Monday, March 3, 2014

Tips for travel on the Alaska Marine Highway

Now that we have taken the Alaska Marine Highway through the Southeast going both north and south, in both summer and winter, all within an 8-month time period, we have accumulated quite a few tips and tricks. Since I am finding myself sharing them many times with others who will be making the same journey, I thought it best to round them all up here. Have more to add? Please comment below!

Booking your travel:

  • Book as far in advance as possible. Summer trips fill up very early, and so does space in staterooms and the car deck.
  • If your travel will be longer than 12 hours (or an overnight trip), book a stateroom! This is especially important if you are traveling with children. There are not enough bunks for every passenger on board, and you will find people camping in tents on the outside deck (yes, really!) and sleeping in reclining chairs in the lounges. If you are on military orders, your stateroom cost will be covered by the military. 
  • About staterooms: "with facilities" means that the cabin has a restroom with toilet, sink, and shower. "Without facilities" means that you will share community restrooms and showers onboard. A stateroom with a "sitting room" is fabulous if you can get one. There are only a handful on each ship. They include bunks, restroom, and an extra area with a table and chairs to give you room to spread out. Your military orders will cover any type of cabin you reserve.

Before you board:

  • Stock up on microwaveable, non-perishable meals. There is a community microwave onboard, located in the cafeteria. Also bring bread, PB&J, and plenty of snacks. We even brought hot dogs. If you have a cooler, you can purchase ice onboard for a quarter. Meals purchased from the cafeteria or dining room can get pricey, depending on your family size and length of travel. We learned on our summer trip south that it is unrealistic to try to eat a can of soup for every meal. On our trip back north, we found a nice balance: bagels, instant oatmeal, toast, and cereal for breakfast, microwave something or make a sandwich for lunch, and purchase dinner onboard. If the kids didn't like what was served, they had a sandwich and a huge $4 fresh fruit bowl from the cafeteria. Some people will even bring a slow cooker and make their dinners that way. I am not one of those people. 
  • Bring your favorite instant coffee, tea, cocoa, etc.  The cafeteria isn't always open when you want something warm to drink, but you can access hot water or the microwave all the time. 
  • You can also bring alcoholic beverages, if you consume them in yr stateroom. Don't forget a wine bottle opener and something to close an unfinished bottle with! 
  • Keep in mind that everything you haul onboard, you must also haul back off.  If you are bringing your vehicle, unpacking stuff, bringing it up at least one deck and to your stateroom, and then doing the reverse when your journey is done, it can be quite cumbersome if you try to bring too much. 

Traveling with a vehicle

  • When you check in at the ferry terminal, you will be given a lane number based on your destination. You are asked to get into your lane 2 or 3 hours in advance of departure time, but it can take an hour or two of waiting in your vehicle before you are directed to drive onto the ship. If you have bored kids, one parent can walk onboard with them and get settled in, but you need to ask to do so when you check in. Your tickets will need to be printed separately so that the driver also has a ticket. 
  • The car deck can be a crazy place! Follow directions exactly, as it is very close quarters. Don't forget to set your parking break. 
  • Pay attention to announcements onboard when arriving into every port. Sometimes vehicle owners are asked to rearrange their vehicles. 

Traveling with pets

  • Make sure you make a reservation for your pets. Dogs are $25 each, and military orders do not pay this fee. 
  • Arrive with a valid health certificate. This is especially important when traveling to Alaska, as you will be asked for the certificate before you are allowed to board. 
  • Pets remain in vehicles, on the car deck. Yes, they have to do their business on the deck. And you have to clean it up. The ferry only provides paper towels for cleaning, so bring your own plastic bags. Some pets just won't go on the ferry. They will be okay! There is only one stretch, between Bellingham and Ketchikan, that is extra long. It takes over a day. 
  • There will be car deck calls 3-4 times per day when you can go down to feed and walk your pet. You will be surprised at how many dogs are onboard the ferry! 
  • When you pull into a port, you can get off  and walk your dog. Get off every chance you get! 
  • If your pet may wander around or destroy the inside of your vehicle, put it in a kennel.  On our last trip, a couple of dogs climbed into the driver's seat of a vehicle and turned on the flashers. Four times. In the middle of the night. Don't be that guy!

While onboard
  • After settling in, explore the ship.  Each vessel is different.  Learn where the purser is located, find the movie theater, the cafeteria (and dining room if there is one), and the kids play area.
  • Don't spend all of your time in your room!  The forward observation lounge is a great place to spend time.  Bring the kids, books, board games, electronic gadgets (with headphones), and binoculars.  People spend thousands of dollars to cruise these waterways on vacation, with good reason!  
  • There are power outlets onboard.  There is no wifi.  Bring a laptop or DVD player and some new movies.
  • Turn off your cell phone until you are in Alaskan ports or Bellingham to avoid connecting to Canadian towers.  That can be costly.
  • If you have forgotten something, the only port with businesses nearby the ferry terminal is Ketchikan.  There is a grocery store, hotel with restaurant, and coffee stand right across the street.  Ketchikan is typically a long port call, so you have time to walk a bit.
  • DO NOT miss seeing the passage through the Wrangell Narrows.  It's a narrow waterway between Petersburg and Wrangell.  Even if it's the middle of the night, get up! We missed it over the summer since it was 3am and we were tired.  This last time, I stayed up late to watch, and I got a whole new appreciation for buoys and channel markers.  In the dark, it's like Christmas with endless flashing red and green lights.  When we were going through, it was dark, snowing, and windy.  Two crew members were on the bow, making sure we didn't hit anything.  Every so often, a spotlight shone down from the bridge onto a channel marker.  We came so close that I felt like I could reach out and touch the markers at times.
  • In our opinion, the passage from Juneau to Sitka is the most beautiful.  It includes Chatham Strait and Peril Strait.  
  • Talk to fellow passengers!  On the ferry, people are likely to be Alaskans or military members.  Everyone loves to give tips on favorite spots to eat, fish, shop, drive, etc.  Chances are, at least one other person is going the same place as you.
  • The day before you are set to arrive at your destination, start taking extras from your stateroom back to your vehicle during car deck calls or port calls.  When you finally arrive and take your vehicle off the ferry, you don't have much time at all to load up and go.  You don't want to hold up everyone behind you waiting to get off.
I'm sure there is more.  I'll add as I think of things!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sitka: We made it!

I just realized that I never posted upon completion of our winter Alaskan adventure!  We made it! After a 4-day ferry ride, with snow in every town that we stopped, we made it to Sitka on Tuesday afternoon. 

It has been snowing on and off in Sitka for a week, which has left an unusual amount of snow in the ground for this area. The kids and dog have been loving it. 

We really like our new home, which is set back in a nice surround of Sitka spruce and has mountain views from every window. The people in town have been very welcoming. We have gathered tips on just about everything while wandering through the fabulous little shops in town, and even had an offer to stay at someone's house while we are waiting on our things to arrive. We have word that they are on the barge and should be in town next week, though. Hooray for that. 

The kids started at their new schools on Wednesday, and so far we are very impressed. They really love their new teachers and smaller classes. Next week, they are already starting dance, Girl Scouts, and karate. This transition has been pretty easy so far! 

In the new backyard. 

View from Totem Park, which we walk to from our house:

Monday, February 17, 2014

CA to AK: The Ferry Journey, part 1

After nearly 48 hours, we are halfway through our ferry journey to Sitka. We have survived the long stretch from Bellingham to Ketchikan, which is 36 hours straight at sea. 

We really lucked out with our stateroom on board the m/v Malaspina. We reserved a 4-berth room with sitting area, but they don't assign a specific room until checking in on the ship. There are only a handful of rooms with sitting areas. The rest have only bunks and a restroom, or maybe only bunks. The purser saw our  party of people and stuff and changed our assignment to the best room in the house, with two big windows and a double-size sitting area. Score! Having the extra space to be able to sit at the window while the kids are spread out watching movies has saved our sanity. If you're ever traveling on the Malaspina, request room 106 if you can. 

As we are traveling up the Pacific coast in winter, we expected a bit of a bumpy ride. We had two open ocean stretches during the day on Saturday with the waves rolling in on the port side, big enough to send our collection of water and wine bottles rolling around. At about 2am, we awoke to the bow of the ship (where our stateroom is located) rising and crashing on what had to be some pretty large waves. It continued on and off for two hours while the kids pretty muh slept through it. Ava woke once to laugh at the creaking sounds the walls of our cabin were making. We were very happy that our car full of dogs was tucked safely in the stern of the ship where it would take less of a beating. 

This morning we pulled into Ketchikan and got to go ashore several times over the course of the 7 hours we were there. There was an inch or three of fresh snow on the ground, and the kids were extatic to dig out their snow boots and kick it around. We walked the dogs three times, bought a few groceries, and ran off some energy. I even got to sneak away on my own to appreciate being back on Alaskan soil and find a good latte. 

Now that the long stretch is over, the rest of our voyage will go by much more quickly. We will be stopping in Wrangell (where this is probably posting from via my phone) and Petersburg tonight, and Juneau in the morning. The dogs will get to take their walks on land rather than the car deck. We are going through the Wrangell Narrows late this evening. Even though it will be dark, we are hoping to see some of the passage. It is said to be so narrow that you can toss a coin from the ship onto the shore. Hopefully we will sleep better tonight--we are finished with the open ocean crossings and will be in the Inside Passage for the rest of the trip. We are also in some snowy, windy weather...winter in Alaska!

The sitting area of our stateroom

Lighthouse in Bella Bella, Canada

Inspecting the shoreline 

Somewhere in Canada


Another Florida native loving his first time in the snow!

Friday, February 14, 2014

CA to AK, Day 2

Yesterday we completed the driving portion of our trip. We are in Bellingham, WA, where we will board our ferry this afternoon. Yesterday's drive was much easier, with mostly dry skies and beautiful  scenery.

We loved driving through Northern Oregon, with green fields full of grazing sheep in front of rolling hills. Since we definitely qualified as a high occupancy vehicle, we were able to take the express lanes through Seattle. While we missed most of the city skyline, we zipped through the city in less than 10 minutes. 

Our ferry journey will last 4 days. We were supposed to travel to Juneau, where we would have to lug everything out of our stateroom back down at least two levels to the car deck (this is definitely not like a cruise ship with baggage service!). Then we were to drive off the ship at 8am Monday, visit with friends, check into a hotel, and head back to the very same ship at 2am. After loading and unloading people and bags several times over the past few days, not to mention the very real possibility of having to drive around a snowy Juneau without snow tires, I called the ferry service last night to see if it was possible for us to just stay put and take the ride to Skagway, Haines, and back before heading to Sitka. To my surprise, not only did they allow us to do just that, but it is only going to cost the extra night for our stateroom! So for my Coast Guard friends who end up in a similar situation, just choose the "military on orders" option when calling the AK Marine Highway and ask if they can set you up with a "thru fare" to avoid a layover.  Juneau friends, we are sorry to miss connecting with some of you!! We will be at the ferry terminal Monday morning from 8:15-10:15. But there will be a next time once we get settled in!

Today we are going to do a little last-minute shopping to stock up on snacks and new movies before we head to the ferry terminal. Saturday will be spent at sea. Our next update will come from Alaska!! We will be in Ketchikan on Sunday from 7am-2pm AK time. 

Oregon scenery

Old snow right over the Washington state line. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

CA to AK, day 1

Today we began our journey back north to Alaska. First we had to pack everything in and on top of the car, which counted as our morning workout. We aren't used to making road trips without our Master Car Packer, which was evident to each neighbor walking by with their dog while The Nana was sitting on top of the roof box while I tried to get it to lock. 

Two hours later, we were finally on our way, with zero space left in the car. We made our way to Roseburg, OR. It rained about 3/4 of the day, and we were surprised to find how ignorant we were of Northern California geography. The entire I-5 corridor from Sacramento to Oregon winds up, down, and through mountains. I'm sure it's beautiful when you can see it without blinding spray from semi trucks. 

We were especially excited to arrive at our hotel--it includes actual beds and chairs. We have learned that sleeping on air mattresses for 12 days is cold in a house that doesn't hold heat when empty of furnishings. 

Tomorrow, it's on to Bellingham, WA, where we will catch the ferry Friday afternoon. We are thankful that we only have two days in the very-packed car this time around! 

This is the only scenic view we got a thru-the-window shot of, Lake Shasta in CA. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Journey Ahead

Now that we can count the days left at school in Alameda on one hand, we are starting to look forward to our trip north.  Even though it seems like we just made this trip in reverse (really, it was only 7 months ago!), we are happy that it is fresh on our minds so we can remember all the things we'd like to do differently.

We will start by taking two days to drive to Bellingham, WA with a stop somewhere in Oregon in the middle.  Once in Bellingham, we will have almost a whole extra day to run off energy and stock up on food for the ferry.  We will be taking the Alaska Marine Highway again, just like last time.  We'll have a one-day and part of a night layover in Juneau, making our entire journey take a week.

This time, we have decided that we need to bring along more entertainment for the ferry ride.  I have a stack of board games set aside, and Ava is planning to set up shop as a bracelet maker with her Rainbow Loom and Loop-de-doo.  We are also not going to limit ourselves to eating only microwavable meals and snack foods while onboard.  Yes, ferry food is expensive, but eating Easy Mac and canned soup for every meal does nothing to boost morale when trapped on a 400-foot, floating, bare-bones hotel.

In Juneau, we will get the chance to meet the adorable 3-week-old baby boy of some good friends who are currently stationed there, as well as touch base with a few other Coast Guard friends and maybe even our pal from AKontheGO.  I have to say, we have gotten to the point in our Coast Guard journey where we seem to have friends in pretty much any place we visit.  It has been so nice this time around to know several people who are either from Sitka, currently living there, or have been stationed there in the past.

Oh, and remember the Traveling Nana? She will be joining us again on our journey, so I don't have to do it solo.  Thank goodness for that!

And just because this all sounds almost too easy, we decided to throw a real challenge in the mix.  When Nana flies in on Saturday from Florida, she will be bringing our new furry son with her!  That's right, we're adding a second pup to our family.   Our cousin is a dog breeder/trainer/groomer and has a really adorable goldendoodle for us. He's about 7 months old, and we met him when we were in Florida over Thanksgiving. The kids named him Charlie.

Two weeks from today, we arrive in Sitka!  Are we there yet?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

First day at the new job

Yesterday was the big day.  While I was really disappointed to have to miss it, I just couldn't get us moved from California quickly enough. Six weeks is not enough time to complete an overseas screening, arrange the move of household goods, and find a good point to pull the kids out of school mid-year, not to mention the week it takes to actually travel from Alameda to Sitka via car and ferry.  Luckily, the local media did a nice job making me feel almost like I was there.

Here are a few links:

Coast Guard press release
Sitka Sentinel

And my favorite, because it's the one with the most complete and accurate story (and some great photos).

Raven Radio

Photo from
Meanwhile, we managed to get the movers to finish up late on the third day of packing rather than adding on a fourth.  Thank goodness.  Supervising a house full of strangers packing my stuff is my least favorite part, although we are very lucky to not have to pack and move everything ourselves! Today's agenda included a trip to the store for new air mattresses, as both kids woke up on deflated beds this morning.  They have done so well through all of this craziness, I felt terrible when I saw the half-inflated heaps of well-used air mattress.

So, we continue to camp out here in CA for another 7 school days (yes, we are counting down!) while our household goods get a head start to AK.  Thanks to FaceTime and iPhones (how did people manage these crazy moves without all this technology?!), we have "walked" through our new home and yard. Our unaccompanied baggage was delivered today (we have chairs and a table at the house now), the kids are signed up at school, and utilities and internet are turned on.  Are we there yet??