Wandering the West
July 12, 2011
Anyone drawn to Park City for its beauty, its adventure sports, and its active lifestyle has to have Alaska in their travel plans at some point. The obvious way to get there in a hurry is a flight to Anchorage. The more leisurely way is by one of the two highways that connect Alaska to the lower 48. Last week I wrote about the drive north on the Alaska Highway through British Columbia and the Yukon. But there is a second highway requiring much less driving.
You do have to drive as far as Bellingham, Washington, a port city on Puget Sound. A second option is to drive to the Canadian port city of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. But there the driving stops when you drive aboard the Alaska Marine Highway.
The state of Alaska runs a fleet of ferries, from small boats for a handful of cars and trucks to large ocean-going cruisers for the longer voyages. You can travel as a foot passenger, or bring anything from a bicycle to a monstrous motor home. And, this being Park City, it’s important to know you can bring your dogs too.
I’ve made several different trips aboard the Marine Highway, from Puget Sound to Juneau, over to Glacier Bay, as well as from Whittier, just south of Anchorage, to as far as Kodiak Island in the North Pacific. It’s now possible to start in Bellingham and wind up in Dutch Harbor, at the far end of the Aleutian chain. There’s a new (to me) route that runs from Bellingham across open ocean to Whittier, just 60 miles south of Anchorage. That’s a heck of a cruise.
Most other routes hug the coastlines, allowing glimpses into the landscape rather than the open ocean. The Marine Highway covers an amazing 3,500 miles of Alaska and Canadian coastline. Somewhere along the way you’re bound to see bears roaming the beaches or mountain goats and Dall sheep clinging to steep hillsides, isolated fishing villages, amazingly dense hemlock and spruce forests, and many kinds of North Pacific sea life from sea lions and otters to seals and whales.
The Marine Highway is divided into sections. The southeast is the fabled Inside Passage, hugging the coast from Washington state to end points in Haines or Skagway, where you can connect to land highways feeding into the final stretch of the overland Alaska Highway. Most of the 13 port calls here lead to towns and villages only accessible by sea or air, including the state capital, Juneau, the southernmost port of Ketchikan, and my favorite southeast stop, Sitka. You can also connect to Glacier Bay National Park at the port of Gustavus. Several of the southeastern ports are day trips, allowing for a short cruise, a few hours on shore, and a return cruise to where you parked your car.
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There are basically three separate components of southwest ferrying the route to Kodiak, the distant run to the Aleutians, and the Prince William Sound routes. I’ve not been to the Aleutians (where those TV crab fishermen headquarter in Dutch Harbor), but have traveled the other routes. All of these trips require a lot of study and advance planning. Some ferries run to destinations just once a week or every other week. Missing a ferry can leave you stuck for an extra week in a place where you only planned to spend two hours!
Besides the knockout scenery, the Marine Highway ships are just plain fun to ride. You can rent modest bunk-bed cabins, but the budget travelers have the most fun turning the ship into a big moving campground. You can pitch your popup tent on the open decks or roll out a sleeping bag on the floors of the heated solariums or the inside public spaces. You can eat at cafeterias, sit-down restaurants, or cart your own cooler aboard. If you bring your dogs, they’ll have to ride in kennels below decks, but you’ll be able to visit them at regular intervals. The camping aspect of the Marine Highway is half the fun, sharing stories with other sightseers and meeting real Alaskans, who are full of tales of life at the end of the continent.
You can pay many times the Marine Highway fare for a fancy cruise of the Inside Passage, or you can jump on board the M.V. Columbia, the M.V. Kennicott or a dozen more ships, pitch a tent, crack open a bottle of wine, and watch Alaska unfold from the deck of a one-of-a kind state highway.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
The vitals: Reservations for vehicles are a must in the summer. Passengers can generally walk on without them. Dogs arriving from the lower 48 or Prince Rupert need health certificates.