Alaska: Full Day of Ferrying (Juneau to Skagway)

I totally failed at taking pictures today, so this post is pretty much all words.  I suck, I know.  But this is your fair warning so that you can bail now if you came here for pictures.  From here on out, it’s all slightly incoherent rambling.  Consider yourself warned.

Today we left Juneau and started “phase two” of our trip – the camping phase.

We woke this morning, showered and repacked our packs.  We called down to the front desk for a cab to the ferry terminal and found out that the hotel actually has a complimentary shuttle to the ferry terminal and the airport.  Well, that would have been nice information to have four days ago since we have now spent $75 in cab fare between the hotel and airport ($25 each way).

We arranged for the ferry to pick us up at noon, even though the ferry didn’t leave until 3:00.  We assumed we could take advantage of the free transportation, get dropped at the ferry terminal and then walk back into town for lunch and to explore.  Boy, were we wrong.  The ferry terminal is a mile plus outside of town, and there’s no way we would have been able to walk back to town, eat lunch and walk back, lugging our packs along, within an hour and a half when the ferry boards.  So we were stuck with vending machine food.  The only consolation was that the vending machine had beef jerky – score! – so we had a gourmet picnic of BBQ chips, jerky and chocolate for lunch.

An hour before boarding time, we took our online vouchers to the ticket agent and we were given actual tickets for boarding.  This was another one of our 2-for-1 deals with the Alaska Tour Saver, and turned out to be a pretty good deal.

While we ate and waited, we wrote the postcards to the nieces and nephews.  I always have a hard time with postcards.  I like to send them home to the kids because I know they love getting them.  But I always spend too much time trying to decide what to write.  I mean, no matter how you phrase it, it always comes out as, “Look at this awesome place we’re visiting!  We’ve seen so much cool shit.  Sorry you’re in school and not here.  (Suckers!)”  Oh well, hopefully all of our good intentioned showboating will inspire them to be travelers when they grow up.

Around 2:00, we started the long, drawn out boarding process, filing out of the building and down the sidewalk, behind the building where we had our tickets checked, and then on down the walkway where all of the cars were loading into the cargo hold.  We boarded through the cargo hold and then took stairs to the upper levels.

I couldn’t believe how huge the ferry was.  There were dozens and dozens of cars, campers and RVs being loaded onto the bottom level.  Above, there were a few lounges with tables, chairs and lots of windows; an observatory on the upper level bow with theater-style seats and panoramic windows; a cafeteria; a bar;  a gift shop (really…); a movie theater and some staterooms.  All this just for a commuter ferry!


We started out in the second-level lounger on the stern, sprawled out on the cushy “booth” seats along the windows.  We had a nice, clear view as we left Juneau, which quickly turned foggy and claustrophobic as we moved further out to sea.  K napped for a bit as I spaced out and watched the lush green mountains fade to grey nothingness and rain.

After a while, we headed up to the cafeteria for some food.  The cafeteria truly resembled a school cafeteria.  We walked in to find  a large room with windows, full of tables and chairs with a small food court in a corner of the room.  There were few food choices, non of which really looked appetizing, but the vending machine food was long gone and we were starving.  I had a chicken finger basket and a soda.  K had a chicken burger (chicken fingers on a bun, it turns out) and a soda and it all cost $18.50.  (Marine) highway robbery.  And the food wasn’t really all that good.

As we sat eating, an announcement came over the speaker that there was a humpback whale actively breaching on the starboard side of the boat.  I have never seen a group of people move as fast as everyone in that cafeteria!  Us included.  We dropped our food and left it on the table as we ran out onto the deck in the pouring rain to watch.  IT was really amazing to watch this enormous whale break the surface of the water and crash back down into it with the full force of its gigantic body, making a monstrous splash.  Back under the surface, we could trace it by the spray from its blowhole breaching the surface intermittently, and an occasional flip of its tail onto the surface.  We were only able to see it breach a couple of times before four whale watching boats closed in on its playground and it disappeared.  I couldn’t help but feel incredibly sad for the poor whale.  I’m all for wildlife observation, but when it goes so far as to interrupt natural activity, it’s too far.  There’s no reason those four boats needed to rush in closer to the whale.  We could see it perfectly from where we were, 5x futher away than those boats had been.  I’m pretty sure that situation just sealed my decision to not take a whale watching tour ever.

After the whale stopped playing, we went back in and choked (er, scarfed) down the rest of our food and went to explore the top deck.  We found the (overly crowded) observatory and relaxed in the comfy seats there for a while, half listening to the iPod and half listening to the doofy ferry employee telling a story about Barney the Barnacle hitching a ride on a humpback whale.  We stayed until we’d heard all we cared to hear about Barney, then haded where any sane ferry-goer would at this point – the bar.  We got a pitcher of Alaskan summer ale and sat down to play cards for a bit.  K was surprisingly less pissy about losing today.  He’s either learning to be a more gracious loser or he’d had enough beer to not care.  (I’d guess the latter.)

We made a stop in Haines to let people off and pick more people up.  From the bar window, it looked a lot like Juneau – trees and thick moss – with a lot less going on.  We didn’t get off the boat since we weren’t there very long, and it was – get this – raining.  As we came into port, there were tons of big stacks of lumber and semi truck trailers everywhere.  I’d seen several of these same trailers in Juneau, so I assume they use the ferry system to transfer the lumber up and down the inlet, too.

From Haines, it was only about an hour until we arrived in Skagway.  As we pulled into port, it was still training pretty hard.  So we put on our rain gear, covered our packs and got ready to disembark.  We walked just a couple of blocks to an RV campground, only to find that the office was closed and all the sites were full.  So we wandered around a bit until we found a map showing one other campground at the exact opposite end of town, several blocks away.


We started in that direction, through town, looking for a vacant hostel or hotel on our way with no luck.  The town is crazy, though – just like something out of a wild west movie.  It must still look just like it did during the gold rush.  At 10pm as we walked through, the entire town was dark with the exception of a liquor store and two bars.  (I’m starting to notice a drinking theme with these Alaskan folks.)

We trudged along to the other end of the town and found the second campground.  They were closed as well, but had thankfully left a note outside with all of the vacant sites and we can register and pay in the morning.  Luckily that one tent site left.  We grabbed the form, turned on our headlamps and headed toward the empty spot.

We found our spot on a wet, gravelly surface and proceeded to try and set up our new tent for the first time.  In the pitch dark, rain and crazy wind…all while trying to keep our packs off the ground and dry.  I think maybe we should have tried this at home first!  This thing is a logistical nightmare!  It’s a new, crazy design where the poles go inside of the stupid tent – which is apparently great for keeping you and your things dry while you set up in the rain.  (Thank you, salesman for that incredibly inaccurate piece of info.)

After a brief, intense fight with the tent poles, we finally got it set up and started throwing things inside – only to find that this tiny, lightweight tent isn’t nearly as spacious as we’d thought.  (When we tested it out in EMS, it was just the two of us; no sleeping bag, sleeping mat, coats, packs, etc.  It seemed like a mansion at that point.)  We couldn’t even unroll our sleeping mats all the way, let alone fit them inside the sleeping bag while inside the tent because our packs were taking up so much space.  It’s going to be a cozy and interesting trip living in this thing for the next 14 days.  We’ll see how long it takes to start missing home now…


View from my pillow toward my feet. It’s tiny in here!

It’s 11:45, it’s still raining and the wind is blowing hard.  I’m bundled in a base layer, a fleece, wool socks and I’m in the sleeping bag from the waist down and I’m already a bit chilly.  This could be a long night…

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