The Alaska Marine Highway – The Inside Story on The Inside Passage

24 Jun


Alaska motto – North to the future.

One of the many highlights for us on this trip has been the various ferry journeys we’ve undertaken with Bertie. They’ve all been memorable for one reason or another but none have been as beautiful and awe inspiring as this – the 4 day voyage on the MV Columbia south on the famous Alaska Marine Highway (AMH).

Cruise ship in Skagway. Looks like it's parked at the end of the main street (Broadway)
Cruise ship in Skagway. Looks like it’s parked at the end of the main street (Broadway)

One of the things we didn’t mention in our last post ‘The Arctic Circle – our final frontier’ was that the departure date of this ferry was another reason we couldn’t risk getting stuck up the Dalton Highway in a snowdrift.

After over 5,000kms biking the Alaska Highway, the Top of the World Highway and other routes of NW Canada and Alaska it was time to turn south. Our journey in this part of the world had taken us through spectacular scenery via roads good and bad to places such as Sasquatch Crossing, Toad River, Dawson City, Valdez, Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle at 63 degrees north.

Waiting to board the MV Columbia in Skagway Alaska
Waiting to board the MV Columbia in Skagway Alaska

The prospect of catching the ferry down the famous inside passage from Skagway (Alaska) to Bellingham (Washington) just south of Vancouver and the Canadian border was tempting. It would give us a 4 day/night break from riding and save 2,200 km of road time. So, with no internet access on the boat, no television and the promise of spectacular scenery but this time from the comfort of a ship, the decision hadn’t been difficult – we pointed Bertie south east and passing Tok and Whitehorse (again) via Destruction Bay headed the 1,150 kms to Skagway. Passing from Alaska into Canada and then back into Alaska again we took 3 days to do the trip to Skagway and in doing so realised how tired we’d become after our 14 hour day up and down the Dalton Highway.

They don't supply tie-down straps, you have to get your own (another $25 !)
They don’t supply tie-down straps, you have to get your own (another $25 !)

Boarding the ferry on Monday 15th June we strapped Bertie down and went off in search of our cabin and a proper rest from riding – and that’s what we got.

At 8 pm the MV Columbia set off for our trip down the ‘Inside Passage’. This extends from Alaska down to British Columbia and Vancouver in Canada and on to Bellingham in the USA. The Alaskan portion is 500 miles from north to south and 100 miles from east to west. There are 1,000 islands, 15,000 miles of shoreline and thousands of coves and bays.

During our sea trip we saw more stunning scenery.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The MV Columbia is quite a small ferry and it can navigate channels that many cruise ships are too big to get into. We still see the big cruise ships berthed in the ports we stop at but they’re nowhere to be seen as the MV Columbia weaves its way through narrow channels sometimes impossibly close to the shoreline of the various islands. Shallow and deep water channels go off in all directions between islands and mountains. As you sit on deck and watch ahead it is often difficult to work out which way the boat will go next. Occasional channel markers give clues and then the Columbia will suddenly dive down a channel to the side and catch you by surprise. At times the wake behind shows the weaving pattern of the ships course and at other times we come out into vast open expanses that make you feel as if you are out in the open sea. The passengers all sport binoculars and long lens cameras and you know straightaway if marine or land wildlife has been spotted as everyone reacts to it. Even the bridge will tannoy an announcement if they see something of interest as we glide by another shingle and grass shoreline fringed with dense forest. Whales and dolphins are quite commonly seen.

The area has a surprising number of small towns and settlements.DSC03023a Many of them are totally landlocked with no roads to the outside world including Juneau, the capital city of Alaska (yes, we thought it was Anchorage too!) Having a capital city accessible only by boat or aircraft (usually seaplanes) is just one more unusual thing about this vast and often strange land that we’ve found to be probably the most interesting and awe inspiring place we’ve visited on this trip. The First Nation Indians have ancestors who have been here for thousands of years but Alaska’s more recent history is one of pioneers from all parts of the world coming here in the Klondike Goldrush prepared to endure great hardship to make their fortunes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Alaska is awash with amazing stories of colourful and tough self-reliant characters who made and lost fortunes (and often their lives) in an unforgiving environment. No wonder that to this day Alaskans and peoples of the NW of Canada pride themselves on their toughness, independence and ability to survive long winters with 40F below zero temperatures and short days for months on end.DSC02967a Of the many T-shirt slogans we’ve seen in the tourist shops here our favourite has to be ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Except for bears, bears will kill you’.

So we cruise steadily southward toward Bellingham and our next road destination of Seattle and we wonder if we will ever see the like of Alaska and the Yukon territory of NW Canada again. We’re sure we will see many more wonderful landscapes but without a doubt, this landscape has left an indelible impression on both of us.

Time to find a shipping agent and get Bertie home now.

The car deck of the MV Columbia
The car deck of the MV Columbia
Seriously! You’re going to take us through that gap?
Some people camp on deck or sleep in the open. Guy ropes done up properly are highly recommended.
Some people camp on deck or sleep in the open. Guy ropes properly secured are highly recommended.
Green Island Lighthouse.
Green Island Lighthouse. One of 9 ‘manned’ lighthouses still in operation on the AMH. Crewed by a family for 6 to 9 months at a time.


5 Replies to “The Alaska Marine Highway – The Inside Story on The Inside Passage

  1. If you haven’t already figured out the details for shipping Bertie, you may want to contact one of the local BMW dealerships in Seattle. They advertise shipping assistance for no charge.–shipping

    You are just in time for the heat wave this weekend in Seattle. Its expected to be in the upper 80-90’s over the next several days.

    Also, a celebratory dinner seems to be in order for your amazing trip. I suggest Canlis. for details


    • Jeff, many thanks. Have to say we are enjoying Seattle. Lovely modern city with plenty to see. We’re staying on Bainbridge Island at the moment and enjoying the ferry rides across to the mainland. Regards

    • Hi Susanne. We know, agonised over that and would love to have met up with you both but it’s time to go home and we are looking forward to seeing family again. Please let us know if you decide to come to UK or do another Europe ride – J&J

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