Wa­ter Ways

Ma­rine High­way a uniquely Alaskan way to travel

Where Alaska - - Content -

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.

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