Marine Highway a uniquely Alaskan way to travel
Where roads don't go.
Like the rest of the state, the Alaska Marine Highway System is truly unique. More than 80 percent of Alaska’s communities are not connected to any road system, making sea or air the only means of travel for many residents. Stretching from Bellingham, Wash., to Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian Chain, the Marine Highway System covers about 3,500 miles and serves 35 Alaska ports in between with a fleet of 11 vessels.
By pure math, the Alaska Marine Highway System is in some ways more comprehensive than the actual road system on the mainland of Alaska. The state has a total of about 6,640 miles of coastline — more than all other states combined — and the ferry system travels along nearly the entire southern coast of Alaska.
Compare that to the land system, which has fewer than 17,000 miles of public roads. That’s only a few hundred miles more than New Hampshire, and nearly 5,000 miles less than Connecticut!
On a per square mile basis, Alaska ranks last in the nation in miles of public roads. For instance, Rhode Island has 4.2 miles of public roads per square mile. Alaska has just 132 feet of road per square mile.
The AMHS celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013, but the history of the ferry system actually dates to 1948 when a trio of businessmen in Haines bought an old Navy landing craft and formed Chilkoot Motorship Lines to provide service between Haines and Juneau.
Their first customers included Earnest Gruening, who was at the time the governor of the Alaska Territory, and a few years later the Territorial government purchased the company.
Three of the ferries that began service in 1963 are still in operation — the Malaspina, the Matanuska and the Taku — and a fourth, the Tustumena, began operating in 1964 and just underwent a significant renovation completed in 2013.
Today, the AMHS carries about 330,000 passengers and 110,000 vehicles annually, and two new “Alaska Class” ferries are in the design phase to serve that same original route in the Lynn Canal between Juneau and Haines but will be able to make a roundtrip in 12 hours.
Other ferries in the system have received renovations over the years, and until the new Alaska Class ferries hit the water, the newest vessels are the “fast ferries” Chenega and Fairweather that began service in 2005 and 2004, respectively. They can travel up to 35 knots compared to typical ferry speeds of 12 to 18 knots.
(A knot is equal to about 1.1 miles per hour, a helpful tidbit to know if you’re traveling by sea in Alaska.)
The AMHS has grown to serve
The hardy traveler can camp out on the ferry decks, either in a sleeping bag or a freestanding tent.
three areas of Alaska — Southeast, Prince William Sound/ Southcentral and the Aleutians — with routes that cross the Gulf of Alaska. The ferry system operates on summer and winter schedules, with summer season between May 1 and Sept. 30. Reservations are highly recommended, especially if transporting a vehicle or if cabin space is preferred. For the hardy traveler, though, you can also camp out on the decks either in a free-standing tent or sleeping bag. Make sure the sleeping bag is warm or you have some duct tape to hold down your tent.
Although reservations are recommended, don’t assume a route is sold out. You can call the central reservation office at 800642- 0066 or check the official website at ferryalaska. com.
The Alaska Marine Highway
system stretchs for 3,500 miles and serves 35 Alaska
ports with 11 vessels.