The Locals’ Line – Inside Passage AMHS, Alaska, USA

The Locals’ Line

Inside Passage AMHS, Alaska, USA

I caught a rainbow
I caught a rainbow
Alaska is infectious, if you don’t want to get bitten, you better not ever go. But, if you don’t mind making more trips there than you ever thought you would in your entire life, and probably said you never would at all, because “It’s too damn cold,” then I’ll give you a little advice.

If you think a trip to Alaska would be too expensive think again. The time it takes to get to Bellingham out of Denver it is less than a twenty-hour drive. I took the trip the winter of 2000 and boarded the ferry to Ketchikan December 12.

Fuel to drive to Bellingham then cost me $60 in my trusty economy vehicle. I stayed one night at a Super 8 for around $30 enroute, and experienced an incredible and unforgettable adventure for a pittance.

The dismissal headaches created through booking a more structured cruise were bypassed and I had money to spare. For less than $100 I arrived in Bellingham, Washington. My car was boarded on the ferry and, at the time, the driver of the vehicle went for free. The fee for my car was $193. For larger vehicles the price was $266. I drove off the ferry in Juneau, tulled around, found a cheap hotel and stayed five nights for around $300.

I sidestepped the expense of a cabin and slept anywhere I could find privacy on board the ferry; in my sleeping bag curled up between the rows of chairs on the observation deck. There was a boisterous crowd on the solarium deck. The younger generation partied until dawn. There were a couple of pitched tents that were taped to the floor to withstand the pitch of the sea and the wind.

The most conservative cabin cost around $40. I could have rented one, but I was on an economy run. So, let’s say you go ‘whole hog’ and rent a cabin. That’s still only a price tag of $700 (I’m leaving the food out – these costs are based on one person.) If a person wants to experience the inside passage the ferry is the way to go. I got there and back for under $1000. Of course, I’m thrifty. And that’s a far cry from the $2000 to $3000, or more for a major cruise line. Plus, with that you still have the expense of getting to that ship, whether it is plane reservations, car rentals, and taxis or headache-type questions about, just where will I park this car for week anyway, and how much will that cost? After my stay in Ketchikan I headed up to Juneau for a week and continuing on to Fairbanks.

Along with the awesome wonders of the inside passage, wildlife and the sights, the Matanuska is a ‘blast’ from the past; an historic relic. It was purchased in 1937 from a Dutch seaman and is the oldest in the fleet. It has an indescribable classical feel and warmth based on its age and architectural style, while the others lack that feel. The Matanuska served the mainline routes of the Alaska Marine Highway System from October through February, taxiing passengers from Bellingham to Skagway and back, making only two trips of the same route in April. The M/V Kennicott does the same route in October, with one trip offered in February, so I planned to return to the lower 48 then. The M/V Taku follows the same mainline route from November through April.

The link routes used mostly by the working locals are serviced by the M/V Aurora in October shortening its service in November and going as far as Hollis. The M/V LaConte takes over for that month going to Skagway and back where it continues from December through April. A little known fleet member is the M/V Tustumena, which services eastbound routes leaving Seldovia and going to Valdez and is an often traveled, and ‘belongs to locals’ ferry. There are two scheduled trips on that ferry to Unalaska; one in October and one in April.

If you are in Anchorage and drive to Seward, for instance, you can board the Tustumena and go to Valdez and on down to Juneau. I met someone who took that route and lived to tell about it. On my return trip from Juneau to Ketchikan it wasn’t as wild a ride as the ride this man just got off of.

I kept hearing the words “Yak Attack” or what I thought was yak attack. I wondered where in the world, up here, could people be attacked by yaks. According to Stu, he and the rest of the passengers coming down from Anchorage just experienced a frightful attack. Not only were the passengers that boarded in Juneau disheveled and disoriented, but many were very grumpy and couldn’t find their sealegs. The stench from vomit waifed in the air when they boarded and bouts of seasickness continued. According to the purser there were a hundred and twenty people on the Tustumena and 70% of those were now with us headed to Ketchikan.

Stu B.
Stu B.
I learned from Stu a town up north is called Yakatat. Here the land is open to the ocean. A big storm came up and the waves pounded and pitched the Tustumena to the point where all those on board wondered if they were going to make it home. The waves were on deck and the ferry leaned dangerously on it’s side.

Stu was a rough-and-tumble man, along with the majority of Alaskans I saw. He was 6’3″ tall, with a thick, shock of red hair. I was topside when I saw him so I started a conversation.

“Say, could you tell me what side of ship is the smoking section? I thought it was starboard, but I’m not sure,” I asked.
He glowered down at me in response and declared, “I really don’t know, but does it matter? We are outside.”
I didn’t want to start something that could turn into a debate, so I said, “I’m pretty sure it’s starboard. Besides, if I’d open my eyes I’d see the ashtrays. There’s one.”
“My name’s Linda, what’s yours?” I asked.
“Stu,” was his reply. I felt as though he did not want me to bother him, but I continued.
“So, where are you coming from and going to?” I inquired.
“I live in Ketchikan. We all just got off the Tustamena at Juneau. It was a “hellava” trip. It looked like a hurricane inside that thing. It was a mess. A damn storm came up and nearly capsized us,” he said. “I’ve lived up here thirty years and used to work in Russian, so I’ve taken that trip many times, but this was a first. It was pretty scary,” Stu continued.
He asked me where I was from.
“I’m from Colorado,” I stated.
“Really, well, I’m originally from Greeley,” he mentioned rather nonchalantly.
That’s when a light bulb [I love this pun. I could actually “see more”] went on and my inner video saw “Seymour.”

I was taken aback and continued questioning, “Your name is Stu? You used to have a dog years ago, didn’t you? And his name was Seymour?”
“Wow, it’s a small world! We used to date; remember in the seventies.” I said.
I fell in love with his dog. It was a large, English Sheepdog named “Seymour.” What a funny name for a dog that couldn’t see anything with all that hair covering his eyes.

Well, Stu’s memory couldn’t bring up any recollection of me, but we exchanged emails and telephone numbers in the event he ever came to Colorado. His sister still lives in Greeley and he did come down to see me at Thanksgiving, but that is another story and another local line.

There was still a lot to see before we reached Ketchikan and at 17.33 knots I wouldn’t miss much as long as I was awake and directing my focus to the sea. [A knot is how long it takes to go a nautical mile. A nautical mile is 6,076 feet vs. 5,280 feet for a statute mile. That is a 15% difference. To convert knots to mph, multiply knots by 1.15. So, 17.33 knots x 1.15 = 19.93 mph.]

I caught a rainbow, a gorgeous sunset and watched Orca dolphins race with the ship. The wind blew, the clouds rolled, and the swells came and went. The crew was friendly, open and kind. The passengers were in their own awestruck state, documenting their experience to share with friends and family.

Information abounds and can easily be obtained at the purser’s office in the middle of the ship. Historical information and maps are posted on the walls along with an area full of publications for the taking about the many adventures Alaska has to offer.

Brenda Schwartz artwork on the Kennicott
Brenda Schwartz artwork on the Kennicott
Numerous Alaska artists’ work is featured throughout the ships. You can learn more about the spawning of salmon just by viewing a wonderful mosaic that adorns the walls by the cafeteria and gift shop on the Matanuska. Brenda Schwartz is a third generation Alaskan who grew up on commercial fishing boats, lives in Wrangell and paints her watercolor scenes on navigational charts. Her works can be found on the walls of the Kennicott in the cabin area.

The eccentricity and extremism of the Alaskan people is something it took me no time at all to grow fond of. I’ve been bitten by the bug. No matter what adventurous spirit you may possess a cruise on the AMHS can stimulate you more and save you money to partake in the needs of life or add to your piggy bank for future vacations to other destinations. To take a trip like this is one thing, but should you decide to stay there, prepare yourself for high prices. Make your reservations now for a quick trip by calling 1-800-642-0066; also, see for more information. Request a current schedule.