Alaska ferry cruise: short on frills, long on thrills


The New York Times

The thrum of the engines churning north through the Inside Passage to Alaska sounded soothing enough, rumbling up from below somewhere around 3 a.m. Outside, I knew, the dense forests and rocky islands of British Columbia would already be visible from the rail in the early dawn of northern summer. But the words that came to mind as I lay in my tent, trying to get back to sleep, were these: I am going to need more duct tape.

My two-man pack tent, taped down to the steel rear outdoor deck of the Motor Vessel Columbia — side by side with my co-campers on the Alaska Marine Highway’s ferry run from Bellingham, Wash., to Juneau, Alaska — had seemed well anchored when I’d gone to bed. In the immediate and casual camaraderie of deck campers, those with tape shared with those unprepared (I’d brought one tiny roll, quickly used up).

But ferocious winds struck during our first night aboard, and now one aluminum-post corner of my tent frame had come loose and was banging me in the head and clunking loudly on the deck with each powerful gust.

A cruise to Alaska with any of a number of competing luxury liner companies can be cushy and plush, a floating smorgasbord of sunset cocktails, plank salmon, jaw-dropping vistas, glaciers and wildlife.

An “uncruise,” as I came to call my three-night journey on the ferry, run by the State of Alaska’s Marine Highway System, offered some of those same charms, especially the Pacific Northwest scenery — gorgeous from a deck chair, however you go. But a continually surprising basket of differences came with my passage as well. Robert Frost suggested the road less traveled; uncruising to Alaska is the marine counterpart.

“This is the highlight, if I live to tell the tale,” said Francine Verzi, 40, laughing as she and her husband, Tony, 47, put up their green cabin tent before the ferry left the dock. The tent was big enough for six: the two of them and their four children, ages 6 to 13. The Verzis, from Thiells, N.Y., in Rockland County, had been on the road for three weeks by the time they boarded the Columbia, tent camping their way west, and now north.

Their plan, in leaving home, was to have no plan at all except to find sights unseen. Booking a passage in a tent, on a ship, fit right in. “Our families think we’re crazy,” Verzi said. “We’re going by the seat of our pants.”

Uncruising is not for everyone: most traditional cruise ships have elaborate exercise areas, for example, and often a running track. On the Columbia, the crackly loudspeaker voice from the purser’s office was stern and official-sounding in telling a jogger to stop his exercise regimen on the boat deck. “There is no running on the ship,” she said. The same stentorian tone was echoed in the snack bar, where a curt, handwritten sign read: “No Decaf.” Aboard the Columbia, you could have your coffee Alaskan strong, or not at all.

Reservations are made on an Alaska state government website, But once you have a reservation and a ticket, the camping and all the other spaces that people park themselves are first-come, first-served.

The biggest difference of all is that not everyone gets an actual bed, or wants one. On a ship with a capacity of 600 people — about 400 were aboard on my mid-July trip — there were berths for only about 300, with most of those inside four-bed staterooms. That fact creates the crucial dynamic of everything on board — all revolving around the question of where to sleep and, by extension, which of the ship’s subcultures to join.

Some uncruisers stake out the front observation lounges, rolling out sleeping bags or cots between the rows of seats by night, keeping the tables as base camps by day for cards, reading and meals they brought from home or bought on board. Others claim the reclining deck chairs, which, over the course of several days, can become entwined neighborhoods of books, guitars and backpacks. Others sleep in the movie theater.

I threw in my lot with the tenters.

Through five decades of Alaska Marine Highway tradition — the ferry line was founded in 1963, only four years after Alaskan statehood — the open expanse on two aft decks has gained a kind of mystique among many Alaskans I met on board and in my later travels. Tenting north, they said, was more than just a place to rough it under the stars or travel on the cheap, but rather a kind of portal between the fusty old rules of the lower 48 and the unbound sense of space and personal freedom that has been Alaska’s magnet for generations.

In the 1970s, for example, tent city was the ferry’s party headquarters, where oil workers, fishermen and loggers like Steve Goldsmith gathered to celebrate their way north.

“They’d say, ‘We’re in Alaskan waters, boys, light up,’ ” said Goldsmith, a 59-year-old tent camper, recalling the shipboard announcement that the ferry had cleared Canadian waters and fussy marijuana laws.

Things are quieter now, with more families and older travelers like Goldsmith, who left the timbering life years ago. Open consumption of alcohol outside the bar and dining room is banned, or so a sign advises.

What has not changed, though, signifying another major difference from the traditional cruise, is that almost everyone on the Columbia was actually headed somewhere. Like a commuter ferry, though on an Alaska-size scale, the trip for many of the travelers was a means, not an end in itself.

The Verzi family, 10 feet away from me to one side, was bound for Alaska’s national parks. To the other side, a group of 30-something college friends, with their bicycles in the lower decks in storage, were deck-camping en route to a three-week, 850-mile bike trip from Haines, a town north of Juneau, to Denali National Park and Preserve.

Cristina Billikopf, who had taken a deck chair near the tents with her blankets and suitcases, was moving from Modesto, Calif., for a new job in Juneau — a city she had never even visited. Arianne Sperry, who works in recycling and composting for the city of Portland, Ore., was uncruising to a weeklong yoga retreat, also sleeping on a reclining deck chair.

“Not as comfortable as I thought it would be,” she said on that first morning as she did her exercise stretches by the rail.

The costs of the trip, like the subcultures, come in tiers: a base fare of $326 for adults, from Bellingham to Juneau (children under 6 are free, ages 6 to 12 travel at half the adult fare, and seniors receive a 25 percent discount), gets you aboard the Columbia on foot with your luggage. A stateroom can add anywhere from about $310 to $530 or more — per stateroom, not per passenger. Bringing a vehicle will cost you another $739 or more depending on the size, while lugging a kayak or bike aboard will set you back $50 to $80.

Food options range from a grill and 24-hour snack bar to a full-service restaurant specializing in Alaskan seafood, with a decent piece of salmon or halibut in the mid-$20 range and a good vegetarian pasta dish. But there’s a quirky financial upside: no tipping. Signs in the cocktail lounge and dining room forbid gratuities since every crew member is an employee of the state.

As for my taping troubles, I knew they would be hard to resolve at 3 a.m., with all quiet on the tenting front and no neighbors I could bother for a few extra strips. So with the honey-tinged light already glowing in predawn splendor, and my own chance of sleep long gone, I piled a few possessions on the errant tent corner to hold it down and walked the ship.

In a forward section, piles of fishing poles, packs and binoculars were jumbled amid the sleepers. In another corner, a group of older travelers slumbered in their bags around a table holding a well-thumbed copy of Stokes Field Guide to Birds. A rail-thin, middle-aged Haines resident I’d met while waiting to board back in Bellingham — his traveling possessions carried in a black trash bag — slept inside on a chair by the window.

Alaska, rough edges proudly on display, was all around me. I bought an Alaskan strong coffee and took it to the rail to begin the day.

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