Cruising Alaska has been a tradition for over a century
Cruising to and around Alaska is nothing new. From the cruises of the Treasury Department's Revenue Cutters to today's floating cities, people have come to Alaska for furs, gold and the scenery. They still do.
Just say to a stranger in the Lower 48 that you're from Alaska, and their eyes get misty and they breathe out a sigh of "I've always dreamed about going to Alaska." Ever heard anyone say, "I've always dreamed of going to Bermuda?" No.
Steamers and cruisers
Reading a copy of "Steaming to the North: The First Summer Cruise of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, Alaska and Siberia, 1886," by Katherine C. Donahue and David C. Switzer of Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, published by the University of Alaska Press Fairbanks this fall, it occurred to me so many Outsiders travel around Alaska by ship, but Alaskans - not so much.
And that's really a shame, because Alaska has so many places to see by water with a fleet that covers much of the state, from Anchorage all the way down to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Chain. For Alaskans, the Alaska Marine Highway System, http://www.dot.state.ak.us, has bargains in the winter.
Sadly, the AMHS no longer offers unlimited winter travel for a mere $500. I suspect they figured out that homeless people were using ferries as floating shelters. And why not, with PFD money in hand, they could visit friends and family across the state, enjoy a warm place to sleep, some reasonably priced meals, and hot showers.
Now the bargains are more regulated: drivers go free when accompanying a drivable vehicle from October 2014 to April 30, 2015, which helps a lot. There are also senior and children fares.
I've always enjoyed the meals from the ferry cafeterias, which are hearty and homemade, with fresh Alaska seafood and great specials. They even have brown rice as a side dish.
So hop aboard your own floating decompression chamber that still has Wi-fi and cell phone access but only close to ports, for you have to disconnect to connect with yourself.
Take the Inside
The "Blue Canoes" are a great place to meet your fellow Alaskans while taking in breath-taking scenery and abundant wildlife, sometimes right next to the ship.
The most traveled section is the Inside Passage, from Bellingham, Wash., to Juneau, where ferries dare to go where large cruise ships would beach on the narrows, through places where it seems if you spread wide your arms you could touch both shores.
This route from the contiguous United States to the goldfields of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, ships of all sizes and condition carried stampeders north from Seattle. Tourists followed close behind.
Early on, visitors curious about the gold rush traveled the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad in Skagway. You can still take the "Scenic Railway of the World" during the summer season from Skagway to the summit of White Pass above Skagway, Carcross in British Columbia, or Lake Bennett in the Yukon where gold seekers built crude boats to travel up the Yukon River to Dawson City.
Ferries come in all sizes, all have a cafeteria or snack bar, but the M/V Columbia has a fine dining room with waiters and linen tablecloths, and a commanding view of the scenery.
Some have staterooms, others not and where travelers either take to the chairs, benches or the floor to sleep or head upstairs to the solarium in the stern. With heat lamps overhead, enclosed on three sides and offering deck loungers, just claim a lounge chair with your mattress pad and sleeping bag and be prepared for the best sleep of your life. Gently rocked by the sea and nestled down into your bag, you'll be awakened by the rising sun, or as I did once by an inebriated fisherman out of Ketchikan one November, who for some reason, was leaning over my lounger smoking a cigarette.
When I asked him to move, he slurred, "I'm sorry madam, I didn't realize I was annoying you." Amusing, even at 2 a.m.
But usually, it's a quiet trip, that is, until you leave the protection of the passage and come to the open water of the Gulf of Alaska and the stern dips and rises in time to the wave action. I watched a stack of about five deck loungers careen across the deck at me as I was sitting reading. I just stayed put and they bounced off my lounger.
If any of this puts you off, then you're no Alaskan.
You can get on and off the ships to explore each town along the way if the ship is in port for a time. When that's the case, the bursar will announce which tour companies are lined up on the dock and you can look the town over knowing the ship won't leave until the tour bus returns.
On the Inside Passage route, Ketchikan and Sitka are usually a good stopover to see the local attractions detailing the Native culture and fishing and canning industry.
There's the hot springs in Tenakee Springs to experience, but the ferry doesn't stop for long, so a lengthy stay for the arrival of the next ferry is required.
Glacier Bay National Park is accessible by the ferry from Juneau to Gustavus twice a week, and the town offers a good selection of lodgings as well as the park's Glacier Bay Lodge, which also offers discounts for Alaskans in September. See the glaciers before they're gone.
The trip to Dutch Harbor only runs during the summer with a ride that lasts from Tuesday evening to Saturday morning. It shuts down in the winter when the weather becomes unruly.
Explore the Marine Highway website for a route that will open up a part of Alaska you never imagined existed.
I'm hoping there'll be ferry service up the Arctic Coast with stops to the islands along the way.
I was sitting in Tenakee Hot Springs north of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, one winter talking to a family from Anchorage there to put their daughter into ballet auditions. They asked me where I was from.
"Skagway," I said. "Where's that," the mother asked. And when I replied, "Alaska," she turned to her husband and said, "I told you we needed to get out of Anchorage."