The best advice I have for anyone planning to move to Alaska mid-winter is to wait until the summer, especially if you plan to drive. If you do have to make the journey during the winter, I strongly suggest taking the Alaskan Marine Highway.
When making my decision to move to Alaska, I thought about flying but the cost of shipping all my stuff was crazy and well out of my financial reach. My other option was to drive the Alaskan-Canadian Highway but the idea of driving an unforgiving stretch of road in frigid temperatures scared me. The idea of driving the road didn’t scare me as much as the idea that during the winter, the Alaskan-Canadian Highway was devoid of people and if something were to happen, no one would find me until the warmer weather drew people out of hibernation. So instead, I settled on a compromise.
For $1100 I purchased a ticket for my SUV on the Alaska Marine Highway. I packed everything I owned into my SUV (if it didn’t fit, I threw it out, gave it away, sold it or left it with my parents) and headed out west to Bellingham Washington where I was to catch the ferry that would take me to my new home.
I traveled from Oklahoma northward to Iowa where I met up with some friends. I enjoyed a nice meal with Doogie and Mark before hitting the road again, heading west where I would eventually meet up with my brother in Northern California. After spending new year’s with him and his family, I headed North again stopping to visit the parents of my childhood best friend before making the last leg of the journey to Bellingham. All in all, I spent close to two weeks traveling the highway so by the time I reached Bellingham, I was happy to be out of the car for a while.
The Alaska Marine Highway travels up the coast of Canada from Bellingham and then along the coast of Alaska. It also provides transportation from the mainland to the smaller islands like Kodiak as well as the smaller coastal villages like Seldovia. During the winter, its travel schedule is a bit more limited so it would have taken me three weeks to make the trip from Bellingham to Homer, which sits on the tip of the Kenai. Most of that time would have been spent in layovers that stretched from two days to a week. I didn’t have that much time or money to spend on hotels so I took a direct route to Haines, Alaska. Haines, Alaska was the closest port to where I was going and just a short two day drive to Anchorage, Alaska, which is only about a two and a half hours North of the Kenai.
I still had to drive a short stint through the Yukon and then North to Tok, Alaska before heading South to Anchorage but at least I had three days on the Alaskan Marine Highway to rest up for what I imagined would be the hardest part of the trip.
I arrived at the dock in Bellingham, Washington several hours early. I wasn’t sure if I would get sea sick or not so I stopped and picked up some Dramamine (which it turned out I didn’t need). Everything I read about the ferry indicated that there would be food service on board but that I could also bring food with me so I picked up some fruit, nuts and a few bottles of water to snack on if the need hit. Then I pulled into the dock, pulled my SUV into the waiting lane and munched on some of the nuts while watching drug sniffing dogs go car by car and people with suitcases, coolers and sleeping bags walk up the ramp. After a short while, dock workers began waving cars forward, directing them where to park their vehicles on board the ferry.
I had paid a bit extra to reserve a cabin so after locking up my car, I headed upstairs to check in and get my cabin assignment. Reserving a cabin on the ferry wasn’t a necessity but after traveling on the road for two weeks, I wanted to make sure I was rested up for the rest of the drive.
The cabin was quaint. It consisted mainly of two single bunks stacked on top of each other, a built in metal desk, a shelf and a bathroom that wasn’t much bigger than those you find on an airplane. There was a shower in the bathroom which made the bathroom a few feet bigger but I still had to do an odd dance to close the shower door and still be able to open the bathroom door to get out. It wasn’t fancy but it was to be my home for three days.
However, I really didn’t spend that much time in the cabin during the trip. I spent most of my time hanging out in the dining room or taking walks on the deck. Most people seemed to hang out in the dining room, which was open 24 hours a day. While food service was limited to specific hours, the dining room was where people hung out to talk, play games, read and generally socialize.
It was in the dining room that I met Dan and Diane. Dan was a contractor on his way to Fairbanks to work on a bridge and Diane was his wife. I met Ed and Marie who were from Alaska and as an anniversary gift to themselves were traveling the entire coast of Alaska. I met several people from the military who were en route to their new post in Fairbanks or outside of Anchorage. I also got to know some folks from North Carolina who were on their way to Fairbanks and then on to the North Slope to make crazy money drilling oil and a family from Haiti who already had two young boys and a third one on the way. Most the folks were heading to Fairbanks with a few of us going the other way to Anchorage. Regardless, we all had to pass through Tok so we all got to talking and agreed to look out for each other on the road.
When I needed a break from socializing, I took laps around the deck with my camera. It was the middle of winter so the days were short and just got shorter the further North we went. However, the ferry traveled closed to the coast so, other than two short open water crossings, I could always see land.
I enjoyed the views of the Alaskan coastline and the introduction to the Alaska village when we stopped at the various ports.
If I wasn’t walking the deck or socializing in the dining room, I was eating in the dining room, drinking in the bar or watching movies on the upper observation lounge that was scattered with blow up beds and sleeping bags from those that chose not to reserve a cabin. The movies weren’t the best movies and were actually rather old but the food was amazing. There were so many choices–sandwiches, burgers, comfort foods, soup, snacks, prime ribs, salmon and so on. No matter what choice I made, I was never disappointed.
And there was no reason not to eat my fill. Because we traveled so close to the coast, the ferry rocked very little so I didn’t get sea sick and when it did rock, it was during the two short open water crossings. During the open water crossings, I returned to my cabin where I laid in bed and read. I never got more than a page or two into the book before the gentle rocking put me to sleep.
Needless to say, the three days I spent on the ferry were the most relaxing days of my journey. With nothing to do but eat, sleep, walk around and read, the “go go go” energy that had driven me across the country dissipated and was replaced by a strong sense of calm that would carry me through the rest of my journey.