Getting Up the Inside Passage to Southeast Alaska

Getting Up the Inside Passage to Southeast Alaska

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I’m an independent traveler.

That means I roam from place to place, and book my lodging and transportation, on my own without paying a tour company to do that for me and without being accompanied by anyone other than my wife.

But sometimes working with a tour company to put a trip together makes sense, as:

  • When you will only be permitted to visit the place, such as the Galapagos Islands, on fully-guided tour.
  • When you will have a much richer experience traveling with guides who “know their stuff” than you would by simply relying on guidebooks as your source of information.
  • When planning a trip to a destination will be so logistically complicated that you’ll end up either not going or spending an inordinate amount of time in-transit rather than having fun with your “boots on the ground.”

Southeast Alaska (known simply as “Southeast” by its residents) falls into the latter category. You can get there and get around on your own, but figuring out how to do so won’t be easy.

Roads to Nowhere

The State Alaska became the butt of a national joke over the price tag for building what became known as “The Bridge to Nowhere” from the city of Ketchikan, at the southern end of the Alaska Panhandle, to its airport on the nearby island, which could only be reached by a 15-minute ferry ride.

(Chris Lott Flickr Photo)

The project was ultimately scuttled, but was still a subject of national news reports in 2008 when then-Governor Sarah Palin was campaigning as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate. And when I arrived in Ketchikan by plane in June of 2008, the airport shuttle van in which I rode took me to the edge of town by ferry.

Even if I had been able to pick up a rental car at the Ketchikan airport, I wouldn’t have been able to drive far, “Bridge to Nowhere” or not, because, as is the case elsewhere in the Alaska Panhandle, you can drive around local communities, but not between any of them.

So, unlike vacation travel in the “Lower 48,” in Southeast Alaska you’ll have to find your way from place-to-place aboard an airplane or vessel.

The Not-So-Friendly “Southeast Skies”

Probably everywhere in Southeast Alaska that you’d want to go as a tourist has scheduled air service. Either Alaska Airlines jets, or local air services that fly small planes, can get you through the sky to your destination.

Some towns only have one daily flight in and out in each direction. For example, during my June 2008 trip, Alaska Airlines flew between Juneau and Ketchikan with some frequency, but only stopped at Petersburg and Wrangell, along the route between those two largest cities in “Southeast” once a day heading north and once a day heading south.

Juneau is the Panhandle’s hub for Alaska Airlines, and because of the airlines limited flight schedule, you may be stuck spending the night there if you must change planes there to get where you are headed.

On The Marine Highway

The Alaska Marine Highway ferries ply the waters between Bellingham, Washington, and the cities and towns of Southeast Alaska, carrying both vehicles and passengers on day and overnight runs. It’s a more comfortable, slower-paced way to travel than flying.

But the ferries sail with, not against, the powerful tidal currents, so sometimes you’ll find that you’d be leaving port, or arriving in it, in the wee-hours of the morning, or late at night. And not all towns have daily service.

How Shall I Visit Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

My “Plan A” was to spend a couple of weeks traveling through Southeast Alaska during the summer of 2007, flying out of San Francisco via Seattle, and stopping over for a day or more in Sitka, Juneau, Glacier Bay, Petersburg, and Ketchikan.

I poured over the Alaska Marine Highway route map and sailing schedule, as well as the Alaska Airline flight schedule, and had to devise over twenty different itineraries before I found one that would let me travel along a “figure-eight” path that took me through Juneau twice, but only requiring one overnight stay there.

But just as I prepared to book my flights, ferry rides, and lodging, one of my oldest friends informed me that he was going to get married on the Hawaiian Island of Maui that fall.

Alaska and Hawaii are two of the more expensive travel destinations in the U.S., and I felt that visiting more than one in a single year would be a “budget buster.”

So, my Alaska trip was put off until 2008 and, because the tide tables and flight schedules change from year to year, all the trip planning I had done in 2007 had to be chucked out and repeated the following year.

“Southeast” the Easy Way

“Locals” I met during my 2008 swing through “Southeast” all assumed that I had arrived on a cruise ship, and were dumbfounded that I (or anyone other “outsider” for that manner) would have been able to navigate the complicated ferry and flight schedules to come up with a workable “DIY” trip plan for the region.

But before you throw in the “trip planning towel” and forego visiting one of the most scenic spots on Planet Earth, let me clue you in and two much easier ways to see “Southeast.”

About a million-plus visitors were projected to arrive in Southeast Alaska by cruise ship in 2016. Most, if not all, would sail from Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., up the “Inside Passage.”

Those tourists probably planned their Alaska trip by simply visiting a cruise ship Website or travel agent, and perhaps booking flights to and from the starting and ending points of the cruise.

But the cruise ship “scene” isn’t something that appeals to every traveler, particularly those who would prefer not to share their “Southeast” adventure with the 2,000-3,000 “new best friends” that would be on-board on of the larger vessels, particularly if they want to focus more on scenery and wildlife rather than ship-board dining and shore-side shopping.

One option for them would be to sail the waters of the Alaska Panhandle on a smaller craft, such as Delphinus, operated by Dolphin Charters out of the San Francisco Bay Area, which carries only eight passengers and four crew. (I have been on Delphinus day trips in the Bay Area, although not in Alaska.)

Another choice for those not too “faint-of-wallet” ($4,290 to $12,400, per person, double-occupancy, depending on the trip you choose and which cabin you select, plus airfare to and from the embarkation and debarkation points, gratuities, etc.) is to book a trip through National Geographic Expeditions and travel aboard its 62-passenger Sea Bird of Sea Lion. NGE offers a number of different trips including “Alaska’s Inside Passage,” “Epic Alaska Photography Expedition,” “Treasures of the Inside Passage: Alaska and British Columbia,” and “Wild Alaska Escape.”

If you have the time and patience to map out a trip through “Southeast” and travel independently, you will be rewarded with some of the most remarkable scenery you are likely to encounter in your lifetime.

But if you’re pressed for time, not confident in your trip-planning skills, or just want to “do” the region the easy way, tour companies and cruise lines can make your visit to this realm of mountains, sea and forest memorable

(The travel writing career of Tales Told From The Road publisher, Dick Jordan, was launched following his 2008 trip through “Southeast” when three metropolitan newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times, ran stories based on that trip in their Sunday “Travel” sections.)

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