In choosing to write my second book on the subject of Alaska’s storied and historic Marine Highway System (AMHS), our family accepted the challenge of traveling all four routes identified by the State’s ferry system. From Bellingham, Washington to Juneau we sailed on the Southeast Route; between Juneau and Whittier we jostled along via the Cross-Gulf Route; around Prince William Sound we ogled at glaciers and wildlife along the Southcentral Route; and finally, last week, we embarked upon the grand-dame, the bad-ass, the route to end all Alaska Marine Highway routes – Southwest.
Sailing between Homer on the Kenai Peninsula and Unalaska/Dutch Harbor along the Aleutian Islands chain, AMHS provides a critical service to the small communities on Kodiak Island and along the Alaska Peninsula before crossing Unimak Pass and entering the wild and raw Aleutians, where the Bering Sea looks north and the Gulf Alaska expands south. It is, for many, the adventure of a lifetime, and we are no different. It was surprising the level of interest, and maybe even envy, generated by the announcement that we were packing up a 10 year-old and preparing for nearly five days of constant sailing in some of the most disreputable stretches of saltwater known to Alaska. What was the attraction, and why did we wait to tackle the Southwest Route?
Nearly 1,000 miles in length and serving 13 communities, the Alaska Marine Highway Southwest Route is vital for commerce and daily life, but also provides one of the most unique modes of transportation for visitors wanting to explore remote Alaska. Notorious for bad weather, this route is seasonal, operating from May to September, meaning the rush for families wanting to budget a trip to summer fish camps or visiting relatives is fast and furious. This is the route through which visitors can truly discover the challenges and rewards of life along the coastlines of remote Alaska. Generations of fishermen, government agency staff, ferry crew, and a few transient wanna-be workers all conversing about the fishing forecast, cost of fuel, and state of Alaska’s budget woes – in one captive audience of floating steel known as the M/V Tustemena, or “Trusty Tusty,” one of the oldest in the AMHS fleet of 11 vessels.
Who should go
The least-traveled route among tourists who typically sail the picturesque and calmer Southeast Route through the Inside Passage, Southwest is less flashy and rougher around its edges, with more time between ports. Families considering this trip should be seasoned travelers to places with few amenities, and likewise be accustomed to flexibility and independent exploration. Kids should be mature enough physically and emotionally to handle long hours on board a rocking, rolling ship, and independent enough to create spontaneous amusement in ports of call constructed for function, not fashion or entertainment.
Tips for travelers
We’ve become rather seasoned to multi-day Alaska Marine Highway trips, and each time, learn another lesson about life on and off the vessels. For the Southwest Route, a number of factors came into play as we planned and implemented our trip. Here’s an overview:
Go in mid-June or early July. Weather is likely to be more pleasant than spring or fall, and even though our early June trip was far calmer than expected, I know Alaska’s fickle nature where rain and wind are concerned.
Book early. Very, very early. If you can at all plan 12 months in advance, you should be assured of securing a stateroom. See below.
Book a stateroom. The M/V Tustemena is smaller and more nimble than the larger ships, and as a result, sacrifices passenger space for things like car lifts, cranes, and the bridge. Staterooms are few and small, with more two-berth rooms than four, so if you wish to have a bed to sleep in and a secure place to store gear, that is your only option. There are fewer places to sleep in lounges, too, and the stampede upon arrival can be rather territorial. Plan and implement accordingly.
Know your dining options. The Tusty has a full-service dining room and not much else in the way of assistance for those like us who arrived with a full cooler of our own grub. The vessel common area has a microwave and a Keurig coffee machine, condiments, napkins, and vending machines. No hot water (or cold) is available outside of restrooms, and only some ice. Any food items should be able to cook in a microwave with little prep time. We found soups, mac ‘n cheese packs, tuna, noodles, and oatmeal to suffice, with some additions like homemade muffins and waffles, pre-cooked sausage, and fresh fruit/veggies from Costco.
Plan for swells and waves. Even if you’ve never been seasick prior to sailing the Chain, prepare is if you will. Seabands work well, and Dramamine is a standby we rely upon for early intervention (the product is also available in a children’s formula).
Disembark whenever you have the opportunity. Not only are port calls an opportunity to stretch your legs, they are also an excellent way to investigate communities different from your own. Meet kids playing on the beach, talk up local fishermen, and smile a lot. It works. Remember to respect people and property, and ask before taking photos.
Know the history. The Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands are rich in history, and culture, and steeped in traditions going back nearly 9,000 years. Archeologically, the Chain represents one of the most fascinating stories of migration you’ll ever read, as the Aleut People (Unangan) arrived via kayak to settle this wild, windy, but productive area. Fur trading nearly wiped out populations, and WWII resulted in relocations and strife most Americans never knew existed; this is a chance to bring your kids to a place full of resilience, courage, and sheer stubbornness.
More Southwest information is on the way, but I can say this trip and subsequent shore days have been beyond our expectations, and I can’t wait to show you what we’ve discovered.