Do you ever wish you could go on an Alaskan Cruise and explore the coastal regions of one the wildest places on the planet?
Seems like it was just yesterday when we drove across the Canadian border full of anticipation for all the adventures that awaited us in Alaska, and excited for the opportunities to explore vast expanses of untouched wilderness. For over a month now we have ventured repeatedly into the wild and learned first hand about the dramatic tides and creatures of the sea, and have witnessed the power of the shift from ice to flow as glaciers melt and create turbulent whitewater playgrounds down the mountain sides. We have become acquaintances with magnificent creatures with which we have crossed paths in the woods and have been caught off guard on more than one occasion by the sheer magnitude of the landscape. Our time spent experiencing the extremes of the Alaskan backcountry have proven transformational for our small trio: morphing our apprehension of the unknown into an appreciation for discovery, and magnifying our hunger to return and explore new rugged and remote places.
What if you could bring your RV with you and spend a day or two at your favorite port towns? The Alaska Marine Highway System allows RVs aboard their fleet of ferry boats and accesses three separate regions of Alaska: Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, South-central Alaska’s Heartland and Southwestern Alaska’s Aleutian Chain.
We still have a couple of weeks before our appointment in Seattle, so rather than backtracking down the deserted roads of northern Canada, we decide to check out the Alaska Marine Highway System and explore the coastal region of Alaska that are only accessible by boat or plane. Our first hop is from Skagway to Haines, about an hour and a half jaunt. As the M/V LeConte (ferry boat) approaches, it seems unlikely that our 44’ RV/trailer combo could possibly fit aboard. Once docked, a uniformed master of ceremonies waltzes into the parking lot and initiates a parade of vehicles down the ramp to the dock and through the massive ship doors. When all the other cars are safely aboard, the conductor motions to me that it is my turn to join in the procession. As I turn onto the ramp and get my first glimpse of the loading zone, I realize that if I follow the vehicles ahead of me, around the 90 degree bend at the bottom of the ramp, that my trailer will certainly careen into the sea. Reluctant to continue down the ramp of doom, I stop in the middle of the ramp, uncertain how to proceed. The loadmaster approaches my window and informs me that the only way to make this work will be to BACK the Winnebago and trailer onto the ferry. My jaw hits the dash and my stomach turns rancid. While I am significantly better at maneuvering the trailer than I was just a year ago, the thought of negotiating the trailer through two 90 degree turns over an expanse of water is beyond comprehension.
As I start down the ramp, I can see clearly that there is no way I am going to be able to swing my trailer wide enough to make the turn onto the ship.
Sensing my rising panic, the loadmaster steps up and begins a monologue of very specific, and simple instructions, leaving me no time to contemplate the impossible task ahead. “Turn the wheel one inch to the right…slowly give it some gas…now two inches to the left…that’s it, you’re doing great”. I focus my attention on his calm and confident voice and before I know it, I am across the ramp, around two impossibly tight turns and safely aboard the M/V LeConte – perfectly positioned in a narrow lane between a dump truck and an SUV. I breathe a huge sigh of relief, launch out of the drivers seat, and before he has a chance to object, bear hug the blushing loadmaster.
The loadmaster stays right by my side as I negotiate two 90 degree turns as I back our trailer onto the M/V LaConte.
It’s a tight squeeze, but there is just enough room for Winnie the View to take some time off on the car deck aboard the ferry.
Now that we have survived the loading process it is time to explore the ship. Abby leads the way up, up, up: through a maze of corridors and stairwells, to a window lined room filled with comfy chairs. We select three next to a plate glass window with a 360 degree view. Our noses press to the glass as we pull away from the dock, and almost immediately Abby spots two humpback whales surfacing in the distance…and then a sea lion lounging on a buoy… then a waterfall…then a… In the blink of an eye, we find ourselves arriving in Haines. We return to Winnie the View, this time leading the parade of vehicles off the ship and spend three glorious days in grizzly country. (You can read about our adventures in Haines here.)
Abby settled into the big comfy chairs on our quick hop from Skagway to Haines.
The road out to Chilicoot State Park was spectacular for bear watching.
The next leg of our journey south is from Haines to Juneau. This time we are mentally prepared for the precarious loading process, but discover that our new ship, the V/S Matanuska, is substantially larger and we are able to pull in nose first. We locate the aft stairwell and climb up several flights until we find ourselves on the top of the ship. We step outside, round a corner and find ourselves smack in the middle of an Alaskan beach party. Strewn about on every available inch of the open air patio is an assortment of pool furniture, sleeping pads, tents, and tables. And there are people everywhere; some reading quietly, others are sitting on the deck in a circle around a display of tupperware filled with delicacies. There are people talking in hushed voices in the corner, while others boisterously demand the attention of the entire deck. There is a guy playing the mandolin off to one side and a girls track team returning from a meet in Haines. The pandemonium is alluring, so we scramble over to three vacant lounge chairs and settled in for some spectacular people watching. Once again our four hour journey is over in a flash and we off-load and head into the outskirts of Juneau for a few days of exploration in the coastal rainforest.
An Alaskan beach party on the solarium deck of the V/S Matanuska.
There are no roads to Juneau, the only way to access this coastal rainforest is by plane or boat (specifically the ferry that is part of the Alaska Marine Highway System). Here the Mendenhall Glacier stands sentry above Juneau.
As we push further south, the duration of each successive cruise increases: Juneau to Sitka-9 hours, Sitka to Ketchikan-30 and Ketchikan to Bellingham-41. But now we drive aboard as seasoned passengers, as excited about the journey as we are the destination. We have designated ferry bags packed with all the essentials: sleeping bag, pillow and a Thermarest sleeping pad to keep us warm and comfortable as we lounge on the plastic pool furniture on the solarium deck and binoculars to help identify the abundance of marine life. We have snacks, water, pajamas, playing cards and books. We discover the cafeteria menu includes halibut and salmon at a reasonable price, so we opt for convenience and skip packing our own meals. We eagerly await the car deck calls that happen every 6-8 hours, to check in on Tucker the Dog who is otherwise quarantined to the RV, and shower him with attention and let him stretch his legs. Other than seeming a bit lonely, he appears to be taking the entire experience in stride.
By the time we head to Sitka, Abby is a pro and is completely equipped for an incredible 9 hour journey.
The Inside passage is extraordinarily beautiful, especially from the Solarium Deck.
We spend our first night aboard the ferry, and in the moments as dusk turns to darkness the magic of the ferry reveals itself. In lieu of renting a cabin, we opt to spend the night in the chaise lounges on the solarium under an endless blanket of stars. We wage a desperate battle against the gentle rocking of the ship, relentlessly lulling us off to dreamland to savor just a few more moments of the extraordinary celestial display unfolding above us. It proves futile. I awaken in the night and through heavy eyelids am rewarded with a glimpse of a green glow dancing across the horizon: the aurora borealis. The next thing I know the rosy rays of dawn rouse us from our slumber and set us in motion in preparation to disembark.
Our campsite aboard the ferry: warm, dry and wonderful!
Far too soon our Alaskan RV cruise is over. As we arrive in Bellingham, I realize that some of my favorite memories of our time in Alaska were in those last two weeks exploring the Inside Passage. Our time aboard the ferry had all the elements of a cruise ship that I appreciate: the freedom to wander about while en route to a new destination, time to sit in the sun and take in the scenery around us, and of course great food and interesting people. But what really sold us on RV cruising was that we could go at our own pace and spend as much time as we wanted in the port towns along the way. If we wanted to explore the islands of Sitka in our kayaks for a few days, we could. If we just wanted a taste of a port, we could do that too. And the low-key, utilitarian atmosphere was much more our style than the glitz and glam of a cruise ship. The best part is that Winnie the View was just a few decks away, standing at the ready to shuttle us wherever we wanted to go once we arrived at our destination. During our six short weeks in Alaska, we have checked a dozen items off the old bucket list, but as with most things, each successful adventure leads to a handful of new dreams. With an ever expanding itinerary stretching out before us, we head down the highway once again loving every glorious moment of this life on the road.
On Our last day in Alaska, just as we are headed back to the docks at the Clover Pass RV Resort in Ketchikan, a humpback whale surfaces near our kayaks.
You can learn more about the Alaskan Marine Highway system at their web site. Depending on your rig size and accommodations, it can get expensive ($4,000+). You are not allowed to stay in your RV so either plan on staying in the general areas above deck or purchase a stateroom. During peak season reservations can be hard to get, so it’s best to plan ahead figuring a 4-6 months lead time to get the dates and accommodations you want. Reservations and payment can all be done on-line.