The majority of my Alaska living and exploring has taken place in the Interior of Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula. In 2010, I decided it was time to visit Alaska’s capital, in Juneau, try out the Marine Highway, and catch a glimpse of SE Alaska.
The State of Alaska owns a ferry fleet that sails from Bellingham WA (North of Seattle) to Whittier AK (South of Anchorage) and west to the Aleutian Chain. The ferries offer a cruise ship alternative with cabin accommodations, restaurants, sightseeing activities, and the ability to carry vehicles. Some tourists choose this alternative. Many locals choose this option. Locals in SE Alaska use this as their highway between communities.
My sister and I took the ferry from Whittier to Yakutat to Juneau. We slept in a tiny berth with no windows. We ate in the cafeteria, watched movies and ate popcorn in the train car size theater, sat on the main deck and took in the views, and marveled at the people who paid for walk-on accommodations only and then camped outside on the deck with a lawn chair or in a tent. We did not see many families; the passengers were primarily single adults of all ages, and older couples.
We liked the cost, informality, casual dress, close proximity to the water – and that we did not get seasick. We did not like that we locked ourselves out of our small private bathroom at 3:00 am.
Last summer, 2013, I decided to try putting a vehicle on the ferry. I purchased tickets several months in advance.
In July, I drove from Soldotna to Valdez (approximately 10-11 hours.) At one of the Valdez Museums, I showed slides from ‘A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory, about Anna Bortel who had taught in Valdez from 1954 to 1957. I then toured two other museums.
Jim Shephard, a long-time Valdezan and history buff, had recently hand-cleared a 2.5 mile section of the historic Goat Trail; which at one time served as a throughway between Valdez and Fairbanks. I never miss an opportunity to hike. He offered to be my guide. That day, heavy fog and drizzle closed in Prince William Sound and up the Thompson highway — to the trailhead. Jim was a nimble guide. The slippery rocks and roots, and the trail-edge drop-offs that were camouflaged by tall, dense underbrush, by no means discouraged or impeded his progress. He was in his element. I was glad for the leather, water-proof gloves his wife had loaned me. I loved every minute of it.
Before returning to Soldotna, I accepted an invitation from Jim and his wife Charlotte, to join them for lunch and hot tea at the Tiekel Roadhouse. They’d purchased and made livable the roadhouse which is the only roadhouse still intact between Valdez and Fairbanks. Their hospitality and history-telling was the highlight of my trip.
I regretted scheduling a too-short time in Valdez.
Departure day loomed.
I was apprehensive about getting my vehicle on and off the ferry. I nagged my brother and other family members about the “how to.” I nagged the terminal staff. Then I followed staff instructions and lined up in the designated lane of small trucks and SUVs.
When the time came to board, it was a piece of cake, or shall I say, a piece of Alaska Rhubarb Pie. Simple. The on-board attendants directed me to my spot, ushered me out of my pick-up, and blocked the vehicle tires so there would be no shifting weight during the trip.
I went up to the main deck, got a cup of steaming tea, and settled down to watch the fog roll in and out, the glacier-blue ice chunks floating in clusters, and otters and whales cavorting.
One and a half hours later, I was at Whittier. Too-quick; but it sure beat the long drive inland. Two hours later, I was back in Soldotna.
Where do I want to go next? This June, Jim and Charlotte are taking the ferry from Homer to Dutch Harbor (down the Aleutian Chain.) I’d love to join them. I would not love that it is in “The Deadliest Catch” water. The Alaska Marine Highway agents assure me that that’s why they only run the ferry in the summer months – when the weather is better. Better than what? I’ll wait for a first-hand report from Jim and Charlotte.