Lately, when daydreaming about memorable journeys, my mind’s eye has flown me out to the waters between British Columbia in Canada and the southern islands of Alaska. Replaying two harmonious days sailing on the Alaska Marine Highway. Back to the sublime sunsets, vast openness and full on freedom of the open water.
The Alaska Marine Highway is a state ferry service which covers 3,500 miles of spectacular coastline, from Bellingham in Washington state via BC’s Prince Rupert and Alaska’s southern Alexander Archipelago, along the south coast to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Island chain.
And it is a hell of a ride.
In the following photo story, I’ve captured a little of what it was like sailing on our vessel the Malaspina, some of what we saw and experienced.
Our journey began on the evening of my birthday in early September last year. Leaving the Canadian coastal town of Prince Rupert behind, we sailed on the Hecate Strait. The beautiful archipelago of Haida Gwaii behind us and the Alexander Archipelago in our sights.
I was very full after a stonking great seafood lunch at wonderful Dolly’s Fish Market in Prince Rupert (chowder followed by a halibut, shrimp and crab burger if you’re interested). But I made space for some cherry pie, generously plied with whipped cream when the restaurant staff found out it was my birthday!
Entering the Alexander Archipelago
Our vessel the Malaspina had entered the Alexander Archipelago, a group of over 1,000 islands along the panhandle of Alaska’s south east coast. We would reach our first island stop of Ketchikan at 1am. Fast asleep!
A Glorious Day
The start of a full day of sailing and it was shaping up to be a glorious day… I even took to the deck for a morning run, unheard of for me!
Although we were in Alaskan waters, views of northern British Columbia to the east trailed us along our passage. Here we glimpsed one of many mountain ranges in the Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park that stretch up towards the remote and sparsely-populated state of the Yukon.
Wrangell totem pole
During ferry stops we were allowed to disembark, though we had to be very quick. Here, a raven totem pole made in the 1960s displayed outside the post office in the town of Wrangell (population 2,400).
For thousands of years the indigenous Tlingit people (meaning ‘people of the tides’) have called the Alexander Archipelago home. As their name suggests, the Tlingit have always been seafarers, skilled at fishing the Pacific Ocean and its surrounds.
Tlingit lands stretch beyond the Alexander Archipelago out to British Columbia, the south coast mainland of Alaska and into the Yukon.
First Nation Wrangell residents call themselves Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan after the nearby Stikine River.
Winds buffetting me so much at times that I couldn’t keep my camera steady, we at last met Alaska’s humpback whales. Why at last? Up to this point, I had only seen the brief sight of the fin of a humpback whale and her calf in the South Pacific Ocean. Over the second half of the journey, we saw humpbacks breaching and diving and gliding along. Every single spot was a thrill for me.
Between Kake and Sitka
As the sun set so luxuriently on the second evening, we sailed deeper into the archipelago. After stopping at Kake (population 600) we began weaving our way to the larger settlement of Sitka (population 9,000).
This involved navigating eastwards round Kuiu Island and into the open waters of the North Pacific Ocean, later turning round westwards round Baranof Island.
Though Kake is quite small, it’s home to the third largest totem pole in the world. Fact! All 132 feet of it was carved in 1967 to commemorate 100 years since Alaska had been bought from the Russians.
The second evening
This is where my mind’s eye takes me most whenever my mind drifts: our second evening on the water. The softest and most serene sunset and moonlit skies I think I’ve ever witnessed.
Tree reflections and mists
We’d reached our second morning. Despite inching closer to our end destination, the waters and surrounding landscapes still felt incredibly peaceful.
After a dreamy two days of sailing, our destination of Juneau was in sight, with its famous Mendenhall Glacier. Visiting later that day we didn’t spot the bears we hoped we might see, but instead hung out with sea eagles, migrating salmon and even a porcupine up a tree.
Two days of slow travel very well spent.