If you really want to understand Southeast Alaska you should travel on the ferry. The trip to from Sitka to Juneau is a 20 minute flight, by ferry it takes 9 hours. It gives you a sense of the country. Each trip is different depending on weather, season and tide. The gateway to Sitka is Sturgis Narrows. Tidal currents require you to navigate the narrows at high or low slack water.
I’m m amazed the ferry system still works. In other places these old ships would be nostalgic museum exhibits, not a working public utility. The Matanuska (we call her the Mat) and two of her sisters are 53 years old. We first sailed on her in 1973. She was the ship that moved us to Alaska in 1980. She’s still sailing. We took her from Juneau to Skagway a week ago. Normally we would have taken a ferry from Sitka to Skagway, but as the system gets older and Sitka service has gotten worse, terrible really. Because of Sturgis Narrows Sitka’s isolation on the “outside” waters we get skipped when there’s a breakdown (and with the age of the ferries this happens all too frequently.) On our way home from Skagway the Columbia, built in 1974 and therefore only 42 years old, had problems. We didn’t know if we would be put off in Juneau so it could make for the shipyard in Portland. But the Columbia got us home, limping along at 12 knots, missing the tide and getting in 6 hours late. I enjoyed the extra time and leisurely pace though the straits and narrows. Now it will be out of service for several weeks and Sitka will be without any ferry service for two weeks. A friend who has his truck full of tools won’t be able to get it jobs he needs to get to. He can fly but his truck and tools, the cancelation makes it hard to make a living.
The ferry system has two newer “high speed” catamarans that were supposed to solve the Sitka problem because they can run Sturgis Narrows at most times, but they have turned out to be fuel hogs and don’t handle the seas as well as the planners had hoped. When oil prices were high they were too expensive to run. Now that fuel prices are down the state does not have enough oil revenue to run them. Go figure.
The problem of an aging fleet is made worse by the State’s “economic” crisis. Alaska isn’t broke. We have more than $50 billion in savings and no State income or sales taxes. But the legislature lacks courage and vision. The ferry budget gets cut, just before the summer tourist season, which means canceled sailings, angry tourists and damage to Sitka’s economy. Politicians tell us that with low oil price we just can’t afford it. But the ferry system is older than oil revenue. That’s the problem.
But even with the problems what a magnificent highway the marine system is. The Mat is a fine looking old lady. She got new carpeting for her 50th birthday. Riding on her, and the limping Columbia, is a joy. Both the ferry system and Southeast Alaska keep their own time. Access to Sitka “Still keeps her time by the turn of the tides.” On the trip we pass cruise ships, fishing boats, Coast Guard cutters, other ferries, tow boats and barges. We watched whales and other sea life. There’s time to chat with old friends and make new ones, and to tell tourists at least one tall tale as we sail past a flock of pink flamingos in the trees on Highwater Island (they’re plastic but don’t tell the tourists) glaciers (See them before they melt) mountains and sail through dramatic clouds (at wave top level), whitecaps, splashes of sunlight and rainbows that we never seem to be able to catch.
Auke Bay, Lynn Canal, Chatham Strait, Peril Strait, Sturgis Narrows, Salisbury Sound, Olga and Neva Straits, Sitka Sound and Starrigavan Bay, It’s the road home. Floating past villages like Hoonah, Angoon, and Tenakee Springs, passengers pull out cell phones trying to catch a signal. This misses the point. Being on a ferry is to intentionally get lost and, with luck, find yourself.