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rafinmd

Live from the Alaska Marine Highway

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I am currently part way through a trip on the Alaska Marine Highway. This is part of an extended trip which started with crossing Canada by train from Baltimore to Prince Rupert BC. My ferry journey will take me to a final destination of Juneau with intermediate stops in Wrangell and Haines. My vacation will conclude with a cruise on Cruise West's Spirit of Columbia to Seattle and then back home on Amtrak. I am detailing my journey on Cruise Critic's sister site at:

 

 

http://boards.independenttraveler.com/showthread.php?t=19041

 

 

but I'll duplicate the ferry portion of the trip on this thread.

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My taxi picked me up at 5:10 for the short drive to the terminal but then it was back to “hurry up and wait”, at the start to what will be a long day. Picking up my ticket was quick, and then nothing happened until immigration and checkin about 7.

 

 

This is my third encounter with the Alaska Marine Highway and my second voyage on the Matanuska but the first time I have traveled the system without a cabin. My voyage is scheduled for about 15 hours, including a 3-hour stop in Ketchikan. The Matanuska was built in 1963 and enlarged in 1972. It can carry 740 passengers (245 in cabins) and about 80 cars. With 3 passenger decks, it has a cafeteria, bar, 2 lounges, and a covered and heated outdoor solarium. For day passengers like me there is a luggage cart which is rolled out to the terminal at each port so big bags do not have to be lugged on and off the ship. The route is quite scenic and we often have islands very close on both sides of the ship. We have had occasional whale sightings but are on a schedule and do not have time to “follow the action”.

 

 

Like most ships on the inside passage we have a forest service interpreter. Richard gave 2 talks today, “What's my line” detailing the various types of fishing boats, and “Dancing through the Wrangell Narrows”, along with port talks on Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg.

 

 

Our 12 hours of sailing was divided pretty equally between the Prince Rupert-Ketchikan and Ketchikan-Wrangell segments. At our Ketchikan stop I took a walk, caught up on some internet activity, and did some shopping. Our passenger count out of Prince Rupert had been quite low. We left Ketchikan with a large number on students who had been participating in sports competitions.

 

 

We arrived in Wrangell near 11 PM, about a half hour late. I had instructions to call my lodging for pickup, although there were no phones in the Wrangell terminal. The ticket agent called for me, and in about 5 minutes I was starting my trip to the Sourdough, where I pretty much immediately collapsed being quite tired. It is not really necessary, but for a trip this long again, I would at least consider booking a cabin.

 

 

Earlier I mentioned a number of student athletes joining us in Ketchikan. For my parting shot tonight, I noticed at dinner members of a cross country team wearing a team shirt. The back of the shirt was inscribed “Great is the victory but the friendship of all is greater”. Amen

 

 

Roy

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The Sourdough Inn is on the outskirts of town, about a mile from the downtown ferry dock. After breakfast I put my bags in the hotel van and walked into town. First Presbyterian Church of Wrangell is the oldest protestant church in Alaska, dating to 1877. It is a small congregation, about equally divided between English and natives. After the service and refreshments, I explored the town a bit. Pertroglyph beach is about a half mile from the ferry dock, and has some 10,000 year old petroglyphs. They are actually submerged at high tide, the beach is quite rocky and hard to walk on, and I never found the actual petroglyphs, but did see a number of reproductions along the trail. The beach was on the airport loop road, and I continued along the loop. A town of about 6,000, Wrangell has daily service by 737, but the terminal was tiny, suggesting a fairly small number of the passengers get on or off there as the plane continues north or south. There is a walking tour of the town featuring several very old churches, a totem park, and a Tlingit ceremonial house. I found it a bit surprising that on Sunday the liquor and hardware stores were all open but the grocery stores were all closed.

 

 

When the MV Columbia arrived shortly after 3, the hotel shuttle came with my luggage and picked up some guests getting off the ferry. The Columbia is considered the flagship of the fleet, and mostly runs weekly trips to Bellingham Washington. It has several lounges, both a cafeteria (fast food only) and a dining room, and quite a large solarium. About 90 minutes after leaving Wrangell we entered the Wrangell Narrows, also known as “the ditch” or “Christmas Tree Lane (for the flashing red and green buoys so close together that they look like a Christmas tree). At points the narrow, twisting channel is only 160 feet wide, and it would be literally impossible for 2 of the mainline ferries to pass. The Columbia is the largest vessel to navigate the narrows. Amy, the naturalist on board Columbia read some passages from a navigation guide to the narrows (Keep a lookout on the bow, be ready to drop anchor, and on and on) which were quite chilling. Larger ships must go around Kupreanof Island, a 200 mile detour added to our 40 mile passage. We docked at Petersburg about 7 but had only a short time to get off the ship with nothing nearby.,

 

 

My inside cabin is compact but functional. It has bunk beds, a chair and small table, sink, shower and toilet. It also has a window but it faces an inner deck. The sea is visible but at an angle. It is more than sufficient for the night. I have dinner at the cafeteria,.

 

 

As my parting shot today, I live in a planned community where building projects require extensive community input and approval. I worship in an interfaith complex where several congregations maintain their own identity but share facilities. Things have grown to a point where it makes sense for us to have our own building within the complex. In going through the approval process, there was great opposition to our putting a cross on the new building, and we had to dramatically reduce the size of the cross. I worshiped today in a church with a prominent neon cross. According to the brochure for the Wrangell walking tour “The lighted cross on the steeple is a beacon for fishermen at sea.” How different communities can be.

 

 

Roy

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We arrived at the Auke Bay (for Juneau) ahead of our 4:15am schedule. It would have been impossible to sleep through the announcements imploring people to move their cars so people unloading can proceed. Two other vessels, the small but conventional LeComte and the fast ferry Fairweather are in port, scheduled to make runs to local communities later in the day. Soon after our 6:15 departure there are beautiful views of Mendenhall Glacier from the back deck. The dining room opens for breakfast at 7. It is not fine dining, but has a menu and prices probably comparable to an IHOP but with superb views. It is at the back of the ship on the top enclosed deck and has picture windows on aft and to both sides.

 

 

Our naturalist Amy spoke about glaciers. There are 38 named glaciers in Alaska; only the Taku glacier at a high elevation is advancing, the rest are receding. Southeast Alaska had a mini ice age beginning 5000 years ago and ending only 250 years ago. Some of the land is slowly rising as the weight of the glaciers is taken away. Gustavius is the fastest; it is rising about half an inch per year. When we arrived in Haines about 11AM a car from my B&B was waiting. The driver was a fellow guest who was “helping out” a bit He offered to detour by the Chilcoot River where there was a possibility of bear activity about 5 miles As we went up the river we passed a spot where rangers had placed a snow fence across the river to count fish. A grizzly was next to the fence gorging on salmon which were trapped by the obstruction in the river. We watched the bear feast for about 10 minutes before it wandered away.

 

 

In the afternoon I explored Haines, walked a part of the town's walking tour, and did a bit of shopping. I also learned of a Catamaran which makes daily runs to Juneau and did some investigation but decided to stay with the ferry for my return to Juneau. The catamaran is nice, but the ferry is much cheaper and has plenty of room to walk around. Dinner was at a local restaurant.

 

 

For today's parting shot, I noticed a fact sheet on Amy's desk with some information about the Columbia. The ship burns about 400 gallons of fuel per hour and cruises at about 200 mph. The ship carries 134 vehicles. At that rate, the fuel consumption is about each vehicle getting about 6-7 mpg. Not great, but interesting.

 

 

Roy

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A settlement was established about 1890 at the site of Haines by Presbyterian Missionaries. About 1900 an Army fort was established near the same site to calm people headed out on the Gold Rush and to establish a presence due to possible border disputes with Canada. The fort was closed about 1945 and much of the property sold to private hands. The former brig is now the “Alaska Guardhouse Bed & Breakfast”, my home in Haines. The property shows no evidence of it;s former use. We overlook the Lynn Canal and this morning I got a good look at the Malispina on it's way to Juneau. It was originally a sister ship to the Matanuska although some differences were created in subsequent renovations, particularly in the cabin configuration.

 

 

There are 3 museums in Haines. The American Bald Eagle Foundation Museum has an extensive display of mounted wildlife and also a busy raptor rehabilitation program. The Sheldon Museum is the newest in Haines and has displays on both Native and settlement history in the area. The oddball in the collection is the private Hammer museum. This small house has a collection of over 1800 hammers of all types, some highly unexpected. Among others I saw medical, musical, culinary hammers and hammers with multiple handles (I assume to be used with both hands) and multiple heads.

 

 

I attempted a walk on a local trail but was unsuccessful in finding it after climbing a local road to an elevation of 450 feet in search of the trail head. Dinner was at “The lighthouse”, a restaurant on a cove overlooking the Lynn Canal.

 

 

My parting shot today comes from a video shown at the Bald Eagle Museum. We know Eagles were threatened by DDT in the lower 48. In Alaska they were hunted nearly to extinction as they were considered competition with fishermen for available salmon. Further research showed that Eagles actually eat only weak and dying salmon so there was no real concern. In any case, our National Symbol was nearly eliminated by our own actions. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

 

 

Roy

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Pricing on the Alaska Marine Highway is essentially a la carte. Vehicles, drivers, passengers, cabins, and meals are all priced independently. Overall, I paid roughly 30 cents per mile for basic passage. Wrangell to Haines was $107. My cabin was an additional $100. My 2 meals and additional coffee throughout the trip were about another $30. (There is absolutely no problem with bringing your own food on board.) The only time I paid extra as a solo traveler was for the cabin. Overall, in terms of cruise line practice, my effective single supplement was about 27%. One other thing stood out. There is quite an emphatic no tipping policy. Signs in the restaurants are quite blunt in announcing that the crew are state employees and any money left at the tables goes directly into the Alaska Government treasury.

 

 

I have also attached pictures of my cabin and the Columbia solarium.

 

 

Roy

cabin1.jpg.735e1e699e6fcbe9485fc8e0f2bcd736.jpg

cabin2.jpg.a72a946b82dbf23d83bd563ae9cb1de2.jpg

colosolarium.jpg.87f3e2bfbe30ca83519a20643e3b540a.jpg

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I left the B&B about 7:45 for the ferry dock, about 5 miles from town. The Malaspina was approaching as we arrived and docked about 8:15. The Malaspina was the first vessel specifically built for the system, one of a group of 3 delivered about 1963. It, the Matanuska, and the Taku started out as triplets, but have become somewhat different in subsequent modernization. It and the Matanuska were lengthened by 56 feet in the 70's

but the layout of the rooms and especially the cabins are somewhat different. The ships in this class each have a “promenade” deck at 8 laps per mile. The Malaspina went up and down the inside passage to Prince Rupert and Bellingham for nearly 40 years but was retired from that service in 1998 when the new Kennicott was introduced and now does a daily round trip from Juneau to Skagway in the summer. I was on board getting settled about 8:30 for our 9:00 departure.

 

 

This is my shortest run ever on the system, just 4 ½ hours to Juneau, mostly down the Scenic Lynn Canal. There are cabins on the ship but there is really no need for them on such a short voyage. Our forest service naturalist did give 2 talks, one on glaciers and the other on Juneau. We had pretty good luck with whales shortly after noon, catching a brief glimpse of a humpback less than 100 feet from the bow and getting sightings of several more a couple hundred yards away. As we approached Juneau a steady rain had started to fall.

 

 

The stopping point for Juneau is not very convenient for foot passengers. It is about 14 miles north of Juneau and about 2 miles from the city bus. There has been a shuttle into town but that has been discontinued. There is still a meeting point for shared taxis. When I looked while stopping on the way to Haines it had been deserted but the trick is apparently to get there early. I managed to board a taxi with 3 other people about 1:40 and arrived at my hotel at 2. My share of the fare was a reasonable $11.

 

 

My stay in Juneau is at the Goldbelt Hotel, Cruise West's headquarters in the city. They have a hospitality desk at the hotel and their dock is directly across the street. The Spirit of Columbia is docked there and 5 other ships, the Spirit of Endeavor, Sapphire Princess, Coral Princess, Oosterdam, and Ryndam. The rain did stop and I did get some time to walk around Juneau.

 

 

As today's parting shot, I'll try to comment a bit on the Alaska Marine Highway. It is definitely not luxury, but offers an opportunity to visit places not accessible any other way and an opportunity to encounter real Alaska people. I find myself being drawn back time and again.

 

 

This brings this encounter with the Alaska Marine Highway to a conclusion. I'll continue reports on the Cruise West portion of the trip on the "Other Cruise Lines" forum:

 

 

http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1265797

 

 

 

Roy

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I've taken the AMH twice. Once in from Belllingham and once out gettting off at Prince Rupert. My wife and I had a blast both times.

I was gonna post a cool pic. But it's not on this computer.

 

We went through the same narrows late at night. me and my daughter (1 at the time) stayed up and watched.

 

I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

 

daze

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For today's parting shot, I noticed a fact sheet on Amy's desk with some information about the Columbia. The ship burns about 400 gallons of fuel per hour and cruises at about 200 mph.

 

it always feels like they go much slower.................

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For today's parting shot, I noticed a fact sheet on Amy's desk with some information about the Columbia. The ship burns about 400 gallons of fuel per hour and cruises at about 200 mph.

Roy

 

it always feels like they go much slower.................

 

Oops. Only 10 times slower. Sorry

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Thanks for the info on the AMH. Going conventional way this July, but will keep this for future reference. I like the idea of naturalist talks.

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Have done some travel on AMH in the past.Went from Homer to Kodiak Island on the "Vomit Comet" in 16' seas. Have also gone from Whittier to Cordova on a "whistle stop day". Was told would stop in Chenaga so a resident could bring supplies which turned out to be a truckload of Miller Lite. All in all found travel very interesting. On the Cordova trip there was a Forest Ranger aboard who explained points of interest and gave presentations on various subjects. Will be heading to Valdez in 2 weeks but will be driving. Plan to do more ferry travel when up there in the future. enjoying your adventure!

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You did exactly what we will do one of these years - Travel the Alaska Marine Highway. Sounds like you were fine without a car - if you did it again would you be on foot or with a car? Also, did you make reservations ahead of time for both the ferry and hotels? I would love to do the trip without reservations, but don't want to get stuck in bad hotels or waiting weeks on a ferry ticket.

 

 

Sent from my iPad using Forums

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I made reservations ahead of time and also went with car. When I went to Kodiak my nephew was to fly out later and join us in a fishing excursion. The fog rolled in and shut down the island for 3 days preventing any air traffic. Not a whole lot to do on that island to keep you busy!

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I had intended to quote Wayfairers here.

Car or not I think would depend on the ports where you plan to stop.  I think for most ports my choice would be to travel the ferry without a car and rent a car locally in ports where you think you will need it.  I strongly advise reservations in most cases.  Either getting a car on the ferry or occupying a cabin may be difficult without a reservation although you could usually board on the spot as a foot passenger which would mean sleeping in a lounge (very comfortable chairs) or erecting a tent in the solarium.

I would still want reservations for your ports as they are mostly small towns with limited guest capacity.

 

Roy

Edited by rafinmd

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