific Ocean wave action, the exception being two short stretches along the B.C. coast, the first of two hours and then just 30 minutes.

Along the Same Lines

While there is nothing else like the AMH in North or South America, the Hurtigruten along the Norwegian Coast serves much the same basic functions — port to port passengers, vehicles and cargo. However, the Norwegian ships are nearly all larger, newer and also geared heavily to cruise-type passengers and they offer more cruise type amenities than on AMH.

Contact

Alaska Marine Highway, P.O. Box 112505, 6858 Glacier Highway, Juneau, Alaska 99811-2505; 800-642-0066; www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/.

— TWS

 

 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

By Ted Scull.

Alaska: Routes of the Alaska Marine Highway – Southeast (Inside Passage & Panhandle), Southcentral (based at Whittier) & Southwest (Kodiak Id. to Aleutian chain).

Alaska: the Last Frontier, Seward’s Folly and the 49th state was once upon a time such an alluring prospect to conquer for anyone who loved geography and off-the-charts travel. Airplanes do their best to eliminate geography and deathly dull drives on Interstate Highways are a close second. So when there are more interesting ways to get some place far far away, I like to nab the opportunities.

My best friend in high school loved geography too so we put our minds together to determine where best to go with our graduation money and a car at our disposal. We started with the furthest possible place to drive to from Philadelphia and came up with Alaska.

Ted putting his toe into water from the melting Portage Glacier. * Photo: T. Wistar Brown

With the car packed with food and camping gear, including jungle hammocks, courtesy of my friend’s father who had been in the New Guinea jungle during WWII. We headed north to Canada, across the country to Alberta, then arrived at Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek. While hundreds of miles thus far were over gravel roads, leading to one smashed windscreen, only the first 49 miles of the famed 1,523-mile route ahead were paved. The highway was hurriedly constructed during the Second World War to provide road access to Alaska for military equipment to protect the territory from a possible Japanese invasion. It officially begins in northern British Columbia near the border with the adjoining province of Alberta, almost 800 miles from the U.S. Montana border. The highway passes through the Yukon Territory and its capital, Whitehorse, the largest town (just over 23,000 people) en route and crosses into Alaska, where at a town called Tok Junction, motorists have the option to drive northwest to Fairbanks or southwest to Anchorage. Today, the road is entirely paved and its condition widely varies.

Alaska Highway Mile Zero, Dawson Creek, British Columbia. * Photo: Ted Scull

We traveled as far north as Fairbanks and as far west as Mt. McKinley (now Denali). To reach the Alaska Panhandle, we had one choice only as the Alaska Marine Highway ferry fleet did not yet exist. A small ferry (for people and cars) called the Chilkat operated from Haines near the top of the Inside Passage to Juneau, the only state capital without road access to the outside world — still the case to this day.

And we returned triumphant to the Lower 48 much the same way, arriving home after driving 15,219.5 miles!

1956 Ford station wagon takes to the high road. * Photo: Ted Scull

The second trip to Alaska 10 years later involved a combination of trains across Canada, a ferry to Vancouver Island, a train north to an overnight ferry connection to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and then the Alaska Marine Highway to Skagway. Traveling on the cheap without advance reservations, I spent the nights sleeping on a deck chair in the ferry’s heated solarium, and the days standing at the railing and watching the passing scene of majestic mountains, thick forests, and deep fjords. On the ferry, I met a couple of people to join for continuing travel.

Alaska Marine Highway, camping in the heated solarium. * Photo: Ted Scull

At Skagway, we took the Yukon and White Pass train (not a cruise ship excursion then) all the way to Whitehorse in the Yukon for a stopover, then returned south by bus along the Alaska Highway and finally to Prince George, before hopping trains to Vancouver, Seattle and back across the US of A.

I was so intrigued by the snappy-looking blue and white Alaska Marine Highway ships that I vowed to take the full route the next time. By now I was a travel writer and always looking for something different to interest an editor. I bet no one had written about taking the ferry in winter, and, why would they?

After spending Christmas with my brother and his family, I boarded a train for Seattle and booked a week’s round-trip voyage up the Inside Passage to all the usual Panhandle ports with a turnaround at Skagway. This time I had a cabin and all to myself. The sheer luxury of it all!

I am pretty sure I was the only tourist aboard the Matanuska (less than 300 cabin passengers) as everyone I met were either Alaskans returning home after the holidays in the Lower 48, truck drivers making deliveries or young folks looking for a job up the Inside Passage. Once we reached Ketchikan, Alaskans over 65 rode for free, so a number piled on and they were great resources for stories about Alaska as a territory back in the old days.

Matanuska at Ketchikan in winter. * Photo: Ted Scull

Colorful dawns came about 10am and dusk followed some five hours later. There was snow but not a lot of it at water level, that is, until an announcement came for the motorists leaving at Haines, the highway that I had used two decades before, was closed with drifting snow. Until it reopened there was no way to drive to Anchorage and Fairbanks. The passengers disembarked in their vehicles and stayed in motels or their camper vans until the highway and the border with Canada reopened.

Wintery dawn at 9:30am approaching Juneau. * Photo: Ted Scull

At the turnaround port of Skagway, the snow-covered main street was almost empty and the shops, hotels and attractions all closed. What a contrast to a summer day during the height of the cruise season. On the trip south, the boat was lightly loaded, and it snowed hard enough that when returning to Seattle the streets were impassable, and I had to hoof it, happily not that far, to the railway station.

That adventure made the Sunday travel sections of 13 newspapers. The good ‘ole days.

The fourth Alaskan trip was aboard a large Princess cruise ship as by now the cruise industry was well developed. I liked the ship and the passing scenery, but found the ports of call so crowded with roaming tourists, and on this big ship, we were so high above the water that everything nearby still seemed far away. I hated the land extension as the hotels were isolated with no suitable safe walks and land travel involved a bus amidst lots of others doing the same thing, converging on the same sights and lunch stops.

Finally, on the fifth venture, I came to my senses and took the opportunity to try a small ship! And a quirky one at that, the Spirit of ’98, a ship that resembled a handsome old-fashioned steamer operating for Cruise West, a firm that had been in the Alaska tour business well before the modern tourist onslaught. I asked my brother to join me for a one-week voyage from Seattle north to the Alaskan Panhandle ending in Juneau.

Spirit of ’98 at Skagway. * Photo: Ted Scull

Being with less than 100 others, rather than 20 times that, not only were we not sharing the outer decks with a milling mass of humanity, but one felt like a tiny speck amongst the majestic scenery. We sailed close enough to a waterfall to have those standing at the bow get wet and near enough to lounging sea lions to not even need a telephoto lens. On the night of a full moon, the little ship stopped among a raft of ducks and with the engines off, it was utterly silent except for sounds of nature. Magic!

Adrift on a full moon night in Icy Strait, Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

My brother, who had gone on a canoeing trip in these waters a few years earlier, remarked that he saw more wildlife on this small ship trip than he had roughing it camping and paddling. The captain and naturalist staff knew where to go.

Two brothers, Glacier Bay, Alasaka. * Photo: fellow passenger

Then a decade later we went again on the same ship, now the S.S. Legacy of Un-Cruise Adventures, and had much the same wonderful experience, feeling a part of the scene, especially when we sat off the Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay watching the ice break off with nary another ship in sight. Then moving to Johns Hopkins Inlet, we nosed up to a glacier of the same name, and this one was still growing! Again, there was no one else about; we were alone in this wonderful world of nature, bergy bits, sea lions, and clear blue skies.

S.S. Legacy, Un-Cruise Adventures at Glacier Bay Lodge. * Photo: Ted Scull

In the lounge, the National Parks Service guide spoke to us as one small group, and at the bow, she did the same with the passengers gathered around or listening from one and two levels up.

Let off at the Sitka National Historical Park we walked amongst the tall totems set in a peaceful forest and strolled along the fishing piers of Petersburg where fisher folk shared their life’s work going after the catch, in one of the best places to make a living from the sea.

Would I go a seventh time? Yes, perhaps on a small ship to Southcentral Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula and maybe the Aleutian Islands. Small cruise ships and the Alaska Marine Highway (newly added to our ship lines) head that way too.

For information about the small ship cruise lines specializing in Alaska, go to American Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions, Alaska Dream Cruises, UnCruise Adventures and the Alaska Marine Highway.

White Pass & Yukon Route, historic railway based in Skagway, Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.