Magical Family Time Aboard Alaska State Ferries

If I close my eyes, I can transport myself back a hundred years. The deep, steady rhythm of engines churning their way through the Alaska’s Inside Passage is much the same today as it was back in the late 1800’s, when a gold rush brought thousands to the Last Frontier. Our family is spending two weeks exploring the nooks and crannies of southeast Alaska aboard the state’s well-loved ferry system. Immersed in both maritime culture and a healthy dose of territorial history, we are discovering how a fleet of ten ships manages to weave together past and present among the Alaskan communities they serve.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has served southcentral and southwest areas of the state since 1963. Covering a 3,500-mile route and docking at 33 ports, AMHS is much more than an indie traveler’s dream; with many Alaskan communities reachable solely by air or water, the ferry system is vital transportation to the residents living and working in these areas. Touring passengers mingle with local school kids on their way to field trips, families traveling to a larger center for medical treatment or shopping excursions, and small businesses transporting goods for sale at local stores. It’s a delightful color wheel of people, and the perfect way to see “real Alaska,” up close and personal. The Marine Highway is also the only maritime route designated an All-American Road due to its outstanding scenery and importance for residents of Alaska, quite a feat.

Charting our course aboard the M/V Columbia from Skagway to Sitka.

Choosing a trip to Alaska via the ferry is a fairly simple procedure, thanks to an extensive website operated by the State of Alaska. Ferries leave on a regular basis from many ports of call in southeast Alaska, Prince Rupert, B.C., and Bellingham, Washington, and reservations agents are helpful in designing itineraries to fit budgets of both time and money. Over the course of 14 days, we’ve hiked, biked, watched wildlife, eaten great food, and been taught valuable lessons in Alaskan history in the most intimate of ways. Every day brings a new teachable moment, whether we are standing ten feet from a black bear, inspecting ancient totem poles, or talking with a sourdough who mines a nearby creek. This is not just vacation; this is who we are. Here’s how your family can jump in, too:

RESERVATIONS/INFORMATION: Visit the Alaska Marine Highway website for the latest schedules, routes, and specials for the current year. Calendar year schedules are posted by January 1 (and many reservations must be made soon after for the following summer, popular for travel). Unsure where to start or end, or where to go in between? Call  1-800-642-0066 and ask a reservations agent to outline a few itineraries based upon your family’s age and interests.

AK Kid crashes hard in his stateroom bunk after a 1 a.m. departure from Sitka.

SCHEDULES: The only drawback to utlizing a state-run transportation system is that a passenger must adhere to their schedule, sometimes catching an outgoing boat or disembarking an incoming one in the middle of the night. I will admit I was a bit afraid of this aspect of ferry travel, envisioning all sorts of late-night tantrums and meltdowns of volcanic proportions, but so far, we have had neither. Hotels and lodges are used to this sort of thing and almost always allow ferry passengers to hang out in their lobbies until boarding time. Same goes for stashing luggage; just mention your needs when booking a room. Whew.

COST: Both the website and the magazine/schedule for the calendar year will provide some grids and tables of cost, since the whole system can be a bit overwhelming to first-timers. The long and the short of it (literally) is that everybody is a’la carte; foot passengers, vehicles, drivers, and trailers/gear are all separate entities aboard AMHS. Vehicles are charged by the foot, and can be expensive, so carefully consider all the options before taking the plunge.

We found the cost, compared with a) cruise ships and b) summertime hotel rates in popular destinations to be reasonable, especially when it came to overall family comfort. A stateroom, in our humble opinion, is a must for quiet and comfortable sleeping arrangements with kids, and can be arranged for around $100/night, depending upon the route and your desired accommodation. Remember, you are arranging a night aboard a floating hotel, of sorts, and try finding a room for that amount anywhere in Alaska from May-September. Plus, a stateroom aboard the ferry has a decided vintage feel reminscent of rail or steamships of old; we love this aspect of ferry travel. Love. It.

Breakfast in the classy dining room aboard the M/V Columbia.

AMENITIES: The AMHS literature states quite clearly that a ferry is not a cruise ship. There are no porters, lounge singers, or formal programs for passengers. That said, our family found plenty to amuse a six year-old child (and the grownups) for the duration of each leg of the journey. Every ship has a cafeteria or full-service restaurant, depending upon the route. Good food, reasonable prices, and ample portions kept us full and happy. Movie theaters, video arcades, and toddler play areas are aboard most ships. Particularly along the Inside Passage, where views and wildlife captivate just about anyone, USFS rangers operate information booths during the summer months, and offer short presentations about ports of call and activities in each. For a complete description of each vessel’s features, visit the AMHS website.

We took along a backpack filled with kid-pleasing activities, of course, ranging from games to books to the all-valuable DVD player, but in all honesty, we did not need them that much. Our son found other kids with whom to roam, whales to spot, and sunshine in which to curl up. The lap of waves against the hull and excitement of water travel made for a pretty exciting series of days.

On the bridge of M/V Taku, headed through the "narrows" between Petersburg and Wrangell.

AMHS captains love to show off “their” ships, we found, when invited to visit the bridge of the M/V Taku, one of the oldest and most-loved boats in the fleet. Up top, Captain Tom Moore showed off this steel beauty as we navigated the harbor near Kake, Alaska, a small native village that happened to be celebrating their annual Dog Salmon Festival. Captain Moore, ever the gentleman, let us watch docking, then drove us off the boat to a local fish hatchery and on to the festival grounds, where he led the flag-raising ceremony to kick off the day’s events. Later in the evening he allowed us back up top to witness the tricky passage through the “narrows”, a series of twisting, teeth-clenching serpentines out of Petersburg. Sitting in the pilot’s seat, AK Kid saw firsthand the skill and precision by which these ships navigate southeast Alaska’s rocky fjords and waterways.

Take a look around southeast Alaska, you might be surprised at what your family will find!

PORTS OF CALL: Get off whenever you can. Take the printed reciept and go, if only for a few minutes. Stretch the kids’ legs or wander into town if time permits (and often it does). Alaska’s smaller communities can be delightful examples of hometown hospitality, and you’d be remiss to skip at least a bit of that in between destinations.

The AMHS website has great links to all the communities served by the ferry system, and all have distinct attributes worth visiting; a helpful tool for planning.

This trip is turning out to be more than a typical vacation. It is about who we are, the value of which will last much longer than the two weeks away from home.

Posted in Alaska Marine Highway, Logistics With Kids, Miscellaneous and tagged , .