Exploring Around Valdez

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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From Whittier, we caught the ferry to Valdez. Once again we were incredibly fortunate with the weather and spent most of the sailing sunbathing on the top deck. There were more whale sightings, icebergs in the water and the most sea lions I have ever seen together on one of the islands. I have to admit, I was a little relieved that this would be my last ferry journey in Alaska. I worked out I’d spent close to five days in total on the Alaska Marine Highway.

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The town of Valdez isn’t particularly scenic or interesting. It’s an oil town, and is unfortunately famous for the Exxon Valdez oil spill. You don’t have to venture far out of Valdez, though, to find beautiful scenery and great outdoor activities. We hiked up to a reservoir and ate our packed lunches looking out over the calm water.

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We also stopped at the Worthington Glacier. Unlike other glaciers in Alaska, Worthington is easy to walk to the bottom of. You can actually touch the ice, although it made me a little nervous to get so close that I could hear the ice cracking. Seeing the ice close up is like an out-of-this-world experience, and the bright blue colour is just incredible. As it is so accessible, this glacier can get busy. A massive tour group turned up just before us,slightly ruining the serene atmosphere close to the ice.

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A Quick Stop in Ketchikan

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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When I boarded the Alaska Marine Highway ferry in Bellingham, I had no idea that we would have a stopover in Ketchikan, our first port of call in Alaska. When the announcement came over the tannoy that we would be there for five hours, I raced off the boat, excited to have this bonus in my itinerary.

Ketchikan very much caters to the cruise ship passengers. As if the high street of stores selling jewellery, souvenirs and candy wasn’t evidence enough of this, they also got to dock right in the centre of town. We had a 40 minute walk from the ferry terminal.

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The geography of Ketchikan leads to some extreme architecture. Houses built on stilts balance above the water and the main road into town, and steep wooden staircases lead up to amazing views.

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Ketchikan airport is on a separate island, and I have never seen such a crazy transport hub. As the jets land on the runway, boat planes take off within metres of them, in turn barely missing boats that are also using the water. I held my breath watching those insane manoeuvres. It was really busy, too. The only place I have seen a higher frequency of planes is at Heathrow airport.

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Getting to visit Ketchikan was a nice surprise, and I definitely think it’s more exciting to arrive on the ferry than on a cruise ship.

Surviving as a Plant Eater on the Alaska Marine Highway

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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On my journey from San Francisco to Seattle, I had pretty much stuffed my face with amazing vegan food. I’d searched Happy Cow for the best restaurants and grocery stores to try, and visited as many of them as I could. I knew, though, that eating on the ferry would be a very different experience. I was heading to Alaska, the land of fish.

As we boarded the boat, I could hear other passengers excitedly talking about how much salmon they were going to eat. I avoided these conversations. Before leaving Seattle, I’d made a dash around Wholefoods to pick up some hemp milk, protein powder and gluten-free snacks. I wasn’t going to starve.

On board the boat, there were two options for eating. I could have gone for the buffet in the restaurant, but it seemed a waste of money to spend $19 when all I would eat was rice and vegetables. The other option was the snack bar. They offered the standard American diet of burgers and pizza. And, of course, some fish. There was a vegan burger on the menu. I couldn’t eat it anyway because of the gluten, but I did wonder how vegan it was when the chef informed me that he cooked the fries in the same fryer as the chicken.

I went for the safe option. The snack bar had some pretty good fresh, raw veggies and fruit. It wasn’t exactly a gourmet meal, but teamed up with my emergency snacks (which I topped up when we stopped in Ketchikan) it was enough to keep me going  for 3 days.

Life on the Alaska Marine Highway

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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There are experiences in life that are so incredible, words and photos can never be enough to describe them. Waking up on the desk of an Alaska Marine Highway ferry, surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, I felt so privileged.

The decision to take the ferry had not been an obvious one for me. Until I’d started researching my trip, I didn’t even know the ferry existed. I’d never considered how remote many parts of Alaska are, and how the people who live there get around. All I knew was I had two weeks to get from San Francisco to Anchorage, and I wanted to see as many new destinations along the way as possible. Planning the trip wasn’t easy, but after weeks of tearing my hair out in front of my computer it slowly came together.

The Alaska Marine Highway System runs from Bellingham, WA up into Alaska. They operate ferries right the way out to the Aleutian Islands, with many stops along the way to service towns and villages where travel options are limited. The portion of the route that I opted for, from Bellingham to Haines, takes almost 3 days. The longest ferry journey I had taken previously was Rhodes to Crete in Greece. It had not been a pleasant experience. Needless to say, I was apprehensive about going on a much longer boat trip. My worries were not calmed when we arrived at the terminal in Bellingham and I discovered the ferry was no bigger than the cross-channel ferries I had travelled on between England and France as a child. We were sailing all the way on that?

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I need not have worried. Apart from two bumpy hours where we passed through open water, it was the most gentle water I have ever travelled on.

Ticket prices vary greatly depending on how you travel. I paid $419 to walk on, as basic as you can get. If you’re travelling with an RV, two cats, a dog, three kids and you want to sleep in a cabin, it can get a whole lot more expensive. I opted to sleep on the top deck of the boat, under the solarium. I didn’t want to miss anything. Some passengers chose to pitch their tents out on the deck, anchoring them down with duct tape. During the first night, the constant flapping of the tent canvases sounded loud to those of us sleeping outside. God knows what it sounded like from inside the tent. By the next day, only 3 of the tents remained standing. From what I could see, the trick was to not put your fly sheet on the tent (that’s what all the flapping was) and invest in illuminous pink duct tape (it seemed to hold better than the regular black stuff). Personally, I think pitching a tent wasn’t worth the effort. I was comfortable enough on my recliner chair. My only regret was that I didn’t pick up a sleeping mat in Seattle. Outdoor heaters kept us warm from above, but a draught crept in underneath my sleeping bag which woke me up a couple of times. On the second day, a kind fellow passenger lent me one of his spare towels to lie on and I slept soundly after that.

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On the first morning, we awoke to an announcement at 6am that there were humpback whales swimming alongside the boat. We all jumped up with binoculars and cameras, and ran to the side and a sea view that some people pay thousands of pounds for.

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I took lot of photos as the ferry wound it’s way between islands. The scenery was just breathtaking, the mountains around us getting higher and higher as we travelled further north. As well as the humpback whales (one of which jumped right next to the boat), we saw orcas, dolphins, deer and bald eagles.

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Our first stop in Alaska was Ketchikan, which I will write a separate post about later. Then, we headed up to Wrangell, the first settlement that we’d seen in hours.

As well as the ferry, one cruise ship a week stops in Wrangell. As we pulled up to the dock, a young boy set up a table next to the ferry terminal. He was selling gems and rocks that he and his sister had found in a local quarry. For a couple of hours work a week, he could pay his way through school. We wondered if, when the cruise ship passengers arrived, the price for the souvenirs went up and the story of how they mined the stones got more elaborate.

From Wrangell, we headed north through Wrangell Narrows, a 22 mile channel with 46 turns. At some points, the channel is only 300ft wide and 19ft deep (hence the small ferry!). It has two local nicknames – ‘Pinball Alley’ (because of the turns) and ‘Christmas Tree Lane’ (because of all the red and green navigational lights). It was 10pm by the time we reached our next stop, Petersburg, but it was still very light outside. We watched bald eagles playing on the beach and sitting in trees, surveying their empire and looking back at us. As at every stop we made, pet owners went down to the car deck to retrieve their pets and take them for a quick walk. I felt sorry for the animals having to stay down there for 3 days with only the occasional teasing taste of the outdoors.

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By this point, I had made a lot of new friends on the boat. Some were heading to Alaska to find work, or returning home. Others, like me, were simply vacationing or travelling. We all swapped stories about our hometowns and our travels. When people found out I’m British, they had lots of questions about various subjects. I had countless conversations about politics, religion, geography and sport. It was exhausting but a lot of fun. I had feared I would get bored on the ferry for so long, but the time flew by.

At 8 am on the third day of our journey we pulled into Juneau, the only state capital in America that cannot be reached by land. Most of the people I had travelled with for the past three days left the boat there, and I was sad to see them go.

When I had booked my ticket, there was some confusion over the route the boat would take. I heard other people complaining of the same thing, so it’s advisable to double check at the terminal before you board. I’d been sold a ticket where I would have to change boats at Juneau. As I boarded the boat in Bellingham, though, I was told the same boat would take me up to Haines. It was a bonus not to change boats, but I was a little nervous that I might end up in Sitka or somewhere further north.

A whole new group of people joined us at Juneau, and gave the boat a new feel. It was more like a day cruise now, with only four hours to Haines and the remaining passengers going the short distance to the end of the line at Skagway. By this point, most of the mountains surrounding us were topped with snow, although the sun still beat down on us and kept us warm.

Taking the Alaska Marine Highway ferry is one of the best decisions I have ever made. I just wish I could have stayed on longer.

Useful Info:

Amtrak Seattle to Bellingham, WA: $24

AMHS walk-on ticket Bellingham, WA to Haines, AK: $419

Single use of locker on AMHS ferry: 50 cents

Alaska Marine Highway

Just had an AMAZING three days travelling on the ferry from Bellingham, WA to Haines, AK. Can’t wait to share all the photos with you, here’s a few to give you an idea of what an awesome trip we had:

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