Every experienced traveling health care worker should consider an assignment in Alaska. The Alaska Marine Highway (AMHS) has to a part of the travel plans!
When Kate and I were preparing to head up to Alaska from our annual winter assignment in Colorado, we researched the ferry up to Alaska and missed our window to book tickets. Hoping to travel in late April or Early May, I called to AMHS at the beginning of March, but found all the slots to bring our car along filled up, we knew better on the way back and scheduled several months out. Now is as good a time as any to describe the clientele and lodging on the boats of the AMHS: This is the mode of transport for inter-village travel, retired fisherman, vagabonds, gypsies, hippies, and general rapscallions. So, as a traveling PT, you’ll fit right in.
We stayed in three different types of “state rooms” on our three ferries. The “state rooms” are as small as a 5 foot by 8 foot closet containing a card table that miraculously converts into a bunk bed. The ritzy-er state rooms have their own bathrooms and just a little bit more space. Now, the regular ol’ rapscallions, they prefer the no-accommodations-version of this ride. All over the boat, people lie out in their sleeping bags, setup tents duct taped to the deck, and generally get by on sleeping where and when they can.
There are 11 ships that cover 3,500 miles of “highway”. The AMHS has been awarded the title of “All-American Road” which apparently is very prestigious among the country’s scenic highways and byways. By all normal standards, the network of ferries serving the coastline of Alaska is just another interstate highway. Many of the towns the AMHS services have no other roads to them and can only be reached by sea or air. Because there are no other ways into these towns, any type of vehicle you can imagine gets driven onto the car deck of the ferry. I drove our over-packed car onto the car deck and saw an Alaska Airlines tarmac vehicle, smaller boats, multiple prison laundry vans, and a bunch of assorted hippy-wagons. …an eclectic group of vehicles for an eclectic group of people.
The Alaska Marine Highway is awesome. I came away from 6 months in Alaska feeling really good about my experience, but also feeling like I had missed some sort of “bush” experience off the beaten path. Anchorage was great, and, as they say, “it’s only 15 minutes from Alaska.” But, there’s a less accessible part of Alaska… the majority of Alaska… that I hadn’t seen yet. Pull out a map sometime, check out exactly how far away Alaska is and how big it is. Alaska is north of much of the Yukon. Alaska is 2 times bigger than Texas. There’s enough coastline in Alaska that at low tide it’s 3 times bigger than Texas. Overlaid on a map of the lower 48, Alaska touches both Disney World AND Disneyland. Alaska is really far away, and Alaska is really big.
The trip on the state ferry fulfilled all my needs for exploration and Alaskan solitude. We traveled 10 days on three different boats down the coast of Alaska and through the inner passage past British Columbia. After a rough ride across the gulf of Alaska and a few short stops in small villages, we arrived in Juneau and had a couple days to explore. Having our car with us, we were able to drive around. We enjoyed dinner at a cool little restaurant on Douglas Island which is connected to Juneau by a bridge. We only saw Douglas in the dark, but it apparently is home to a community-run ski resort, seems like a really cool place. Back in Juneau, the next day, we enjoyed an awesome hike in the snow above Mendenhall Glacier, stopped by Alaskan Brewing Company for some samples, and had a shockingly authentic time at the Red Dawg Saloon. At the Red Dawg, we walked in on about a dozen rowdy locals who at the time had their glasses raised in the air for a toast. They welcomed us for a couple beers and talked our ears off…. Funny people, funny place. At 3 AM we got back on the ferry and spent the day cruising down to Sitka, a town of about 8,000 on the Pacific Coast of Southeast Alaska.
We were lucky enough to have a friend in Sitka, who, much like our friend I mentioned in the previous blog, is doing a stint with the Native Corporation Hospitals. Gio has it good. He lives in a picturesque log cabin just out of town and occasionally gets to make some trips out to the bush by small plane to treat patients in secluded Alaskan villages. Gio took us around and gave us the ultimate locals’ tour of Sitka. Two times we went to Whale Park, an area of town with a view out over a cove. Both times we went, like advertised, there was a pod of orcas far out in the water, but diving up and down, spouting water up into the air. We also took a day hike up through the snow for a scenic view of town and it’s volcano on a neighboring island (Mt Edgecombe). To cap it all off, we stopped at Baranoff Island Brewing Company on the way back to the ferry. Great beers – in a small town – on an island – a long way from everything. Who knew?
The last leg of our ferry trip was 3 days with only one quick stop in Ketchikan. We enjoyed a make-shift turkey dinner on Thanksgiving and eventually made it into Bellingham, WA. What a trip. A must do. Put it on the list.
I’ve added some photos below of some of our pictures on the trip. Click on one to open up the gallery. Enjoy!