How do you pitch a tent on an Alaska ferry? You pack Gorilla or Duck tape. Without stakes to pound, very sticky tape is necessary to secure your tent to the deck floor while the ferry churns toward the next port.
Which, no doubt, elicits other questions: Why would you sleep outside in a tent when you could curl up in a comfy chair indoors or book a cabin with bunkbeds? And why would you travel on a ferry in Alaska, anyway?
The answers, in no particular order, are preference, privacy, convenience, and/or necessity.
Where the Alaska ferries go, highways seldom are a choice for transportation, especially in popular Southeast Alaska. Here, along the famed Alaska Marine Highway System, you can’t drive to most of the towns that provide vacationers with bases for adventure trips into the mountains and glaciers, to sea for fishing and whale-watching, and to rushing streams where bears scoop their paws into pools of wild salmon for dinner.
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You could book flights, because most of America’s largest state is served by landing strips or docks for float planes.
Alaska’s big ferries, however, provide regularly scheduled transportation that is the least expensive (but not cheap) and most convenient passages among towns from Bellingham, Washington, to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Chain.
Though occasionally you may depart from or arrive at your destination in the dead of night, more often you can arrange to spend relaxing hours, days and nights ashore, waking in some of Alaska’s charming seaside villages such as those in the Southeast: Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, and Haines, as well as the capitol city of Juneau.
Plus, ferries provide a constant stream of fellow travelers in a casual setting that encourages conversations and sharing of experiences. Alaska trip planners say that about half the ferry passengers come from outside the state; most of the Alaskans are commuting to work, on a shopping trip, or visiting friends and relatives.
Forget the fancy cruise wear. Most people aboard ferries are dressed in camping garb, and their backpacks are laden with picnic needs (to augment buffet kitchens aboard), occasional musical instruments for a singalong, and layers of clothing for inevitable changes in temperatures and drizzle.
Some travelers sleep the ride away indoors. Others hang out on top decks, gazing at snow-capped mountain peaks and hoping to see a whale or dolphins. On night voyages, backpacking passengers roll out their sleeping bags in what the ferry system calls a top deck solarium, with a translucent roof and an across-the-deck opening toward the aft end of the ship, where others have pitched their tents for an outdoors experience with a little privacy. Public showers are available.
The cushiest accommodations are in spartan private cabins, all with a bathroom, fresh sheets and comfortable mattresses. Most have a single set of bunkbeds and a ladder for climbing to the top berth. Larger cabins have a second set of bunkbeds. (Note: Passengers who drive a car or RV aboard are not allowed to enter their vehicle while the ferry is moving.)
My wife — Fran Golden, the writer for Frommer’s EasyGuide to Alaskan Cruises and Ports — and I managed to ferry to six towns in nine days along the Inside Passage. For two nights (well, one and two-thirds because the voyage between Ketchikan and Wrangell was only six hours) we slept in a cabin, booking the rest of our accommodations on land at bed and breakfasts and at small hotels.
On five ferry rides, we explored, in order: Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Skagway, Haines, and Juneau. The 19-hour ferry from Petersburg to Skagway stopped at Juneau while we slept. Remaining aboard was the most efficient schedule — and the least expensive as our ferry cabin was $126.
“Cabins on the ferries are the cheapest rooms in Alaska,” said Dave Berg, who owns and operates Viking Travel with his wife Nancy in Petersburg, Alaska. They book thousands of travelers on ferries each year. The ferry from Petersburg to Skagway, for instance, cost $225 for my wife and me (one adult, one senior), so the price for transportation and cabin on that long leg of our trip totaled $351 ($225+$126). Total for us on our five ferry rides was $765, including the two cabin nights.
▪ In Ketchikan, a fascinating guided historical tour of the town and totem pole park at Saxman, a native Alaskan village, with local leader Joe Williams (wheretheeaglewalks.com).
▪ Wrangell, a speedboat ride and hike to the Anan Wildlife Observatory to watch bears feed in the wild on salmon from a rushing stream (alaskaupclose.com).
▪ Petersburg, a speedboat ride with Tongass Kayak Adventures, dodging and bumping into icebergs to get close to LeConte Glacier (tongasskayak.com).
▪ Skagway, panning for gold at Dredge Town Alaska 360 (Alaska3sixty.com).
▪ Haines, a chance encounter with a big bull moose on a boat tour with Chilkat River Adventures (jetboatalaska.com).
▪ Juneau, consuming some of the best fare in the city, starting at Tracy’s King Crab Shack, followed by a “Tour with Taste” led by Midgi Moore (JuneauFoodTours.com).
PLANNING AN ALASKA FERRY TRIP
Alaska State Ferries are comfortable, efficient, and reliable. My wife and I were pleased that our ferry schedule did not include many meal times aboard, as food service was at best cafeteria quality; bar service has been halted, and passengers were told they were prohibited from drinking alcohol in public areas (not that anyone was checking).
Travelers also will want to check in each winter to get the latest news for the coming spring/summer seasons, as the quality of the ferry system continues to be a matter of debate for Alaska’s state government.
We found expert help about ferry planning and booking at Viking Travel in Petersburg, Alaska. Ferry schedules, especially during the prime travel period from May into September, may be confusing unless you know the territory and can judge the amount of time that you want to be ashore in each town. (dot.state.ak.us/amhs/routes.shtml).
You will also want to know how to find accommodations, whether you need transportation from the ferry port into town, and where you want to start your trip, which can be as far south as Bellingham, Washington. Viking also can handle accommodations and excursions at their website, www.alaskaferry.com, or call 800-327-2571. Owner Dave Berg says that travelers may want to consider starting their ferry trip in Alaska rather than at Bellingham as Bellingham to Ketchikan is the most expensive leg in the system and sells out for summer.
For ideas on ferry schedules: http://alaskaferry.com/FerrySchedules/AlaskaFerryInformation.aspx
Package plans: http://alaskaferry.com/Packages/AlaskaTours.aspx
Travelers who want to camp in a tent aboard Alaskan ferries will find help at www.alaskaferrycamping.com. The website answers such questions as what to expect, what to bring, and where to sleep.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com