The Alaska Marine Highway System is the way to travel Alaska, I tell you! It is a series of long and short distance ferry routes throughout coastal Alaska, with a stop in Canada and as far south as Bellingham Washington. There are ferries of various sizes, and for the long-hauls they are large vehicle carriers that also include sleeping berths, a cafeteria, and various lounges over 2 decks for passengers.
Costs are pretty low when compared to other methods of transit along coastal Alaska – flying or taking a cruise. Most towns along the way are not accessible via road. When you do add a vehicle, however, the fee is pretty high and based on total length. But, in the end, its still a super economical way to see Alaska and have the freedom of real time in port, as opposed to a short cruise layover or expensive flights. Plus, having our camper along made time in port economical as hotel and food prices in Alaska are sky high.
A few extra tweeks to save our ferry budget: I took our bikes off the back of the camper, and stashed them with the rack inside. This shaved about 2 feet of total length off our bill – you are measured on total space you take up, rear racks, spare tires and all! We also passed up on paying for a berth, and instead joined with other travellers using the top deck to camp out. Yep! Camped on deck. In our tent.
The kids and I packed our backpacks as if we were heading into the woods – tent, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, camp pillows – but skipped extras and food supplies. We tossed some ‘entertainment’ into my travel satchel; Zoe brought her finger puppets, Avi brought Spot It and Uno, plus a few little airplanes. I made sure the kindles were charged and that toothbrushes were along. Plus, I stashed an extra pair of undies and winter weight winder breakers for each of us. Thats really all we needed for 3 days aboard the Matanuska!
In order to have a vehicle on the ferry, you must line up 3 hours prior at the dock and go inside to get your boarding passes and vehicle tag. So, we had a long wait. As an RV, we also needed measured. Slowly, a ferry employee made her wait up the long line of cars and campers at the Prince Rupert terminal. She used a rolling ground measure to determine our camper length: 24 feet! Yes! That is the length I paid for, so I was pleased to see it measured properly to avoid any cost overage. At Prince Rupert there is the additional challenge of going through customs and immigration – we were heading out of Canada and into the USA – so we filled out those forms and declared our veggies to be America then waited; a long long time.
The ferry was running nearly 3 hours late, so we made dinner in the line and finished up book 3 of the Gods of Olympus series before finally getting to board. The line of cars seemed to be a jolly bunch of folks; no one overly mad about the delay. We had fun chatting with the couple parked in the line beside us; we dubbed them the ‘Ohio Nan and Pajoe’ as they really made us think of my parents. The kids loved their little dog, too, who could go limp and play dead. Eventually, we all boarded. It was super fun and easy with all the employees giving directions, to drive the camper onto the boat!
We snatched our backpacks and hustled up the stairs to the top deck to lay claim to our spot. I expected it to be a bit crowded, but we were the first tenters! I snagged a primo spage right behind the ‘solarium’ – a walled-by-glass open air lounge. We couldn’t be inside there with a tent, but other folks camping claimed lounge chairs and slept in the solarium under heat lamps…a nice option as well.
To set up the tent, I brought along duct tape. So, while I taped it down, the kids got poles ready. It was up in no time, and another couple hoping to tent set up beside us. They were quite fun neighbors from Tennessee and joined us the whole way to Juneau. We started ‘moving in’ with sleeping pads and stuff when the boat took off from the dock. It was so fun to be on our way!! Luckily the rain cleared out this afternoon, so it was quite pleasant on deck. Avi loved watching the huge container port go by; while in line we had watched a giant train load of containers go into the port. Ohio Nan and Pajoe came up to see our tent spot and catch up.
Another announcement blared: the cafeteria was nearing closing time. “What time is it?” Zoe asked. I looked at my phone. “Nearly 9pm!” We all hustled down for some dinner. I planned to just buy food during this portion of the trip, as the camper was only accessible during short periods while we were in port.
The cafeteria offers all kinds of stuff – a salad bar and cold sandwiches, soup, and a hot food line. Tonight was pot roast which the kids didn’t recognize, so they chose hamburgers and hot dogs. Afterward, we headed back to our tent for some reading and sleep. The sun was still lighting the sky, but the lull of the boat and white noise of the rumbling engine easily drowned out the other folks out chatting on deck, and put us to bed.
When the boat docked in Ketchikan, it was finally dark; 2;30am. I got out of the tent to use the restroom (there is one that has two showers right in the solarium), and then snapped a pic of the port thinking of Ohio Nan and Pajoe heading of the boat for their next adventure. I woke again, as the boat pulled away, and checked the time. 310 am – it was starting to get light out.
For a full day at sea, there was plenty to do aboard. The kids messed around in the play area which was really for preschoolers. We ate a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs and potatoes and toast. We stocked up on peanut butter packets. We lounged in the forward lounge and played Trivial Pursuit from the stash of games, we lounged in the movie lounge and watched Star Wars, we lounged in the midship lounge and the kids practiced piano for the other sleeping passengers’ enjoyment. We wandered the decks looking for animals, and saw sea otters eating on their backs. We reveled in the excitement with our tent neighbors and solarium freinds when whales started spouting and interrupted our Uno game! Whales! They would spout and then arch their backs and flip their fluke at the end. It was amazing. Then we had dinner in the cafeteria; everytime the kids chose a new table with animal spotting information.
Back on the tent deck, ready to pass the evening with some Uno or Spot It, the kids made friends with a family of 3 girls from Kentucky. They invented a game of kicking my duct tape roll, and our tent neighbors introduced chairs as goals. All evening these kids played and ran around squealing burning energy; their parents and I sat around yapping. So pleasant was it that the time went by and we didn’t realize how late it was until the sun began to set at 11pm.
Our final day found us all a bit sleepy. More eating, more gawking at the scenery, more audiobook in the tent (God of Olympus 4, now), and more whales! and finally some more playing before we took down the tent to prep for departure. After docking at Auke Bay (the nearest ferry port to Juneau, about 12 miles north of town) the announcement went out to retrieve our vehicles and it was a wild jenga game down there; organized, though, as the employees really knew how to direct and got us all off safe and quick.