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(Photo by Beth Lanier)
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

Sailing the Alaska Marine Highway

If you happen to be a full-time RVer, own an RV, vacationed in an RV, or are just considering buying an RV, you’ve probably heard daunting tales of traveling to Alaska via the AlCan — The Alaska Canadian Highway. It is the stuff of legends involving miles and miles of complete wilderness, rough roads and beautiful scenery.

What once was a bumpy dirt road, the AlCan is now a much better maintained highway. But the cold hard truth is this: it is never completely repaired and some things, like frost heaves, cannot be repaired.

Major construction takes place in the spring after an often brutal winter, making the AlCan Highway a constant challenge. Road work, washboard dirt sections that rattle screws loose, deep pot holes that jar your teeth, and of course, frost heaves that sometime crack and must be resurfaced, all add to the precarious thrill of driving this scenic byway.

I am a veteran.  I survived the AlCan so I know of what I write. In 2007, I towed a 2002 Teton fifth wheel behind a 2001 Ford F350 from Denver, through Montana, into Alberta and onto the AlCan.  I returned coming down through British Columbia. Let’s just say, I will never do it again.

I will leave it up to other writers to spin tales of the AlCan in the spring.  Instead, I want to share with you the best way to travel to Alaska and the sights you’ll see along the way – the Alaska Marine Highway.  The Alaska Marine Highway allows you to travel in your RV via Alaska’s ferry system. www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs.

Alaska - passage 2
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

When you are booking your trip on the Alaska Marine Highway, keep these things in mind:

  • The ferries travel night and day.  Pay attention to the times of your cruises, not just the dates to make sure that you pass through the spectacular scenery during the daytime hours so you don’t miss anything!
  • Bring your own snacks and drinks to save money.  There are food and drink available – from a snack bar and vending machines to a full-service restaurant featuring Alaskan seafood. But they are expensive.
  • Bring everything you need for your enjoyment while you are away from your RV.  Make a list.  Kindle, iPad, iPod, books, camera, camera accessories, extra batteries and discs, medications, water, cell phone, binoculars, extra jacket, etc.
  • Make sure you have a variety of clothing with you on deck. Alaska temperatures vary rapidly so make sure you have comfortable and warm clothing.
  • If you plan to nap on deck, bring a blanket and pillow and get there early to ensure that you have a deck chair.
  • Reserve your staterooms when you make your trip reservations. Don’t take it for granted that one will be available.
Alaska - boarding ferry
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

In 2010, two of my friends and I drove a 40-foot Allegro Bus towing a Chevy Colorado truck with two kayaks on top to Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

We chose to leave out of Prince Rupert instead of Bellingham, Wash., because it is a 32-hour cruise to Ketchikan (which faces the famous cruise route along the coast) from Bellingham versus a 6-hour cruise from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan, the first stop on our itinerary.

Prince Rupert is nestled off the coast in an isolated island of continental British Columbia. This place is the soul of the Tsimishian Nation and was the abode for numerous First Nation people as well. Being drenched in the history of the North Pacific, it is a lovely jumping off point for an RVing adventure. visitprincerupert.com

 

The border crossing into Canada, was an amusing event – mainly because we were not asked about prescriptions, pet health records, or weapons.  Instead, we were questioned about our food, of all things, and were told that we had to surrender our golden delicious apples.

One of my friends pressed the border guard for mercy and he kindly allowed us to keep the meat of the fruit but we were forced to surrender the cores —and sadly, the russet potatoes we had so carefully stashed were also confiscated.

However, being from the south, we don’t think of sweet potatoes or yams as a traditional potato and it totally escaped our minds to mention them. So yes, we confess.  We are potato smugglers!

Alaska - mountain
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

Driving Canadian Highway 1 to 97, we passed Hell’s Gate which is a magnificent river gorge. Hell’s gate actually is a sudden tapering of the Fraser river.  Massive rock walls of the Fraser dive toward each other constraining the waters and forcing the flowing river to pass through a passage of 35 meters which makes it a beautiful sight. www.hellsgateairtram.com

Our initial plans were to follow Highway 37 to Cassiar RV park, with plans to drive to Stewart/Hyder, before our trip up the Inside Passage started.  Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate and we had torrential downpours.

Therefore, we headed down 37/CH 16 toward Terrace.  We were not disappointed in this route change for long. The drive from Terrace to Prince Rupert is nothing short of spectacular.  explorenorth.com/wordpress/exploring-stewart-bc-hyder-alaska

On our arrival, we took a hike to Butke rapids, winding through a mossy green forest and ending at a beautiful view of the river. An easy hiking loop passes through the rain forest which leads you through the mystical ancient forests, forest bogs and coastal wetlands which are connected notoriously with Prince Rupert.

Butke rapids naturally came into being because of the tidal currents surrounding the Kaien Island. This causes the fern passage to reverse on each of the tides. You will get to see some extraordinary plants, amazing habitats of local wildlife – not to mention a splendid view of the ocean!

All of the plantings are affected by the wet and cool climates of the marines North Coast. The lush greenery gives an almost primordial ambience, creating a truly enchanting experience. www.visitterrace.com

The hike had done its work, and we were starving! So we decided to visit downtown Rupert to Cow Bay which is a delightful shopping village with a quaint atmosphere. The streets are lined with heritage buildings renovated into restaurants, coffee house, art galleries, a marina, and even a pub, but maintaining their original old world charm.
www.cowbaycafe.com

We stuffed ourselves silly with grilled Halibut and fish and chips at Cow Bay and enjoyed the impromptu entertainment provided by a seal bobbing up and down the bay. A bald eagle decided to give us a magnificent display of his flying prowess, back and forth over the deck. Lunch and a show!

Before retiring for the evening we packed our backpacks, gathered our camera gear and anything else we might want at hand on the ferry.  Believe me, this strategic planning was necessary.

Alaska - ferry deck
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

Keep in mind that once the ferry launches, you cannot go below to your RV or car, so you have to be prepared by having a backpack or bag with items that you want readily available. Pets must stay in the RV and are not allowed in the cabins or on deck with the strict exception of licensed service dogs.  You are allowed to take your dogs out for a walk when the ferry docks for drop offs along the route, but otherwise, they must stay contained.

In Prince Rupert we boarded the Taku, a ferry that is 352 feet long and 74 feet wide, with a routine speed of 16.5 knots. It is designed to carry 350 passengers.  The crew was very professional and assisted us in boarding the Allegro Bus and the Chevy, which was boarded separately. We crated our dogs with snacks and water and went upstairs to find a spot near the window.

For those who want privacy, berths are available from $60 to $200 and are priced per room instead of per person. Berths range from two-person inside rooms with no window and shared facilities to four-person outside cabins with a picture window and private restroom.

However, on the deck, there is a heated solarium where people can sleep on deck chairs instead of renting a berth. Backpackers were camped out all around and even tents were pitched on the deck outside the solarium!  It is extremely casual on deck, passengers lounge in recliners, photographers sit by the railing eager to capture a glimpse of whales or any other wildlife.

You won’t go hungry on board either, there is a full service snack bar serving fresh and pre-packaged foods along with a variety of beverages.

The nicest part of traveling this way is that there are no “port stops” where you rush off to view what you can before having to get back to the boat.  You can set your own schedule and AMH is very cooperative in changing your itinerary if you happen to book a longer stay in an area that doesn’t suit you.

Alaska - totem
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

Ketchikan

We arrived in Ketchikan late in the day and therefore spent the night in a Walmart parking lot before moving onto our campground at Ward Lake the next morning.  This Alaskan city faces the Inside Passage and the views are spectacular.

Ketchikan is famous for its totem poles all around the city, a unique and eye-catching sight. Another popular attraction is the Misty Fjords National Monument, a glacier covered wild beauty of nature with snow-capped mountains, streams, and rushing waterfalls.

Activities in Ketchikan included a “Duck” amphibious tour and touring Creek Street which is a beautiful old section of the original city.

If you are a photographer or simply enjoy catching wildlife on film in your travels, you’ll be happy to know that the opportunities to photograph eagles abound in Ketchikan.  Stopping at any cannery will guarantee you stunning shots of eagles diving for fish, perching on pilings, or in flight. This breathtaking countryside is home to other wild creatures such as wolves and black bears also.

At the northern end of Ketchikan is Seal Cove where we hiked to the waterfall viewing platform and then along the beach consisting of slate rocks.  For the history buff, Totem Bight State Park features a reproduction clan house and a collection of reproduction totem poles set on the water.

Saxman Native Village provided for more unique totem viewing. The Totem Heritage center houses totem poles from the 19th century. The totems were retrieved in the 1970’s by the Tlingit (pronounced Klinkit) Indian villages at Tongass Island and Village Island.

Alaska - bear
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

Another interesting sight is the Salmon Ladder built on Salmon Creek which is in place to help the spawning salmon move up the rapid waterfalls.

Ketchikan has a variety of sections with activities, but be aware that the downtown area is geared to the cruise ships and at times, there are three or more ships in port and the area can be so full of people it is difficult to even walk around.  When the ships are not in, many of the businesses are closed as are most of the other tourist attractions, making this part of town a bit disappointing for RVers.

A word to the wise regarding local water transport – when taking the ferry system from one place to the next, check schedules and plan accordingly!  The ferries run with the high tides, so your ferry can leave at all hours of the day or night.  For instance, when heading out of Ketchikan, we had to arrive at the dock at 2:30 a.m. to board the ferry, Matanuska, at 4:30 a.m. for a cruise to Wrangell, the second stop on our journey.

For more information on Ketchikan, visit www.visit-ketchikan.com

Alaska - plane and eagle
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

Wrangell

After a 6-hour cruise, we arrived at Wrangell. We parked at the Alaskan Waters, a small seven-space campground with a view of the bay across the street.  It was close to town and convenient to walk in for meals and shopping.  Again, this area was a treasure trove for eagle viewing and photography.

It’s so charming and quaint, we found ourselves singing the theme to “Northern Exposure” as we strolled towards downtown!

Natural beauty circles Wrangell with an abundance of mountains, rainforests, and islands. A number of outdoor activities are also available for travelers to enjoy themselves to the fullest. Our personal adventure for Wrangell — other than driving from one end of the island to the other and immersing ourselves in the exquisite landscape — was a jet boat cruise with Alaska Waters.  alaskawaters.com

We sped through frigid waters full of icebergs to the Le Conte Glacier and Petersburg, the “Little Norway” of Alaska.  Jim Leslie, the owner of Alaska Waters was our captain in a new jet boat, which he handled expertly.

We viewed eagles, seals, otters and our excursion took us deep into the wilderness. On the return trip, we stopped in for a brief visit to Petersburg, a picturesque town of Norwegian influence with very friendly people.

Alaska - canal
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

Back in Wrangell, we explored Petroglyph Beach and Nemo Point – a beautiful Forest Service campground south of town. Petroglyph Beach is famous Alaskan beach because of the highest numbers of Native American petroglyphs found in this area.

We trekked up the staircase to Dewey Point for a panoramic view of the area. It offers a spectacular view down onto the Yosemite Valley. Once you have reached Dewey Point, every other half a mile or so, will amaze your eyes with a new perspective: Crocker Point, Bridal Veil Falls and Stanford Point respectively. IF you keep going past Stanford Point, you shall arrive at the Tunnel View.

Our last stop on the tour was Chief Shakes Island at Shakes Harbor. A beautiful Clan House on a tiny little island only 200 yards wide.  Our delightful evening ended with a delicious steak dinner at the local Elks Lodge before seeing us ensconced at the Marine Bar for karaoke.

After a day of much needed rest, we left Alaskan Waters and parked near the ferry so we could get as much sleep as possible before we boarded the ferry for Sitka at 4 a.m. Although 18 hours in length, the ferry ride to Sitka seemed to fly by. Traveling at a fast pace through the Inside Passage puts you in sensory overload. Too many beautiful things to absorb.

On the trip up during the daylight hours, we saw whales, bears, otter, seals, lots of eagles and even a tree full of “flamingos.” Someone’s great idea of a joke! There was a baby whale breaching the water and having fun playing with the mama whale. It was truly an experience of a lifetime.

From more information on Wrangell, visit www.wrangellalaska.org

Alaska - harbor
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

Sitka

Situated on the Baranoff Island, Sitka is the farthest west Alaskan city.  There is a strong Russian influence in Sitka as the Russians once occupied Sitka in 1799 but were expelled by the natives.  There are the Archangel Dancers, several Russian Orthodox churches, historic graveyards and unique architecture.

The city is absolutely charming and very clean, with flowers blooming everywhere, and many beautiful shops and restaurants.  We camped at the Sealing Cover Harbor RV Park overlooking the harbor where dozens of eagles flew in and out of trees all day — another photographer’s dream!

Be sure and check out the local offerings this picturesque city has to offer. You will not be disappointed. While in Sitka, we saw a musical presentation at the Sheet’ka Dwaan Naa Kahidi Community House that stands on the site that once housed the Indian Government School.  Now it offers native dance performances in full regalia, storytelling, cultural events, and a native artist’s market.

We also visited the Sitka Pioneer’s Home, built in 1934 on the old Russian Parade Ground.  It is a state home for elderly Alaskans and it features a gift shop where residents display and sell native crafts. There are a number of places to be seen in Sitka, many steeped in history.

St. Michael’s Cathedral was a beautiful site with its white walls and green roof.  It was built in 1844 – 1848 but destroyed by a fire in January 1966.  Many of the icons and religious objects were retrieved and currently reside in the rebuilt structure now.

The Sheldon Jackson Museum boasts an enormous collection of native artifacts.  The Archangel Dancers are a group of Sitka women who perform authentic Russian dances, both the men’s and women’s parts. We had a hearty lunch at Two Chicks and a Stick, delicious halibut shish-kabobs!

Being animal lovers were couldn’t pass up the opportunity to view rescued bears and bear cubs at the Fortress of the Bears and were even offered the chance to get up close and personal with a Bald Eagle.  I never knew just how big they were!  Fourteen-foot wing spans!

The landscape is dotted with little islands, harbors and bays, perfect for kayaking.  Dramatic mountain vistas take your breath away with their dominating yet enchanting presence. The fishing is outstanding and there are hiking trails everywhere.

There was so much to see and do that we hated to cut our trip short so we called the Alaska Marine Highway office and inquired about the possibility of extending our stay. To our relief, they graciously gave us a list of future ferries that we could book which allowed us to succumb to the allure of our surroundings for just a while longer.

For more information on Sitka, visit www.travelalaska.com/destinations/communities/sitka.aspx

Alaska - glacier
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

Juneau

Next, we sailed to Juneau—the second largest city in Alaska and the capitol. Juneau is arguably the most scenic capital of the country and the most beautiful among all cities in Alaska.

The downtown area of Juneau sticks to the mountainside while the rest spreads more than 3,100 square miles to the Canadian border. An amazing regional fact, and tourist attraction, is the Juneau Icefield which is literally a “river of ice.”

Our first stop after getting settled in to our RV park at Spruce Meadows (www.juneaurv.com), was the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor’s Center. The glacier was spectacular in the fading light! The next day we checked out downtown Juneau, a captivating city with many sights to keep one entertained. www.alaska.org/detail/mendenhall-glacier-visitor-center

Since cruise ships dock downtown, the place was lively and filled with music and people. In complete contrast, driving along the coastal road, we stopped to watch whales quietly swimming in the distance and just marveled at the stunning view.

For the most spectacular view, hop aboard the Mt. Roberts Tram downtown, which takes you to the top of a mountain overlooking the city.

Our most enjoyable and memorable meal was at Thane Ore House, a salmon and halibut bake restaurant on the south side of town.  The food was delicious!  It is currently undergoing a remodel under new management and I heartily encourage you to check it out when you visit! juneauempire.com/local/2015-09-21/new-life-thane-ore-house

Alaska - sunset
(Photo by Beth Lanier)

Haines

Back in the day, the territory surrounding the modern-day city of Haines was called “Dtehshuh” by the Chilkat group of Tlingit, which means “end of trail.” This is particularly apropos given this was the last stop in our Alaskan Marine adventure!

When we reached Haines and settled into our spot at Oceanside RV park, the first order of business was to treat ourselves to a lovely breakfast at the legendary Chilkat Restaurant and bakery.  It lived up to its name with an impressive array of scrumptious baked goods and perfect coffee.  www.oceansiderv.com

Haines has a lot to offer and we did not want to miss it so next we headed to the visitor’s center and then checked out the several native art centers, gift shops, and other boutiques in town.

Our exploration of the town itself completed, we drove to Chilkat Park, Chilkoot Lake, discovered some fine local bakeries, and even participated in a poker tournament at a local bar.  What an experience that was! The campground had a crab boil that was absolutely scrumptious!  We dined as the sun was setting, spreading its rustic orange glow across the horizon. It was the perfect ending to our jaunt in Haines.

After our arrival in Haines, we were rested, relaxed and ready to take on the rest of the Alaskan roads — from the frost heaves to the potholes!

For more information about Haines, visit www.visithaines.com.

Compared to an expensive Inside Passage cruise, this was much more cost effective and we were able to choose how long we wanted to spend at each destination. Not to mention the money saved on excursions and the ability to change one’s sight-seeing itinerary on a whim. Plus, there were no mad rushes to get back to the cruise ship before it left you behind!

For those who want to truly experience the Inside Passage to Alaska — on your own timetable — there is no better way than to sail on the Alaska Marine Highway.  You experience the inside passage without having to give up the comfort of your own RV.

About Beth Lanier

Beth Lanier has been a nomad -- a committed full-time RVer -- for the past 10 years. Traveling inspired her to spin romantic tales of strong women who travel and her first novel, One Good Man, is now on Kindle. A series of novellas based on single women who RV, Road to Romance, will launch in September. In her spare time, Beth rescues and re-homes dogs, is an avid photographer, singer, kayaker and artist. Always eager to learn something new, her latest project is learning the slide guitar. Beth is a member of RomVets, Romance Writers of America and Escapees. To contact her, visit www.bethlanier.com.

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