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Little Log

RVing Alaska — and the Alaska State Ferry

It’s been a few years since we’ve taken an RV to Alaska, though we’e made the trip with an RV six times in the past 25 years. Usually we’ve done the northbound leg via the Alaska Marine Highway system, with an open schedule that let us drive south on the Alaska Highway without a fixed itinerary. We’ve concluded that some of the best parts of the trip are those that RVers “rush through” — namely northern British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. So this time we disembarked at Skagway, the northernmost terminal on the SE Alaska route, and drove northeast to Whitehorse to start what turned out to be a 4,000 mile RVing adventure back to the lower 48. We re-entered the US in Montana, and returned through some favorite places there and in Idaho. The purpose of this summary is to offer some updated observations on this combined sea and land far northern adventure. We think what follows would be extremly useful information for anyone planning a similar trip.,

RVing the Alaska Ferry Route: In order to secure the time schedule and accommodations you want, you need to make the reservation as soon as possible after the summer schedule is published. In past years this has been sometime between December and the end of January. You’ll need to book passage for yourself, plus space for your RV. If you have a motor home and "toad", you’ll need to book space for each vehicle — and it’s less expensive to do it that way than to board the vessel with car in tow. And finally, unless you plan to sleep in a chair for three nights, or camp on the top deck in a tent, you’ll want to book a stateroom. These sleeping quarters are somewhat spartan, but they are very adequate and really make the trip more fun. They come with two or four berths and typically have private bathrooms with shower.. Many veteran couples will book a four berth stateroom because the cost is only slightly higher, and we find the extra room is worth the cost.

During the summer season, the largest ship, “Columbia”, offers certain amenities that the other vessels do not have. Most notably Columbia is large enough to have a separate full service restaurant, whereas the other boats have only cafeteria style restaurants. "Columbia" offers both, is a larger vessel, and the newest in the fleet. However regardless of the vessel you take, the trip will be spectacular, the service friendly, and the food very adequate. It is definitely not a cruise ship. But it will take you through parts of the Inland Passage where cruise ships simply cannot go.

Boarding and disembarking the vehicles is a very complex and somewhat time consuming adventure in and of itself. But despite the challenge of vehicles getting on and off at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau and Haines before the final stop in Skagway, it somehow all works out smoothly. We did notice a few differences on our most recent voyage. We’d scheduled our trip north on the first sailing of “Columbia”, which because of its larger size, more recent vintage, and greater amenities is preferred by some travelers. However when we checked in we learned we’d be going on the Malaspina — and from the veteran ticket agent at the terminal learned that every year he’d been there (now his ninth year) the Columbia had missed the first couple of sailings. Not sure why, but one might suspect the earliest sailing (late May) man not actually fill the larger vessel. We’re now quite aware that if we want to be reasonably sure of actually being on “Columbia”, we’d best avoid the earliest scheduled sailings. We also noted while aboard the Malaspina that while the crew was as helpful and friendly as always, there have been certain “cut backs”. For one, the very pleasant little pub bar is permanently closed, apparently for revenue reasons. So is the cute little gift shop that now remains dark throughout the voyage. We also found that while the cafeteria always had good food with plentiful portions through the long dinner hour, for those who enjoyed dining later the most popular dishes would no longer be available. Again, to cut costs, apparently only enough food was made available to get by. These subtle cost cutting measures didn’t have a major overall impact on the voyage, but they were noted.

RVing that Alaska Highway. This is indeed a topic about which countless books have been written, and we won’t do more here than note a few contemporary observations. We’ve traveled to and through most of Alaska many times with RVs — bigger and smaller. This time we wanted to focus our trip on the part far too many RVers “rush through” just to say they made it to the finish line -- the Great State of Alaska. In doing so they miss what with hindsight they will remember as the most scenic and memorable areas they visited. In particular, the Yukon Territory and British Columbia — especially the northernmost areas of that beautiful Province. So our itinerary took us first to Haines, where we spent three days; then we caught the ferry again for the very short trip to Skagway. Note: it's less than 20 miles by water from Haines to Skagway, but 350 miles if you take the highway! From there, we went inland to Whitehorse, YT, to begin our nearly 4,000 mile journey down the Alaska Highway, into Montana and Idaho, and finally back to Oregon.

We were early enough in the season that few RVers had yet ventured north. As a consequence the wildlife still owned the sparsely traveled roadways. Moose, Stone Sheep, Wood Bison, and bears — black, cinnamon, and grizzly — were frequently seen. Often with young. There’s nothing like a mama moose trailed by a much smaller and very long legged baby moose to create the perfect scene. Or, if you like, a mama Grizzly with three cubs slowly crossing the almost vacant roadway. These scenes are the rewards of an early passage of the Alaska Highway. And the fact that at the mosquito population was not yet in full season was another pleasant surprise. But we wanted to make mention of a few of the current facts and conditions RVers to Alaska might find useful.

Summary: The Alaska Highway remains one of the greatest of all RV adventures. No matter how you plan the trip, you’ll never have sufficient time to “see it all”. It just can’t be done. We would only caution that some of the most spectacular scenery, and some of the best access to true wilderness and wildlife, will be found in northern British Columbia and the Yukon. The roads can be a challenge. But by setting aside sufficient time to travel perhaps not over 150 miles per travel day through the more difficult areas, you’ll have time to enjoy everything that’s waiting to be discovered en route, and not overly tax either yourself or your vehicle(s). Including a northbound ferry trip in the schedule opens the door to vistas you’ll simply never be able to see any other way. We say “northbound”, because that leaves the door open to more flexibility in the timing of the southbound journey. Above all, don’t rush through British Columbia and the Yukon just “to get there”. Too many RVers do exactly that. And too many RVers miss some of the very best parts of the RVing Alaska adventure.