For those who want to see Alaska’s beautiful Inside Passage this summer, there’s an alternative to spending $1,000 per person or more for a luxury cruise. Instead, for about $700 per person you can take the Alaska State Ferry "Columbia" and camp out on deck as the ship sails past glaciers and makes its way to charming ports of call. The ferry service begins in Bellingham, Wash., about two hours north of Seattle, and stops in Ketchikan and Juneau, among other ports on its ways to Skagway, Alaska. To reach Skagway from Bellingham, it takes approximately two-and-a-half days. The one-way fare from Bellingham to Skagway is $363 for adults, $181 for children 6-12, and children under six are free. Vehicles, kayaks and inflatable boats can be brought onboard for an additional cost. For more information visit the Alaska Marine Highway System website.
Passengers aboard the Columbia scramble to set up tents on the ship's upper rear deck. Tent camping aboard the ship provides a unique combination of both camping and cruising as the ferry travels through the Inside Passage. Tent placement is a bit of a science -- the spots that offer campers the best views can also expose them to the worst weather. For those not wanting to rough it, the ferry also has 103 staterooms. When traveling from Bellingham, Wash. to Skagway, Alaska, a state room with an outside view and full facilities that sleeps four will add $580 to your ticket and a two-person stateroom adds $393.
Instead of driving stakes into the ground, campers secure their tents to the steel deck of the ship using duct tape. Most experienced Alaska State Ferry campers bring their own tape, but the ship's purser has been known to provide tape as a courtesy.
At 418 feet long, the Columbia, seen here docked in Bellingham, Wash., is the largest ship in the Alaska State Ferry fleet. It can carry 600 passengers with a 66-person crew. The ship's car decks can transport approximately 134 vehicles, including RVs and large trucks.
"We're not tourists," said Steve Johnson of the practical-minded passengers around him. Many are using the ferry as an affordable option to move their families or travel for jobs. Johnson was heading home to Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, where he works on Forest Service land clearing and planting trees. Johnson was returning from the Oregon coast, where he took his first vacation in three years.
The Columbia pushes into the night fog near Sainty Point at the end of British Columbia’s Grenville Channel, which is south of Prince Rupert.
While camping on the steel deck of a boat might not be everyone's idea of fun, with a good sleeping pad and bag, you'll snooze comfortably while the Columbia's 12,350 horsepower diesel engines hum four decks below the solarium. There are no bugs and a constant breeze; where else can you pitch a tent where the view is constantly changing?
The short Alaska summer night gives way to dawn around 4 a.m. Electric heaters help stave off the night's chill for passengers sleeping on lounge chairs under the solarium.
"If I wanted a room, I'd just fly there," says Bleue McCluskay, 17, from Huntington Beach, Calif. "I like how it's relaxed, it's not all hoity toity," she said. McCluskay was passing the hours reading a book while traveling with her grandmother Cathy Gordon, right. The two were stopping at multiple points along their journey. The first stop would be in Ketchikan to go zip-lining. Gordon took her first trip on the ferry in 1993. "The ferry hasn't changed, but the people have," Gordon said. "When I was here 18 years ago, this whole place was full of young people going up to the canneries for work." Now it's common to see families with children and toddlers camped out next to retired couples.
"The whole world's rushing around you, but not on the ferry," said Melinda Sweet, 50, of Bellingham, Wash., "There's nothing to do but rest." Sweet, who has taken the ferry every summer for the last 29 years, was traveling to Petersburg, Alaska with her daughter to work for her husband's salmon fishing business.
Sally Beard gets a kiss from her husband, Robert, while camping under the heated solarium on the upper deck of the Columbia with their daughters Paige, 2, and Nicole, 14. The family is moving from Pleasant Hill, Miss. to North Pole, Alaska, the only place Robert could find work in the heating and cooling business. Sally said it would have cost $21,000 to hire a moving company to haul their belongings to Alaska, which wouldn't arrive until six weeks later. She looked at the drive on MapQuest and it said it would take about two-and-a-half days hours. Then an employee with Robert's new company suggested they take the ferry, so they rented a U-Haul and got on the boat with all of their belongings. "This way we'll have our beds when we get there," she said.
Nicole Beard walks with her little sister, Paige, in the fifteen-tent "campground" on the upper deck of the Columbia.
Tasha (right), pulls her owner, Glenys Grace of Reno, Nev., toward Moose and his owner, Matt Wallace, of Yelm, Wash., during a potty break for dogs on the upper car deck of the Columbia. Pets are restricted to vehicles or pet carriers aboard the ship's car deck. Passengers have access to pets about every four hours when they’re permitted to walk them.
Usually zipped inside her owner's sleeping bag, Maxine, a miniature schnauzer from Pittsburg, Kan., was a stowaway on the upper decks of the boat. Her owners, Garry and Nancy Livingston, said that Maxine simply couldn't handle being away from them, locked in a car below, so they snuck her above deck.
Garry Livingston from Pittsburg, Kan., holds his miniature schnauzer, Maxine, under the solarium on the stern of the Columbia's upper deck. Garry taught history, geography and sociology at Joplin High School. The school, and most of the Missouri town, was destroyed by a tornado in May. Livingston and his wife are traveling north to Sitka, Alaska, to retire. Neither of them have ever been there.
Passengers crowd the deck to look at the massive cruise ships docked in Ketchikan, Alaska, the Columbia's first stop after leaving Bellingham a day-and-a-half earlier. After Ketchikan, the ferry stops in Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines and Skagway. If they're willing to deal with long layovers (weeks, in some cases), travelers can connect to other Alaska state ferries that will take them all the way out to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, a chain of islands that stretch into the Bering Sea.
A woman walks her sea kayak down the street in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Keeping a close eye out for trouble, second mate Jim Annicelli, left, works with captain Scott Hendrickson aboard the bridge of the Columbia as they approach the Wrangell Narrows. "It's one of the most complicated waterways in the world," Annicelli says of the shallow channel.
The Wrangell Narrows is a 22-mile long stretch of water that goes between Kupreanof Island to the west and Mitkof Island to the east. It's too narrow and shallow for large cruise ships to go through safely, so they are forced to bypass this beautiful stretch of the Inside Passage. The Columbia is one of the largest ships that can pass through the Narrows.
Looking north from the bridge of the Columbia, it's easy to see how the Narrows got its name.
Wine, cocktails and Alaskan beers are available in the Columbia's bar. The vessel also has a cafeteria that is open 24 hours as well as a restaurant that serves fresh Alaskan seafood.
"I was scared s**tless," 33-year-old Dan Kinney said about the first time he fired the .50-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver he uses for protection when working his summer job. Kinney was heading to Ketchikan, Alaska, where he guides tourists on bear viewing trips. In the winter, Kinney digs for diamonds in Arkansas. He's never had to fire the gun at a bear.
Prince Rupert, a Bichon/Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, gets a 15-minute recess from the car on his way to Juneau, Alaska.
Passing wind-whipped tents, a passenger takes an early morning stroll as the Columbia sails past Broken Island in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait at a leisurely 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour). It's common to see white-sided dolphins, humpback whales and bald eagles from the deck of the ship. Passengers also get to see the same glaciers, fjords and snow-capped mountains that others see from the decks of cruise ships.
At times it can get a little toasty under the solarium's heaters, forcing campers out of their bags.
The rules regarding where you can camp aboard the Columbia are fairly loose, so it's not unusual to see people slumped in chairs in viewing areas. Passengers are discouraged from sleeping in places that might be a safety hazard, but this man took up residence on the floor near a stairwell. The main goal is to stay warm, dry and comfortable, which is not hard to do. The ship offers free hot showers (bring your own towel if you're camping), a gift shop and a coin-operated laundry. Passengers are welcome to bring their own food and coolers.
Eight-year-old Aghileen "Aghi" D'Oust turns his artistic talents into cash aboard the Columbia as he passes the time between his home in Bellingham, Wash. and his dad's fishing boat in Wrangell, Alaska, where he was going to work for the summer.
The deck is nearly cleared of tents as most campers disembark before the ship continues its journey north to Haines and Skagway.