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Apr 20, 2021| Alaska History & Culture

The Alaska Marine Highway System: A Scenic Way to Travel to Alaska

Alaska Marine Highway-2.jpg

The Alaska Marine Highway (AMHS) is literally a highway on the water! The AMHS is a ferry system operated by the state of Alaska and headquartered in Ketchikan.  The AHMS constitutes a significant part of Alaska’s highway system covering 3,500 miles and connecting 35 communities that stretch from Bellingham in Washington State to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Chain. 

The Alaska Marine Highway System is a unique route to Alaska with a rich history of bringing travelers to Alaska.

But it also serves as a lifeline to the dozens of cities and towns it serves.

History of the Alaska Marine Highway

The Alaska Marine Highway System began with the dream of three men to provide reliable marine transportation for Alaska’s coastal communities. Those men, Haines residents Steve Homer, Ray Gelotte, and Gustav Gelotte, began what is now the AMHS in 1948 when they set up the Chilkoot Motor Lines and purchased the MV Chilkat. The Chilkat had been a U.S. Navy landing craft and it traveled over the watery highway to Anchorage. 

While the fledgling year of Chilkoot Motor Lines was challenging, the road to success was paved in 1949, when the Alaska Board of Road Commissioners approved funding for wood ramps to be built at Tee Harbor, Haines, and Skagway in 1949.

After chugging along for years, the Division of Marine Transportation was created, giving birth to the Alaska Marine Highway System in 1963. At that point, the ferry company added the ships MV Malaspina, MV Taku, and MV Matanuska and expanded its service to Southeast Alaska.

In 1964, officials decided to focus on Southwest Alaska, bringing service to Kodiak, Cordova, Homer, Seldovia, Valdez, and Seward, dispatching the MV Tustumena, the "Trusty Tusty,” to those cities.

By 1970, the fleet had been expanded to include the MV LeConte, the MC Columbia, and the MV Aurora. The MV LeConte made Juneau its homeport, with the Aurora making its homeport Hoonah. 

By 1979, the fleet was serving Angoon, Pelican, and Tenakee Springs. The Tustumena also began service to False Pass, King Cove, and Sand Point. In 1983, service expanded to Chignik, Cold Bay, and Dutch Harbor in the far away Aleutian Islands. 

How Long is the Alaska Marine Highway?

The 3,500-mile route for the watery highway currently includes stops at 35 cities, going from Bellingham, Washington to Dutch Harbor, so you can travel to pretty much any port in Alaska via the AMHS.

The AMHS achieved federal recognition in 2002 when it was named a National Scenic Byway.

The effects of the Alaska Marine Highway cannot be over-estimated. The ferry service had a highly positive reaction from travelers and residents who live on the routes.

For example, when the Malaspina first approached the dock of Ketchikan in 1963, a traffic jam was there to meet it. Everyone wanted a glimpse of the ship. 

One Ketchikan resident, Betty J. Marksheffel, described it this way: "I was looking out the window and saw the Malaspina in Tongass Narrows. Something happened at that moment – the feeling of isolation went away as I watched the ship coming up the channel. We could take our car, or walk aboard, and go somewhere!” 

Indeed, the AMHS connected not only Alaskan routes but also connected the 49th State to the Lower 48. 

The Alaska Marine Highway a Lifeline For Locals

Skagway resident Emily Chadima described the ferry as "a lifeline.” 

"People don’t understand that it’s not just a ferry; it’s a lifeline,” she said. "For some people, it’s just a nice trip, but when I say it’s a lifeline, it’s a lifeline. If that ferry isn’t running, we’re not getting food to our town, meds to our town.”

The first thing to know about traveling the AMHS is that while it’s a ship, it’s not a luxury cruise. It’s more like an adventure. Cruising from Bellingham, Washington to Ketchikan takes about 36 hours, so you will have to find a place to roost during the trip. 

Many people bring tents and camp out on the deck for the duration. You can get a cabin for an extra cost, but many find places to get some shuteye anywhere they can, except for the bar, the dining room, main thoroughfares, and your car.

Showers are available, and as for sleeping, Chadima recommends bunking in the solarium.

"If you want to do the touristy thing, you can get on in Seattle and sleep in the solarium,” she said. "The solarium has heat lamps and lawn beds. You can sleep under the stars. It’s amazing.” 

But for Chadima and the other residents of Skagway and other small port cities, the ferry is much more than "touristy.”

"We don’t have a doctor and there’s no drug store here,” she said. "In the winter, when it’s snowing and blustery and the white-knuckle planes can’t fly, the only way to get your medicine or see a specialist or go to the hospital is on the ferry.”

About 200,000 travelers use the ferry system every year, bringing about 100,000 motor vehicles with them. But also note that you cannot sleep in your vehicle when the ship sets sail, even if it’s an RV, because it’s considered a safety risk.

The Alaska Marine Highway: Alaska’s Lifeline 

The cost of traveling the AMHS varies by date, vehicle type, and the number of people traveling. For example, for a family of four, a trip from Bellingham, Washington to Ketchikan costs about $2,000, and with amenities and other factors, costs increase. 

Currently, the AMHS is the best way to see Alaska. The Canadian border has been closed to all but essential traffic, so driving to The Last Frontier is nearly impossible.

That makes the AMHS your best bet for seeing Alaska and the 35 port cities along the watery byway. 

But remember, on the AMHS, you’re taking a journey, not just a cruise.

"It’s absolutely breathtaking,” Chadima said. "You see the puffins and the otters and the eagles and whales, and, of course, the scenery. It’s an incredible way to see Alaska. There’s nothing like being on the ferry.”

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