Great Ride Fits Great Land
by Will Swagel
It’s hard to impress an Alaska commercial fisherman with the scenery he works in all day, but Sitka salmon troller Andy Scorzelli said he can remember seeing a dozen humpback whales feeding against the backdrop of a rainbow-crowned glacier some years back.
Scorzelli was traveling in Southeast Alaska from the tiny fishing town of Pelican to Juneau, not on a fishing boat, but on an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry. The route took the vessel near Glacier Bay, and from the ferry’s decks, visitors and Alaskans alike gazed awestruck on the whales below and the glacier beyond.
“Rainbows, glaciers, feeding humpbacks,” Scorzelli said. “The people who got on this ride were pretty stoked.”
Like a lot of coastal Alaskans, Scorzelli uses the ferry when he’s looking for inexpensive and comfortable travel, and he’s got the time to enjoy it. Fully 70 percent of the Alaska Marine Highway’s passengers are Alaskans, so if visitors want to get up close and personal with the two-legged variety of Alaska fauna, the ferry provides excellent habitat.
On another ferry trip from Sitka to Ketchikan, Scorzelli delighted fellow passengers by reciting the names of the captains of some of the fishing vessels they passed.
“I actually knew the boats,” he said. “There was one I worked on. I told them, ‘I know the guy. He’s probably got his 7-year-old son at the wheel right now.’”
The Alaska Marine Highway’s main role is to provide affordable, relatively weatherproof transportation for people and vehicles to places not connected to a main road. But it also offers visitors to Alaska a kind of do-it-yourself cruise experience. The larger ferries have staterooms and restaurants or cafes, electronic entertainment and naturalist lectures. There are a number of lounges, equipped with large, comfortable chairs suitable for sleeping. But the more adventurous can stretch out on a chaise longue under heat lamps in the solarium, or even pitch a tent on deck under the stars.
The Alaska Marine Highway has a scope commensurate with the Great Land: Its 11 vessels cover more than 3,500 miles of Pacific coast from Bellingham, Wash., to the Aleutian Islands. Ferries stop in 33 ports, 31 of them Alaska communities. They range from the capital in Juneau to hamlets of 100 people or fewer, such as Tatitlek in Southcentral Alaska and Tenakee Springs in Southeast.
Tatitlek and Tenakee are the kind of off-the-beaten-track communities sought by visitors hungry for authentic Alaska. No need to pack evening wear, the ferries offer a casual, laid-back environment in which fashion statements mostly reflect the weather. The marine highway’s extensive year-round sailing schedule offers countless opportunities for personalized itineraries.
“A lot of visitors we see are actually people who (first) came to Alaska on a cruise and now they want to come back and spend more time,” said Danielle Adkins, the marine highway’s marketing manager. “The ferry is a great option for them.”
In 2011, the system carried 334,778 passengers and 114,100 vehicles. These included nearly everything on wheels (and some not) that Alaskans and visitors use for business and recreation. A spanking new motor home will share space on the car deck with a boat on a trailer and a shipping container filled with fresh produce.
“That’s something that sets the ferry system off from other modes of travel,” Adkins said. “You can travel with a vehicle, you can bring your pet, your boat, your RV, your bicycle, your kayak—anything you want to bring on your vacation to enjoy the outdoors.”
Pets must travel on the car deck in vehicles or pet carriers, but owners may visit during the time in port and during special “pet calls.”
Celebrating a Half Century Ferry riders in 2013 are a lucky bunch. The Alaska Marine Highway System will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2013, and passengers should expect special exhibits and events both onboard and ashore next year. The 2013 summer schedule is to be released this October.
The marine highway’s roots go back before statehood. In 1949, a private company started running a small surplus World War II amphibious assault ship, the M/V Chilkoot, between Juneau, Haines and Skagway. In 1951, the territory of Alaska bought the ship and continued operations. In 1957, the territorial government bought the M/V Chilkat to replace the Chilkoot, and in 1959 the Chilkat became the first ferry owned by the newborn state of Alaska.
Alaska residents approved several bond issues for the marine highway, and by 1963 the state operated three newly built vessels, along with the Chilkat. The M/Vs Matanuska, Taku and Malaspina are still in service. The fleet and number of ports grew steadily in size and importance over the next few decades. Noting the paint job on the hulls, Alaskans fondly dubbed the ferries “Blue Canoes.” The vessels are all named for Alaska glaciers.
The M/V Columbia is the queen of the fleet. It is 418 feet long with an 85-foot-wide beam. Built in 1974, the Columbia carries 600 passengers and 66 crew members. There are 103 staterooms, and it can accommodate 134 vehicles. The most lavishly appointed vessel in the fleet, the Columbia even has a sit-down restaurant with waiters.
At 382 feet, with an 85-foot beam, the M/V Kennicott is not far behind in size. Built in 1998, the Kennicott carries 499 passengers and 56 crew members. It has room for 80 vehicles, but has 109 staterooms, which is good news for riders taking the Kennicott for what has to be one of the most fantastic ferry trips in the world. Last year, the Alaska Marine Highway started offering service on the Kennicott from Bellingham, Wash., to Whittier in Southcentral, a 1,583-mile voyage lasting four and a half days. The boat stops in Ketchikan, Juneau and Yakutat on the way.
In order to contain costs, the state has embraced a vision of the system’s future that does away with most overnight sailings between ports. The newer ferries would operate as day boats on many routes.
The system’s two fast ferries, M/Vs Fairweather and Chenega, don’t have staterooms. These vessels, both 235 feet long and carrying up to 250 passengers each, can travel at 32 knots, or about twice the speed of the traditional ferries, and they overnight in port.
Finding the ‘Blue Canoes’ The Alaska Marine Highway System maintains an excellent website at FerryAlaska.com, which can also be reached by clicking on the Transportation and Public Facilities link at Alaska.gov. There you’ll find sailing schedules, vessel profiles and amenities, descriptions of routes and communities and what to expect onboard. There are videos showing the major aspects of a ride on the Blue Canoes.
Keep in mind that while walk-on passengers can nearly always ride the ferries without reservations, putting a vehicle onboard and scoring a stateroom are not so easy, especially on the more popular runs such as the new Bellingham-to-Whittier voyage. For those routes, early reservations are a must. This spring, an enthusiastic Adkins described the steady press of people visiting the marine highway’s booth at a New York Times-sponsored trade show for travel writers.
“It was really encouraging to see that our efforts are expanding awareness all across the United States,” she said.
Will Swagel is a freelance writer and publisher and 30-year resident of Sitka. His favorite ferry passage is through Sergius Narrows, north of town.