Archive for September, 2008

Riding the Alaska Ferry

Posted in Alaska on September 2, 2008 by ilikemountains

Alaska is one of the those places that feels so far removed from the rest of the world, it may as well be another country. I realized this on my first flight to Anchorage from Seattle, which took three and a half hours. In my mind I’d pictured the distance to Anchorage to be about the same as from Seattle to Los Angeles, but I was way off. It’s more like flying from Seattle to Dallas.

But the Alaska Ferry is an unexpected link to the Far North. It departs Bellingham, Washington (just over an hour north of Seattle), every Friday. The amount of time it takes to reach its first stop, Ketchikan, is certainly a reminder of how far removed Alaska is (about 36 hours), but the fact that you can walk or drive on to a ferry in Washington somehow makes Alaska more tangible.

The ferry was what I expected from public transportation — utilitarian and plain. Budget travelers set up tents on the back deck or nabbed lounge chairs in the solarium (hint: that’s the way to go), while others laid out blankets on the floors inside. There was a snack bar with electrical outlets, and I spent a lot of my time in there working on my laptop. Wireless Internet was available but intermittent.

I brought duct tape to secure my tent pulls to the cement, but the amount of rain soon peeled the tape up. The family next to me woke up the next morning with an inch of standing water in their tent, and when the ferry arrived in Ketchikan the second morning, I found that I was collecting water in my tent as well and grabbed a lounge chair when people disembarked. That worked out well, since I was able to dry everything out and also didn’t have to take my tent down at 4am when we docked in Juneau the next morning.

The second day was spent squeezing through the Wrangell Narrows, and hushing by manned lighthouses and tiny fishing villages. We pulled in to Wrangell, where I totally regret not jogging out to Petroglyph Beach in the 30 minutes available. In Petersburg, small purse-seiners cruised into port with the day’s catch, and all seemed soggy and somewhat idyllic.

I sacked out under my heatlamp with a headlamp and a novel, and awoke to the fog horn early the next morning. We docked in Juneau in pitch black rain, and I walked off the ferry with a giant backpack, hoping to hitch a ride to the airport rather than pay for a taxi. The ferry terminal is a good 15 miles or so outside the city center, so there was no breakfast or coffee shop for me while I waited for my flight. I did manage to catch a ride, and worked in the airport for several hours before boarding.

I had to fly on the milk run, which made several stops before landing in Anchorage. One of the coolest was flying over Yakutat, which has an improbable stretch of sandy beach. A few years ago Yakutat got some media attention for its cold-water surfing. Outside Magazine ran an article, and Yakutat was put on the map. I couldn’t spot any surfers from the air. My camera wouldn’t pick them up, but there were 10,000-plus foot peaks in the background.

Welcome to Alaska.