An Alternative to an Alaskan Cruise: Traveling on the Alaska Marine Highway System

A few years ago, a group asked me about doing a concert tour of the British Columbia coast and Southeast Alaska by ferry, and while that tour didn’t’t end up working out, it sparked a great interest in a new destination for me. In Seattle, summer is also known as cruise season as we have about a dozen major cruise ships in and out of the city each weekend, taking passengers up the coast to Alaska. However, if you prefer a more local means of transport, there is something of an alternative in the Alaska Marine Highway System. The Alaska Marine Highway begins in Bellingham, Washington, about 90 miles north of Seattle, has one stop in British Columbia, and includes 32 terminals along the waterways of Southeast Alaska, the southern coast and the Aleutian Islands, stretching over 3,000 miles (greater than the distance from LA to New York!). By the time you reach the port of Dutch Harbor in the town of Unalaska, you are only about 200 miles from Russia and, indeed, many towns along this route claim Russian heritage from long before the US bought the Alaskan territory.



11 ships serve the Alaska Marine Highway (which is actually part of the National Highway System) and all are named after Alaskan glaciers, leading to some jokes about the speed of some of the ships! These ships provide vital cargo services to some cities that are inaccessible by road and where air service can be spotty at certain times of year. They also take on cars and passengers. Some ships that make longer, slower runs have staterooms, but there are also opportunities to pitch a tent on one of the outside decks and many people have made quite a study of where the best spots are to avoid the worst of the wind, or to get the best views.





For my first foray on the ferry, I didn’t’t have much time but I was able to schedule a trip from Petersburg to Juneau this July. I was on the M/V Fairweather, one of the fast ferries that make this trip in about four hours, unlike some of the other ferries that take 8-12 hours. The route is beautiful, with great views along the Inside Passage. You go up past Tracy Arm fjord, a frequent destination of cruise ships, and along the way there are glaciers to see and wildlife to spot, including orcas and humpback whales. In my four hour trip, I saw about two dozen whales!




The other folks on my ship were there for all sorts of reasons. Petersburg has a population of less than 3,000 and minimal medical facilities, so some were on their way to Juneau for medical appointments, including two women who were eight and a half months pregnant and were going to the nearest hospitals to deliver their babies! There were also a few backpackers from around the world. I talked with one woman from Western Australia who was backpacking through Alaska for two weeks and there were also a couple of young adventure travelers from Germany. There were folks just going up to Juneau to do their back-to-school shopping, and others who were traveling to see family who had moved to the city.



While the cruise ships only stop in certain cities in Southeast Alaska, the ferries can take you to many smaller towns with shallow harbors or without the infrastructure to support a cruise ship. These towns give you a decidedly less touristy view of the state. Petersburg, the city where I boarded the ferry, is a major fishing port, but it is known as “Little Norway” since much of the population is of Scandinavian descent. Petroglyphs in the city have been carbon dated back over 2,000 years though! The town is decidedly untouristy, in large part because cruise ships can’t reach the town through the treacherous Wrangell Narrows.



Traveling on the Alaska Marine Highway does have its shortcomings though. Not every city is served daily, each ferry follows a different route and the same cities can take significantly different amounts of time to get between depending on the ferry. The AMHS website is very good though, and relatively easy to use. Though the ferry schedules can be a little overwhelming if you’re trying to coordinate an extended trip, it seems to be well worth the effort. We have another group interested in trying a tour utilizing the AMHS next year, and I’ll be sure to report back with how that goes!