Alaska Marine Highway System, 2019 Version

(Sections of this post are taken from Alaska On the Go: Exploring the Alaska Marine Highway System with Children, by Erin Kirkland

“What a beautiful sight that was. We could take our car, or walk on board, and GO SOMEWHERE! Our highway had arrived!” ~ Betty J. Marksheffel, describing her first view of the ferry as a historical note in celebration of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s 50th anniversary in 2013.” 

Residents of Chignik, Alaska gather around the recently arrived M/V Tustemena on a recent afternoon. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Imagine living in a place so remote that no road could be built to transport people or supplies. Everything from toilet paper to apples and oranges must be ordered and shipped on an airplane or boat; that is, if the weather cooperates. Services like medical and dental care, education, or law enforcement may be lacking or nonexistent, depending upon the time of year and nature of the need. yet, this place with no roadways somehow attracts a large number of people, drawn to climate and an endless range of land, rich in cultural and economic opportunity. 

Welcome to busy, bustling coastal Alaska: an area stretching from the southern panhandle cities of Ketchikan and Juneau, then westward to Kodiak Island and the Aleutians. While most residents of these communities swear they’d never live anywhere else, making a home with few resources can be complicated at best, especially before the Alaska Marine Highway ferries showed up. 

Camping aboard the ferry is a storied way to see Southeast Alaska. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Alaska’s ferry system is a dual-service operation, providing vital connectivity to remote coastal towns, but also as one of the most authentic methods of visiting the Last Frontier for independent travelers. The “blue canoes” are an aging fleet, to be sure, but their stalwart surging forward in all kinds of weather over 3,500 miles of All American (water-based) Road is a testament to their creation and a symbol of an Alaska lifestyle in its purest form. 

In November 2018, Alaskans elected a new governor who promised, among other things, to balance a bloated budget. With a swift and lethal red pen, he did just that, in the process cutting $43 million in funding from the Alaska Marine Highway budget, because, to paraphrase, “It is an inefficient system that needs overhaul.” The response from consumers and legislators was swift and desperate, and led to $5 million being put back into the ferry budget by lawmakers duking it out in Juneau. Then that $5 million was vetoed in another red pen-scratch. The governor said he was waiting on a $250,000 study to “reshape” the Alaska ferry system, due out in October 2019, before he approved any replacement funding. But in the meantime, as fall crept closer and closer and winter ferry schedules were readied by the AMHS office in Ketchikan, Alaskans living, working, or playing anywhere in coastal Alaska waited with eyes closed and fingers crossed, praying their route would survive the coming storms. 

Communities like Cordova ultimately lost out; service there ended for the winter last week and is not slated to restart until mid-May, meaning residents and anyone who wants to visit must now fly. Those apples, oranges, and toilet paper purchases? Better ship them at an enormous cost. Need a car repaired, a kid to get to a volleyball match, or god forbid, to a critical medical appointment? Tough noogies. Deal. 

Many Alaskans in general are furious and fed up with the governor; there’s even a recall effort. Those in small coastal communities with no winter service are praying they won’t need to leave before spring. I’ll join them in that prayer. 

Alaska Marine Highway pleasure travelers are affected, too, especially on popular routes like the Bellingham to Whittier run, sailing over the course of six days or so along some of the 49th state’s most beautiful stretches of landscape. This run, along with several others, is so popular that staterooms fill up as soon as reservations open, and still more passengers set up camp on one of the top decks to save a few dollars and fully capture the Alaska indie travel experience. 

Danielle Doyle with AMHS says that for now, the department is unable to provide any scheduling or fare information for sailings after April 30, pending release of recommendations from the ferry “reshaping” report. 

“What I understand from the management team is that DOT leadership is waiting until this report is in hand before providing us with direction,” she told me. “So honestly we have no idea what type of schedules we’ll be able to provide for next summer until we have a budget.” 

Smokestacks of all Alaska Marine Highway vessels sport the Alaska flag's "Eight stars of gold on a field of blue." Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

What should you do? Here are some ideas: 

  • Consider an earlier trip. Spring is arriving earlier and earlier in Alaska, especially the Southeast region, so a springtime venture up the Inside Passage could be an excellent option. Look at schedules HERE
  • Know the ins and outs of booking with the Alaska Marine Highway System reservations system. In the past, if I have needed to make multiple stops and starts on a trip, I’ve needed the help of reservations agents to figure out the game of when, where, and how. The current system has been revamped to hopefully make it easier, Doyle said. 
  • Set up an AMHS Customer Profile HERE, now. Why? Once the updated summer schedule has been provided for 2020 sailings, customers must have a profile to book a sailing reservation. Do it now, list your preferences, and book faster than those who must start from the beginning. Why does it matter? Fares are increasing, sometimes incrementally by ferry booking capacity. The faster you book, the cheaper it will be. 
  • Be as flexible as possible. The ferry experience is worth it, so consider a few alternatives, just in case you don’t get the first choice sailing. Try walking on board, biking around smaller communities, or a fly-sail option. See below for some of the trips we’ve taken together. No choice is the wrong one, it may just be different. 
  • Stay in touch. Watch AKontheGO for updates from the Alaska Marine Highway System offices, and stay current with AMHS Service Notices, posted regularly on the ferry website. 

AK Kid runs along the shoreline of Cold Bay, Alaska during a trip down the Aleutian Chain. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

 – Spring Into a Southeast Alaska Vacation

Alaska Marine Highway Southwest Route 

Sailing Southeast Alaska on the Ferry




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