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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Off the Pavement and Onto the Water

Juneau, AK via Alaska Marine Highway  10/17/06 (Day 175)
Off the Pavement and Onto the Water

The Alaska Marine Highway (AMH) ferry system navigates 3,400 miles of waterways through Alaska’s Inside Passage connecting 32 communities on the thousands of islands and coastal communities that dot Alaska’s southern coastline. AMH ferries carry more than 400,000 passengers and more than 100,000 cars each year and the service is such a unique and important form of Alaskan transportation that the AMH was named an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration in 2005.

As you know, we’ve got nothing against driving (we’ve already done 26,000 miles on the trip so far), but instead of traveling 1,700 miles down through Alaskan and Canada to reach Washington state by road, we’re taking advantage of the AMH’s unique watery transportation by loading ourselves and our Silverado onto a series of ferries for a 1,000 mile sail south from Haines to Bellingham, WA through Alaska’s Inside Passage.

We will reconnect with dry land by making a few stops along the way and our first port of call is Juneau. Our ferry for the two and a half hour trip from Haines to Juneau is the M/V Fairweather, which seems like the right kind of name for a ferry. She’s also a reassuringly new boat, just one day shy of her third birthday.

The Fairweather is a “fast ferry,” sort of the AMH’s version of a commuter plane. As we leave the dock in Haines around 11 am, the water is as smooth as glass and the vessel itself is surprisingly smooth with plush new seats and semi-private “study areas” where you can plug your computer in. Bathrooms are big and clean and a solarium area on the back deck of the ferry is partly enclosed so you can get some fresh air without getting blown overboard.

Even the cafeteria food is good—the $3.50 clam chowder is delicious and affordable. But the best thing about ferry travel is free: animal sightings. In less than three hours on the water we see a humpback whale tail, Dall’s porpoises and sea otters all right outside the ferry window. There’s so much to see out there that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game has published a wildlife viewing guide just for the rich waters that the AMH ferries ply.

If humpback whales are really your thing, book a ferry to Sitka where the Sitka Whale Fest is held in early November every year. This island is ground zero for migrating whales which congregate between mid September and mid January, virtually guaranteeing sightings right from your ferry. Unfortunately we can’t fit a jaunt to Sitka into our schedule. Sadly, even we can’t do everything.

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