The Pacific coast of Alaska, from the Canadian border to the
Aleutian Islands, is served by the boats of the Alaska Marine Highway, a state-owned
ferry company. We took two journeys on the
AMH. The first was from Prince Rupert to
Juneau, the Alaskan capital, on a journey that lasted, for us, from a Friday to
Sunday. The second was a one day trip
from Juneau northwards to Skagway and the start of the Yukon Trail.
At the Prince Rupert ferry terminal most of the passengers had cars and RVs. They had their
own boarding facilities. For the small
handful of foot passengers, there was a separate boarding hall with its own
immigration/customs room. All would have
been easy except that a bus load of pensioners from the Mid-West arrived
complete with walking frames and infirmities.
Our peaceful haven became a noisy and chaotic scene. For the most part, they were cheerful but loud and a significant number looked as though they really weren’t enjoying
themselves. And once I discovered that
they were travelling by coach and boat from Minneapolis in the US Mid-West to
Fairbanks in the far north of Alaska and then turning round to get back to
Minneapolis by an inland route, their pain was understandable. I love travel
but that sounded too much like a route march to be much fun.
The ferry was the M/V Matanuska, a boat built in Seattle and now registered in
Haines, Alaska. She is more than 50 years old having been
launched in 1963. In 1978 she was
acquired by the Government of Alaska to serve the route from Seattle to Juneau but now dedicated to the routes north from Prince Rupert. All in all, she is wearing very well. There are plenty of lounges spread over two
decks and a cafeteria with a full range of meals and snacks. The only thing missing is a bar. By a fairly recent order of the State
government, this is now a dry ship. By a
lucky premonition (or good forward planning) we had bought a couple of bottles
of wine in Prince Rupert for our cabin.
Speaking to one of the crew he said that the ship used to have a bar –
and there are signs that would indicate this – but the Government in their
wisdom decided to remove them. I wonder
it dates from the days when Sarah Palin was Governor. She had some very strange ideas.
Once we had calmed down a little from the “dry ship”
revelation, we joined the queue for dinner in the cafeteria. It seemed as though most of our fellow passengers
had the same idea. The line was very
good humoured and gradually we got to the point where the choices could be
identified. And there was plenty of
choice. We both chose ham hock and beans
with corn bread washed down with “vintage” water.
The portion sizes were generous with almost too much ham.
For the first hour or so of the journey there was nothing
much to see. To one side was the
mainland of Canada in the distance and to the other the wide Pacific Ocean and
a few small islands. It was not long
before an announcement over the ship’s tannoy told us we were about to cross
the Canada/US border in Chatham Sound.
With the wonders of GPS and modern technology, our phone and PC clocks
changed to Alaska time, one hour behind BC, so we gained that hour.
After dinner, we went back to our cabin to break open the
wine. Glug glug. The cabin is a generous size for a ship with
enough room to swing the proverbial cat.
There was a big square window giving a good view and three single beds
with two bunk-style and the other free-standing. There was also an en suite bathroom with
sink, toilet and shower. The final touch
was a desk with power-points. What more
could you want? Apart from a well-stocked bar.
Then it was time to get back on deck and enjoy the
sunset. By now we were sailing into a
gradually narrowing sea channel. To the
west were relatively low islands with small hills that helped to enhance the
colour effects of the setting sun. Once
the sun was gone, it got dark quite quickly.
We decided to go to bed, it had been a tiring day with packing, hefting
bags and coping with the Mid-West bus party who managed to be everywhere on the
boat bringing their noise with them.
Some time after midnight, I was woken by some noises which
turned out to be the sound of the boat docking at the town of Ketchican. This is a big town with an interesting
history. It has constantly re-invented
itself as different groups of immigrants have moved in and the local industries
have changed. One of the bigger changes
happened in the 1880’s with the arrival of Norwegian fishermen. They increased the intensity of fishing which
then needed many seasonal workers to process and can the fish. These workers came from the Far East, especially
from the Philippines and Japan. The
Norwegians also brought missionaries who proceeded to start schools for their
own people and for the First Nations native peoples. This lead to all kinds of tensions and the inevitable gradual westernisation of the indigenous people. Over the years industry has changed as the
fishing stocks were over exploited leading to shortages. At the same time, the processing of
timber moved to other parts of the region and to other countries. Today Ketchican has adopted more specialised
trades, especially wood carving. It has also learnt to exploit the opportunities of tourism and is thriving again.
I tell all this story as, although very little of the
current town could be seen in the semi-dark, it is indicative of the
development of South East Alaska. The
towns we would stop at on this ferry voyage all have similar histories. They were also important towns during the
Klondike Gold Rush. They provided
resting places during the long voyages and also helped with the provision of
Around six in the morning I woke again and looking out the
window saw the sister ship of the Matanuska passing about one mile away,
heading south. Then around 8am the boat
arrived at the township of Wrangell.
Apart from the setting down and loading of passengers and vehicles, the
stop had another important function.
About twenty passengers were seen walking up the ramp with their
dogs. It was time for walkies.
Shortly after setting sail again, the boat turned into the
Wrangell Narrows. For an hour or more
the boat was confined to a narrow channel well marked with green and red
buoys. A watchman stood in the bow
throughout this stretch. The shore line
was close on both sides with many holiday homes. Only a few were obviously occupied but next
month being the peak holiday month could see many more in use.
At the head of the narrows is the town of Petersburg, an
old Norwegian settlement. This seemed to
be a prosperous community with many fishing boats and a fishing support
infrastructure. There were more cars and
trucks than we had seen for a while indicating that this island, Mitkof Island, must have a
reasonable road network.
During the day, we noticed an increasing number of
passengers walking circuits round the main deck. When you are going to be on a boat for the
best part of 48 hours, exercise is important.
We joined in and continued to do five or ten circuits at intervals
throughout the day. Very
The day had been overcast with occasional
showers. It had also been a bit windy
and cold on deck. Sunset effectively
didn’t happen, just some yellowness to the clouds to the northwest around
10pm. Before turning in for the night we
did a final couple of turns round the deck.
I decided to try the GPS mapping function on my phone. It worked and we could see exactly where the
boat was and its course for the next few hours. We were travelling the length
of the winding Peril Strait. Not exactly
the stuff of sweet dreams.
Around 2am we were woken by the noises of the boat arriving
at Sitka. Sitka was the capital city of
Alaska from 1884 until 1906. As mentioned earlier, it sits on the outer edge of the coastal island chain facing out to the wide Pacific Ocean and is described as a very attractive town with beautiful countryside. But, in the
early hours of the morning, there was not a lot to be seen. In the boom times of the late 1800’s when
gold was discovered on the mainland of Alaska and in the Yukon, the city of
Juneau was established and became the commercial centre. In 1906 the US Senate decreed that the capital
be moved there. And it has remained that
way ever since.
By morning the boat had left Sitka and had sailed back along
the Peril Strait. When we got back on
deck the boat was almost at exactly the same point that it had been when we
went to bed but travelling in the opposite direction. To reach Sitka had entailed a long
diversion. When asked about the route followed by the ferry,
the purser explained that it depended on the tides. The timetable was just a best guess and could
not be relied upon.
The weather was a bit miserable with squally showers and
grey skies. We passed a lot of fishing
boats taking advantage of the dullness.
The channel we passed through for almost all the morning was the Chatham
Strait. It was rather wide, maybe 5
miles across, so we didn’t see much detail of the shorelines. The mountains, when they emerged from the
clouds, were heavily covered with snow above about 2,000 feet. It was strange
to think that they had seldom if ever been climbed.
And then the boat started to make a wide sweep to starboard
– the right (we were getting very used to the nautical language after so much
time on the ferry system). Although we
couldn’t see Juneau yet, we were clearly getting close. Wow, wow, wow. One after the other, gigantic humpbacks
appeared above the waves, then rose further out of the water and with a flip of
the tail disappeared into the depths. As
we watched from our grandstand seats on the Matanuska, tourist whale watching
boats came racing across the waves hoping to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. A man on the boat told us the local name for
this bit of water was humpback alley. It
lived up to its name today. Weren’t we
The last few miles into
the Auke Bay terminal were a bit tame after all that excitement. Not
having done enough research, it quickly became obvious that Auke Bay was not a
suburb of the City of Juneau in any practical sense. It was nearly 20
miles from Downtown. There was no bus service so it would have to be a
taxi. It was at this point that we met Helen, an English girl who had been on the same ferry and was in
the same predicament. After about 15 minutes a free taxi appeared and we
shared the $35 ride into town.
After a few nights in Juneau spending a day at the Mendenhall
Glacier and another on Mount Roberts, it was time to catch our next ferry
northwards. This was to take us to Skagway and the start of the Yukon
Trail. Juneau is a small place and we bumped into Helen several
times. She was catching the same ferry so we arranged to share a taxi
once again to Auke Bay. When we arrived at the terminal, there
waiting for us, was the Matanuska, having made a direct return sailing back to
The route to Skagway followed a long, ever narrowing water
channel. In Norway this would be called a fjord. At its widest, not long
after we left Auke Bay, the boat entered Stephens Passage which is maybe 10
miles wide. As the two shorelines grow ever nearer, It narrows down to 5 or 6 miles and becomes the 90
mile stretch known as the Lynn Canal where the water is over 2000 feet
deep. It is the deepest fjord in North America and ranks amongst the
longest and deepest in the world. It is followed to the north by Chilkoot Inlet which
leads to the port of Haines and finally it becomes the Taiya Inlet by which
time it is only a few hundred yards wide. The whole journey, including a
stop at Haines, took about 8 hours.
Whilst in Juneau we had visited the City Museum. One section was
devoted to a tragic shipwreck of 1918 in the Lynn Canal. The SS Princess
Sofia, a steel-built passenger liner in the coastal service fleet of
the Canadian Pacific Railway, went aground on the Vanderbilt Reef in a snow
storm. The reef is actually the summit of an underwater mountain. Despite some desperate efforts to rescue the 343 passengers and
crew, the weather made all attempts impossible. Nor could the Princess
Sofia launch her own lifeboats as the wind and the reef would have destroyed
them when they entered the water. After some 40 hours enduring the
atrocious weather, the boat eventually was blown off the reef and sank.
It was the worst maritime disaster in British Columbia and Alaska. We
counted ourselves lucky that today the visibility was good despite the rain and
we sailed north without incident.
Some distance to the west lies the Glacier Bay National Park with over
5,000 square miles of glaciers and high mountains reaching up to 15,000
feet. It was too far away for us to see. But we were not
disappointed as there were high mountains to both sides of the fjord and some had
there own glaciers within clear view of the Matanuska. Very
dramatic. These are places that must be rarely visited as they have no
road system, we could see no landing places for boats and little level ground
for light aircraft.
This was not a day for wildlife although we did see several groups
of the high-speed Dalls Porpoise. They are about 6 feet in length and
have distinctive black and white colouring. They move at such speed that
they produce highly visible white spray. We didn’t see any other marine
life but there were plenty of sea birds. Apart from recognising gulls and
terns my ornithological knowledge does not extend to specific species
What I did recognise on the boat, were two Jehovah’s
Witnesses. They do get everywhere. Even in this remote part of the world
with very small populations, they are still intent on their role as
missionaries. As you would see in more conventional suburban environment,
the two men were dressed in suits with white shirts whereas everyone else was
dressed in much more appropriate clothing for the weather. I wondered if
they only go about their work for a short period in the summer when the
temperatures are better for their type of clothing.
At Haines, the only stop on the journey, there was another strange incident. The first two vehicles to disembark were a government 4×4 vehicle and a large blue van of the Alaska Correctional Industries Laundry. Were there prisoners on-board? The two vehicles parked together on the pier and re-boarded the boat then it was ready to leave. I read later that the prison laundry services has the Alaska Marine Highway System as one of its largest customers.
As we approached Skagway, a gold rush town from Klondike days, we could see today’s “gold rush” in the unsightly form of three very large cruise ships. The presence of these ships is regulated in an attempt to keep under control the number of passengers descending on a small town or national park at any one time. The controls are only partially successful. Our dislike of these hordes was only slightly tempered when the conductor on our “heritage” train the next day on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad explained that the railway only existed today because of the cruise dollar. Before the cruise ships came the railway, such an important supply run of the Yukon Gold Rush days, had fallen into disrepair and disuse. The cruise ship companies provided serious money that enabled a band of enthusiastic railway buffs to rebuild the track and refurbish/replace the rolling stock.
And so our experience of coastal ferries on the Pacific came to an end. These ferries are the only way to see the stunning scenery and wildlife of this fascinating region. There are very few roads and, in any case, they do not connect to other roads. Small planes, especially those fitted with floats, can take you to see many things, some inaccessible in any other practical way, but they are expensive and a flight can be over before it has really begun. The ferries are affordable, comfortable and pass very slowly through the amazing landscapes. They also make regular stops in isolated places allowing a savvy traveller to see many parts of this great country and its ocean. You can travel at your own pace and spend as little or as much time at one place as you like. We booked most of our travel in advance but next time we go we’ll take pot luck. It will work, I’m sure.