A 3-Day Cruise to Juneau

In April 2015, John and I set out on our next great adventure: summer in Alaska. He’d just accepted a job flying DH beavers on floats, something he’d wanted to do his whole life. I managed to land a job at Alaskan Brewing, which was amazing since we’d missed craft beer so much in Namibia. We packed up our Mini Cooper and hit the road, bound for Juneau.

Juneau, Alaska is surrounded by ocean on one side and 4,000 foot high mountains on the other, making it completely inaccessible by road.

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If you want to take a car to Juneau, there’s only one way to do it: via the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The AMHS has been around for over 50 years and is a network of ferries that service nearly the entire southern coast of Alaska, from southeast all the way out to the Aleutians. Some of the ferry trips are short (less than 6 hours). To get to Juneau from Bellingham it takes four days and three nights.

We were excited to take this mini-cruise. Having spent over a year in the high desert climate of Namibia, we longed for the temperate rain forest of the northwest. We arrived in Bellingham three hours prior to our scheduled 6 PM departure and checked in. There was an infectious air of excitement and anticipation in the ferry terminal as passengers waved goodbye and tromped aboard.

Some passengers were going up to Alaska to reap the bounty of seasonal work, like us. Dressed in Carharts and XtraTufs, they carried with them their backpacks, military rucksacks, and waterproof bags. Others were returning home after wintering in the lower 48, their rigs loaded with supplies for the summer.

Tickets in hand, we pulled over to the waiting line. The ticket agent gave us a bright red tag to put on our dash to indicate we were carrying firearms. There were lots of little red tags in the other cars. I have to say, our Mini Cooper was quite the anomaly amidst the RVs, trucks, and AWD vehicles. We’d packed it like a can of sardines with everything we thought we needed for the summer. Mostly rain gear and camping supplies!

Due to the diminutive stature of our rig, we were offered priority boarding. There happened to be just enough space between two RVs for the Mini. Happy to finally be on board, we went upstairs to get our room key.

© Brian Adams

I should mention that the AMHS is no ordinary ferry service. Our vessel, the MV Malaspina, has over 80 passenger cabins, a full-service cafeteria, and even a movie theater. Passengers have the option to either book a cabin, sleep inside in one of the lounges, or brave the elements on the top deck outside. Since it was April and still quite cold, we booked a cabin.

Our cabin was pretty cool. Similar to an overnight train compartment, it had two bunk beds, a window, and a full bathroom. The window was my favorite part, because each morning we got to look outside to a new view.

We quickly settled into life at sea. Each morning, we woke up early and peered out the window, eager to see a new bit of coastline, before heading over to the canteen for a hearty (and hot!) breakfast. We spent a lot of time in the viewing lounge up front, watching the rugged mountains, wild forests and beautiful waterfalls go by. We also did quite a bit of reading and we even played cards with fellow passengers. Every night we climbed into our bunks weary, but buzzing with excitement.

We got off at the first opportunity, in Ketchikan, to find some beer (sadly, we didn’t know the AMHS had shut down all the bars) and stretch our legs. We spent the afternoon wandering around in the rain and eating lunch with our new friends.

The final morning, as the Malaspina drifted into Auke bay, John and I stepped outside to catch our first glimpse of the place we would call home for the summer. The snow-capped mountains rose up out of the deep glassy ocean to meet the heavy steel-gray sky. The Mendenhall glacier loomed at the mouth of the valley, a solid mass of white and blue. It was more beautiful than we could have imagined.

Our repatriation journey that had started three weeks earlier in Windhoek, taking us the long way through Dubai, then to Seattle, Vancouver and Chehalis, finally drew to a close as we went ashore in Juneau.

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