Marine Highway: How Alaskans travel

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The Alaska Marine Highway System provides ferry service from Bellingham, Wash., to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.
The Alaska Marine Highway System provides ferry service from Bellingham, Wash., to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. Photo Credit: Alaska Marine Highway System
Mary Pemberton
Mary Pemberton

With all the intrigue these days about life in Alaska, here's an insider tip: Real Alaskans take the ferry.

What Alaskans call "the ferry" actually is the Alaska Marine Highway that provides ferry service from Bellingham, Wash., to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, and serves many of the same communities visited by cruise ships.

The Alaska Marine Highway's main route is along Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage, a sheltered, 1,500-mile route where the scenery is largely the same gorgeous expanse of mountains shrouded in mist and glaciers coming to water's edge, with the sound of the ferry engines broken occasionally by the high-pitched screech of a bald eagle.

My first trip to Alaska was in 1988, and I arrived on the state ferry. The trip was a graduation present from my father so that we could visit my two brothers who had moved to Alaska years before and were working in the Tongass National Forest.

Dad and I boarded the ferry in Washington and headed to Alaska where my brothers met us and took us by boat to their campsite in the Tongass. 

I remember the happy, relaxed attitude of my fellow ferry riders and wondered at those who had thought to bring a tent and set it up on the upper deck. Some passengers slept in recliner lounges in the ship's three-sided heated solarium. Dad and I found an area just big enough for two sleeping bags along an inside wall. It was surprisingly quiet. Perhaps the comforting thrum of the ferry's motors helped put passengers to sleep.

Setting up a tent on the upper deck affords passengers with prime viewing of the passing scenery.
Setting up a tent on the upper deck affords passengers with prime viewing of the passing scenery. Photo Credit: Alaska Marine Highway System

"The ferry lets you experience the way Alaskans travel, in a relaxed and casual atmosphere," said Danielle Doyle, the Alaska Marine Highway System's marketing manager, adding that many out-of-state passengers previously came to Alaska aboard cruise ships. The ferries are pretty much full when they leave Bellingham, she said.

"They want the opportunity to stop and stay in the diverse communities along our route and experience Alaska at their own pace," Doyle said.

The ferries have cabins with single or double bunk beds, and most have private bathroom facilities. Those that don't have public restrooms and shower facilities. Fresh linens, towels and blankets are available for a small fee.

Nearly all the ferries have food and beverage service. Hot and cold items are served throughout the day in self-serve dining rooms. Some have full-service dining rooms. Passengers may also bring their own food and coolers. Some vessels have coin-operated ice machines and all of the ferries have microwave ovens.

Apart from its affordability, one of the best things about the ferry system is its flexibility. Want to spend a little more time at the Mendenhall Glacier or the state museum in Juneau? Just catch the next ferry. Want to spend more time in Ketchikan to check out the century-old totem poles at the Totem Heritage Center? Take the next ferry.

"Traveling with us means that you are in control of where and when you travel. Stop and stay in several ports along the way to your final destination or travel direct, it's all up to you," the website says.

Visit www.ferryalaska.com.

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