Get a ticket to ride
Alaska's water route calls to you
This column has talked about riding the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), and that it is an experience many Alaskans revel in and more should try.
It will be especially so in 2018, when AMHS hopes to roll out its two Alaska class ferries, now being constructed at Vigor Alaska in Ketchikan, that will serve as day boats.
At 280 feet long, they can seat up to 300 passengers and stow 53 standard vehicles on their car decks. For speedy loading and unloading, they will have bow and stern doors, the car decks will be enclosed fully, and controllable pitch propellers will help with maneuverability and efficiency – especially in those ports with high winds. The new hull design will ease pounding waves.
I remember one March on the M/V LeConte coming up Lynn Canal in high seas where the ship went up on a crest, shuddered and dove into the trough. It was exciting if your stomach behaved.
Planes fall out of the sky and cars crash, but AMHS ferries have never gone down.
The marine highway operates nine ferries serving 35 communities in Southeast, Gulf of Alaska and Southwest Alaska. That doesn't include the two ships taken out of service – the Taku and the Chenega – to save money due to the state budget shortfall that will likely translate into cuts to AMHS funding.
My solution? Put one-arm bandits in the now closed bars, offer beer and wine only and I bet the system can pay for itself. If cruise ships can offer gambling on the high seas, maybe the state would allow gambling in Alaska waters.
Unplug and unwind
Despite the layups of ships for repairs, changes in the schedule, delays and other problems inherent to travel, the real appeal of the ferry is the experience.
Where else can you ride for 90 miles past glaciers, leaping porpoises, breaching and bubble-feeding whales, flocks of seabirds, miles of bald eagles sitting in the trees - just look for the telltale golf ball that signals their heads – and all in the company of fellow Alaskans.
Yes, there's no internet connection except in ports, but the ferry offers a game room, movies in the lounge, in the summer a National Park Service Ranger offer talks, a great cafeteria where you can enjoy Alaska seafood and for vegetarians a great array of vegetables and even brown rice.
Sadly, the bars are gone as are the guest shops, due to budget constraints, but it's lively up in the solarium where you can pitch a tent or spread a sleeping bag on the deck loungers and enjoy a sleep you haven't had since infancy, rocking with the waves to the thump of the engines.
Many walk the deck for exercise and some prefer reading a book in one of the lounges - that is unless you're interrupted by a friend for a long chat.
It's Alaska's decompression chamber where you can rid yourself of the bubbles of bother of your daily life.
It is also an economic engine, transporting tourists, snowbirds and military families to and from the state.
More cost-effective than air freight, it also ships container vans year-round that bring groceries to stores and restaurants along its route and on the way out brings the bounty of Alaska's seafood to Lower 48 markets. When local planes don't fly, the U.S. mail comes by ferry.
Not a luxury, the marine highway is a real force in the state's economy and the lifeline of rural communities.
Winter brings savings, summer schedule set
From October 1 to April 30, the ferry system offers a 50 percent discount for passenger vehicle drivers. It's an annual offering to ease costs during the off-season. Kids under the age of 6 ride free and kids 6 to 11 are half price.
Seniors, 65 or older, have a discounted rate. For an adult, a round-trip from Skagway to Juneau is $114, and $86 for seniors. In May, however, there will be a rate hike of $3 for that trip.
The 2017 summer schedule will essentially remain the same, although Lynn Canal communities will see seven days of sailings compared to last summer's six.
Book online at http://www.dot.state.ak.us or call 1-800-642-0066 Monday through Friday 7 to 5 p.m. Alaska Time.