Four Days Down the Inside Passage

Trip Start Jun 18, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of United States  , Washington
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The format of the blog for a few days of this trip is going to change. I decided to combine these next several days' activities under one posting. The shipboard days curtailed a lot of activities but during this time I was afforded blog update typing time and a new prospective from which to do some picture taking. Hang in there with us as we paddle along; I’ll include a few more shots of the various ports of call and harbor life along the way.

Tuesday, August 17 through Friday, August 20

Short Version:

        Life aboard ship.

Wordy Version:

As I have mentioned before, Karen keeps referring to this part as "The Cruise"; if you have ever been on a cruise, this is far from it; granted we eat onboard and we are on a floating vessel that’s bigger than our ski boat back home, but these two similar facts alone does not make this a cruise. Don’t get me wrong, this Alaska Marine Highway Ferry system is “Top Shelf”, but compared to a cruise, this is like riding a Greyhound Bus as opposed to flying in first class. I’ll not get into the cost of this part of our trip other than to say transport of ourselves and our rig was not cheap, but we wanted to take a break from the driving but yet still be making progress toward home. This accomplished both so here we are.

I will try to explain the next four days as best I can without getting repetitive; to start with, we wanted to depart from Whittier, Alaska, but all passage from there was booked so we had to drive to Haines, Alaska to get a departure that fit our schedule. So, here is the sailing and port schedule for the vessel we took, the Columbia:

         Port                                Day and Date                         Time               Action

         Haines                            Monday, August 16                  8:15 PM        Departs

         Juneau                            Tuesday, August 17                12:45 AM        Arrives

                                                                                              4:30 AM        Departs

         Sitka                                                                              2:00 PM        Arrives

                                                                                               4:15 PM        Departs

         Petersburg                      Wednesday, August 18              4:15 AM        Arrives

                                                                                               5:45 AM        Departs

         Wrangell                                                                         8:45 AM        Arrives

                                                                                               9:45 AM        Departs

         Ketchikan                                                                        3:15 PM        Arrives

                                                                                                4:45 PM        Departs

         Bellingham                     Friday, August 20                        8:00 AM        Arrives

As you can see, we are on essentially the milk run so to say. This is all smooth sailing within what is called the Inside Passage with the exception of two open sea stretches which got a little bumpy (thank goodness for the Bonine).

There are always more passengers than cabins available on these ferry vessels; remember, they are primarily for vehicle transport, so we were lucky we got a cabin. Originally when we booked, the cabins were sold out so we had to wait list for one and we got lucky. For those who don’t get a cabin or choose to reduce their expenses for the trip, there are recliner lounge chairs, benches and always the floor for sleeping; we saw people using all of these. There were some things that we were surprised to see like the tents pitched on the open deck and people spending the night sleeping in the deck loungers outside. All of this seems perfectly fine with Alaska Marine; I don’t think I would care for a recliner lounge chair for four days and nights.

Our cabin cost us a bit more since it was a four person cabin (double bunk beds) but at least we had a private bathroom and some extra room to store our stuff; hey, you take what you can get in these situations. There was no room service to change the sheets or make the beds; however, there were clean towels and washcloths available if you needed replacements during the trip. As for the beds, it took Karen a couple of nights to adjust to them; I found the beds to be comfortable and had no problem sleeping (it’s rumored that I’ve fallen asleep under an upside down canoe on a rocky river bank in a rainstorm but the source of this story is of questionable character).

Meals and snacks were available and you paid as you ate; there was a café, a full restaurant and a cocktail lounge, a very nice laundry with coin operated machines. As it turned out, the meal prices were reasonable and surprisingly, there was no tipping allowed; all Alaska Marine employees work for the state and are not allowed to accept tips. We’ve learned that access to the vehicle is available during sailing time in addition to the various ports of call. These access opportunities are called “Car Deck Calls” or “Pet Calls”; these two terms refer to the same activity onboard and they are announced by the Purser. During these 15 minute periods, the car deck is accessible by the passengers to retrieve items from their vehicles and to take care of pets. These were pretty hectic and the time passes quickly so you had to grab fast.

We filled our days and evenings with eating, sleeping, reading, visiting, wildlife watching (we saw eagles, whales, and dolphins), computering (me) and knitting (Karen). When we got tired of this routine, we reversed the order, but never did we get the urge to jog a few laps around the ship at any time.

Our preplanning for meals really paid off; the various Healthy Choice and Dinty Moore type microwave meals have come a long way in the last year or so and we had purchased just enough to last us for the four days. We had some fruit with us and the ship always provided access to what ever condiments we needed; as you might suspect, they always had an inviting desert selection that we had to sample on one or two occasions (no cinnamon rolls however). Perhaps this was just false economy thinking, but after having one breakfast meal in the onboard restaurant that was $21, we felt we did OK with our tote-a-meal planning.

As you can read between the lines on the above sailing schedule, there were ports that had time to go ashore, but at 4:00 AM we chose not to; other ports, the time of day cooperated but the length of port call or distance into the town made getting off pointless. The two ports we felt we could achieve something in by getting off were Sitka and Ketchikan.

Sitka is on Baranof Island so the ferry service is obviously crucial to life there; we took a bus ($10/pp) into the downtown and just did the tourist stroll. Some facts about Sitka which I found interesting were: there is a total of 14 miles of paved road in Sitka, essentially 7 miles on either side of town (ironic as it may seem, we even had to wait for good old Alaska road construction while on the bus going into town). The two major industries in town were healthcare and education; go figure that one out. Besides only having 14 miles of paved road, this was not a good place to steal a car (where would you take it? It’s an island) but it is also the training school for all Alaska State Troopers; they could have more than one trooper per mile during any given training class. It is the 4th largest city in Alaska with a population of 9,000 people; they even have the golden arches there if you get the urge, however, as of yet, I did not see a Wal Mart.

Ketchikan was a lively place and seems to get a lot of notoriety because it is usually the first port of call on the northerly route of the cruise ships. It is not uncommon for Ketchikan to have four or more of these ships in port pumping thousands of people into town (there were three in port when we arrived). Obviously this tourist surge is important to their community so, like Skagway, the harbor and downtown cater to this business. We chose to just walk off a couple of blocks and get a few items from a grocery that was near our docking space since our time was limited. Going south, Ketchikan is the last port of call before Bellingham so we are now on the final 36 hours of this Cruise; arrival is tomorrow at 8:00 AM and we begin the next chapter in the return leg of our journey.
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