Sailing the Alaska Marine Highway in 2020? Better read this
November 1, 2019
"What a beautiful sight that was. We could take our car, or walk on board, and GO SOMEWHERE! Our highway had arrived!" ~ Betty J. Marksheffel, describing her first view of the ferry as a historical note in celebration of the Alaska Marine Highway System's 50th anniversary in 2013.
Living in coastal Alaska often means navigating life in places so remote that no road can be built to transport people or supplies. Everything from toilet paper to apples and oranges must be ordered and shipped on an airplane or boat; that is, if the weather cooperates. Services like medical and dental care, education or law enforcement may be lacking or nonexistent, depending upon the time of year and nature of the need. And yet, this place with no roadways somehow attracts a large number of people, drawn to climate and an endless range of land, rich in cultural and economic opportunity.
The coastal Alaska areas I'm talking about stretch from the southern panhandle cities of Ketchikan and Juneau, then north and westward to Kodiak Island and the Aleutians. While most residents of these communities swear they'd never live anywhere else, making a home with few resources can be complicated at best, especially before the Alaska Marine Highway ferries showed up. And now, in 2019, those who didn't experience life without the "blue canoes" are suddenly faced with exactly that.
Alaska's ferry system is a dual-service operation, providing vital connectivity to remote coastal towns, but also as one of the most authentic methods of visiting the Last Frontier for independent travelers. The ferries are mostly an aging fleet, to be sure, but their stalwart means of surging forward in all kinds of weather over 3,500 miles of All-American Road is a testament to their creation and a symbol of an Alaska lifestyle in its purest form.
In November 2018, Alaskans elected a new governor who promised, among other things, to balance a bloated budget. With a swift and lethal red pen, he did just that, in the process cutting $43 million in funding from the Alaska Marine Highway budget, because, to paraphrase, "It is an inefficient system that needs overhaul."
The response from consumers and legislators was swift and desperate, and led to $5 million being put back into the ferry budget by lawmakers duking it out in Juneau. Then that $5 million was vetoed in another red pen-session. The governor said he was waiting on a $250,000 study to "reshape" the Alaska ferry system, due for release later this month, before he approved any replacement funding. But in the meantime, as fall crept closer and closer and winter ferry schedules were readied by the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) office in Ketchikan, Alaskans living, working or playing anywhere in coastal Alaska waited with eyes closed and fingers crossed, praying their route would survive the coming storms.
Communities like Cordova ultimately lost out; service there ended for the winter on September 30 and is not slated to restart until mid-May, meaning residents and anyone who wants to visit must now fly. Those apples, oranges and toilet paper purchases? Better ship them at an enormous cost. Need a car repaired, get a kid to a volleyball match, or god forbid, need a critical medical procedure not available in smaller communities? So sorry.
Alaska Marine Highway pleasure travelers are affected, too, especially on popular routes like the Bellingham to Whittier run, sailing over the course of six days or so along some of the 49th state's most beautiful stretches of landscape. This run, along with several others, is so popular that staterooms fill up as soon as reservations open, and still more passengers set up camp on one of the top decks to save a few dollars and fully capture the Alaska indie travel experience.
Danielle Doyle with AMHS says that for now, the department is unable to provide any scheduling or fare information for sailings after April 30, pending release of recommendations from the ferry "reshaping" report.
"What I understand from the management team is that DOT leadership is waiting until this report is in hand before providing us with direction," she told me. "So honestly we have no idea what type of schedules we'll be able to provide for next summer until we have a budget."
What should you do? Here are some ideas:
Consider an earlier trip. Spring is arriving earlier and earlier in Alaska, especially the Southeast region, so a springtime venture up or down the Inside Passage could be an excellent option. Find a complete schedule of all ferry routes at https://bit.ly/32wpGt8.
Know the ins and outs of booking with the Alaska Marine Highway System reservations system. In the past, if I have needed to make multiple stops and starts on a trip, I've needed the help of reservations agents to figure out the game of when, where, and how. The current system has been revamped to hopefully make it easier, Doyle said.
Set up an AMHS Customer Profile now. Why? Once the updated summer schedule has been provided for 2020 sailings, customers must have a profile to book a sailing reservation. Do it now, list your preferences, and book faster than those who must start from the beginning. Why does it matter? Fares are increasing, sometimes incrementally by ferry booking capacity. The faster you book, the cheaper it will be. Find the steps on the AMHS reservations page.
Be as flexible as possible. The ferry experience is worth it, so consider a few alternatives, just in case you don't get the first choice sailing. Try walking on board, biking around smaller communities, or a fly-sail option. See below for some of the trips we've taken together. No choice is the wrong one, it may just be different.
Stay in touch. Watch http://www.AKontheGO.com for updates from the Alaska Marine Highway System offices, and stay current with AMHS Service Notices posted regularly on the ferry website.
Erin Kirkland is a longtime Alaska travel journalist and devoted fan of Alaska ferries. She will be speaking about travel trends and tips for 2020 at the Anchorage Senior Center on Tuesday, Nov. 12 at 6 p.m. as part of AARP Alaska's "Age Smart" series.