The Ferries and the Last Frontier

Travel Stories: In a four-part series, Eva Holland explores Southeast Alaska by state ferry

03.26.12 | 10:43 AM ET

MV Matanuska, somewhere between Juneau and Sitka, AlaskaDawn on the MV Matanuska, somewhere between Juneau and Sitka (Photo: Eva Holland)

Part 1: The Roughest Place in the World

Skagway in winter is eerily quiet. On Broadway the store windows are papered over, and the wooden boardwalks, frozen solid, creak and crack and pop under the rare pedestrian’s weight. The bright painted facades of the town’s historic buildings—one-time saloons and brothels, now seasonal shops hawking T-shirts, fudge and jewelry to cruise ship tourists—are so cartoonish, so Ye Olde, that you could imagine you’ve shrunk down to Lilliputian size and wandered into a child’s toy Wild West Towne, left out in the yard and abandoned, after the first snow, until spring.

This tiny Alaskan port on the northern end of the Inside Passage draws crowds of summer visitors by selling itself as a historic boom town, but it never feels more like a relic than when the winter settles in.

I arrived in town from my home in Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, tracing in reverse the famous Gold Rush route—from Skagway over the mountains to the Yukon River and the Klondike gold fields. I’d driven south past road crews clearing the debris from avalanches earlier in the week. I’d cleared the summit of White Pass, its highest point marking the international boundary, and coasted the few icy miles down from summit to sea level in second gear. Now I walked Skagway’s tidy, empty streets, past the neatly maintained yards and bright painted houses of its 800 or so residents. American flags flapped on flagpoles, and homemade signs propped up in windows cheered on the local high school sports teams. Vibe-wise, it was more an idyllic Anytown, U.S.A. than a rough-and-ready Last Frontier.

I was due on the 2:30 p.m. ferry to Juneau the next day. I was planning to spend 10 days exploring the ports and waterways of Southeast Alaska, using only the state’s public passenger ferries to get around.

Months earlier, in the Whitehorse Public Library, I’d spotted a copy of the WPA guide to Alaska. It was first published in 1939, before the Alaska Highway was built, and when I flipped through it I was struck by the changes the highway had wrought. For travelers to the interior, the road from northern B.C. to Fairbanks had completely altered the Alaskan experience. River steamers and railroads had been replaced by blacktop; historic travelers’ waypoints had been abandoned, and new ones built up. The standard, beaten-path routes described in the book—the journey down the Yukon River by steamer, for instance—were long gone.

But for the traveler to the panhandle, little had changed. The classic sea routes were unaltered since the WPA guide’s era—largely unaltered, in fact, since the 19th century, or even earlier. Visitors today traveled the same channels, past the same mountain views, and docked in the same ports, that they had for the last 100 years. The ships that carried them had evolved, sure, as had the ports where they docked, but it seemed to me that in a fundamental way the trip remained unchanged. There was something essential, I thought, about seeing Southeast Alaska by water.

I had decided to go in January, when the waterways were uncluttered with summer kayakers, yachties, cruise ships and fishing fleets, and the ferries were stocked with locals. I’d gathered up a handful of Alaskan travel guides and travelogues to get a feel for the experience over the years, and arranged for a media pass with my contact at the Alaska Marine Highway System. Skagway was the logical starting point—the northernmost panhandle port, and the only one, besides Haines, where the road to the rest of the world intersected with the old sea routes.

Skagway is a good place to ponder the past, and the changes time can work on a place. Built as a gateway to the Gold Rush, it had a seriously nasty reputation in its heyday. In The Klondike Fever, historian Pierre Berton writes that “the town of Skagway was conceived in lawlessness and nurtured in anarchy.” He quotes the sober-minded Yukon Mountie, Sam Steele (“the last man to give way to overstatement”), who called Skagway “the roughest place in the world.” Berton notes that in Steele’s memoirs, the police officer wrote about “the nights he spent in the town, when the crash of bands in the dance halls and ‘the cracked voices of the singers’ were mingled with shouts of murder, cries for help, and the crackle of gunshot.”

The mayhem is long gone—Skagway’s violent crime rate today is 74 percent below the national average. I had dinner at the Skagway Brewing Company, a small-scale brewpub with high ceilings and a long, polished wooden bar. This was a ritual stop whenever I made the drive down from Whitehorse, and as I ordered my usual—mac’n'cheese and a spruce tip ale—I waved hello to the owner sitting a couple of tables away.  The bar was quiet: half a dozen people turned up through the evening, and we all watched Tom Brady end Tim Tebow’s playoffs on the big screen.

The next morning I ate breakfast at a bright, cheery diner, eavesdropping on the gossiping locals at the next table. When the time came to leave, I parked outside the ferry terminal and went in to collect my ticket. I asked the woman behind the counter whether my car would be safe enough in the parking lot for the next week and a half. She waved a hand as she reassured me. “We’re really lucky we don’t have to worry about all that stuff here,” she said, “all that stuff” seeming to represent the collective ills of urbandom, the Lower 48, and Alaska’s more troubled communities, large and small. “We have a real nice police chief, too.”

I thanked her and took my ticket, handed my passport over for a quick check at the door, then headed down a long enclosed tunnel to the dock. The ferry, the MV LeConte, loomed above me, black hull muted by a thick crust of ice. I stepped onto the boarding ramp. A half-hour later, after I’d settled into the observation lounge, the PA system crackled to life with the ritual words: “All ashore that’s going ashore.” A horn sounded. We were off.

Next Page »

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

16 Comments for The Ferries and the Last Frontier

junny 03.28.12 | 3:41 AM ET

“Skagway was the logical starting pointóthe northernmost panhandle port, and the only one, besides Haines, where the road to the rest of the world intersected with the old sea routes.”
You are absolutely right, I agree with you opinion about Skagway.

Rodney Dowager 03.28.12 | 9:37 AM ET

A top knotch piece of writing. I have often dreamed a life of a crawlerman in Alaska. It has a noble calling, man against the elements. One of my friends is from skagway, he says it has got a real eerie frontier town feel.

Ryan Ver Berkmoes 03.29.12 | 11:40 AM ET

I love the Matanuska. A classic old ferry with with wonderful crews. It’s all so real, from the frill-free but fine food to the simple cabins to the solitude of sitting on deck and watching, say, an orca go by. Everyone should travel SE Alaska by the ferries, it’s Top 10 worldwide in my book - literally. And a great piece of writing Eva.

CB 03.29.12 | 8:13 PM ET

Another great story Eva! Alaska is the only state I haven’t visited and I’m dying to get there!

Ron 03.30.12 | 12:13 PM ET

Bring back some memories when I worked seasonal in Sitka & took the ferry from Haines to Sitka each fall & back to Haines each spring to drive to Anchorage.  1980-85 it was something my little family used to look forward to.

Chuck 03.31.12 | 6:57 PM ET

Was hesitant to read yet another story about the Inland Passage but your’s, Eve, was totally different and a great read.  While I love ferries - and live on an island - I’ve not yet experienced the Alaska State Ferry system.  And though I’ve been to most of the cities/towns/hamlets you’ve talked about, travel was all by air.  You may have finally pushed be into another ferry route sooner than later.

steve 04.01.12 | 6:51 PM ET

Great piece of writing and an even better way to daydream on a dreary Sunday afternoon. Thanks!

research papers 04.04.12 | 11:25 AM ET

So interesting! Thanks for sharing.

GypsyGirl 04.04.12 | 2:25 PM ET

Wonderful piece, Eva! I’ve got a soft spot for Skagway; drove up the Alcan from Montana, and south on the Cassiar Hwy back into the lower 48—staying a total of eight months. There was lots of whale activity that year and some friends and I took the ferry from Skagway to Juneau (and back) watching humpbacks breach and bubble!

Tom 04.08.12 | 3:35 PM ET

Very interesting article, id like to know more about travelling by coach or bus.

Travel Packages 04.12.12 | 2:19 AM ET

A classic old ferry with with wonderful crews. Itís all so real, from the frill-free but fine food to the simple cabins to the solitude of sitting on deck and watching, say, an orca go by. Everyone should travel SE Alaska by the ferries, itís Top 10 worldwide in my book - literally. And a great piece of writing Eva.

Murray Lundberg 04.29.12 | 12:24 PM ET

Excellent article, Eva. Although I live in Whitehorse too, most of my Southeast Alaska experience is via cruise ship - I’m boarding #11 on June 1st. Although I can appreciate the character of the ferries and its riders and have spent many hours on them, the lounges on cruise ships provide stories from around the world. I do prefer the feel of Skagway and Juneau in particular off-season, though - when the jewelry stores and trinket shops are closed and the Red Dog and Alaskan bars just have a handful of locals in them.

Rene 05.06.12 | 8:38 PM ET

Fantastic article! Thank you for sharing!

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Great article. Thanks for sharing

Party bus 05.15.12 | 8:58 AM ET

great story about great place thanks a lot for sharing with us, keep posting this kind of articles will always make this blog unique from other stories blogs.

Chris Chinniah 05.23.12 | 2:59 AM ET

Even though it might be far, and to some of the younger generation this port town might be boring, I still think Alaska is a place worth visiting. For the sheer experience of cold winter and icy seas and old infrastructure, this could be a very different kind of holiday getaway.

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