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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Alaska Marine Highway

Previously on the Juneau junket: Transportation Terror

Route 66 may have nostalgia, but the Alaska Marine Highway beats it for sights and the sheer joy of travel. The highway system has been in operation since 1963 and provides safe, reliable, and efficient transportation of people, goods, and vehicles among thirty Alaska communities, Canada, and the Lower 48.

Our trip to Juneau began just after midnight on the MV Taku. The vessel was built in 1963 and renovated in 1981. It had three passenger decks -- cabin, boat, and sun -- and one vehicle deck. We hung out on the boat deck, that had a recliner lounge, writing lounge, cafeteria, and a viewing area. While riding through the darkness, we curled up on the floor and tried to sleep. Once the sun started to appear, we sat in the viewing area to take in the sights. The sunrise was partially hidden by clouds, but the colors were wonderful. After breakfast at 7:00am, we sat back to relax.

After a while we began to see the evidence of whales -- spraying and spouting of water in the distance. Watching closely, we could see the backside of several. They would alternate several times, spraying and then showing their backs, and at the end we would see the tail as it dove back down. In a stretch of ten minutes we saw about ten whales, and the spouting of many more. Never knowing when or where they would appear made photographing difficult. Later one appeared almost directly in front of the vessel and we saw it close along the side.

As we approached Juneau, the first thing we noticed was the Mendenhall Glacier nestled among the mountains in the background. The photograph doesn't really do justice to the view, especially the color, even in overcast skies. The ice is directly in the center of this image. We docked after a nine-hour journey, about thirty minutes ahead of schedule.

The next morning we rode the FVF Fairweather back to Sitka. This vessel was built in 2004. Though it was smaller, with only one vehicle deck and one passenger deck, it offered more modern conveniences. A playroom for children also showed movies. Seating was arranged in areas with tables, bistro-style settings around the food nook, and airline-style seats in the viewing area. Throughout the deck a series of screens showed a map of our journey with accompanying information and statistics.

Again we were able to spot the evidence of many whales spouting in the distance, but only saw the backs of two up close. But what was in the dark on the leg out we could now see: lots of pretty views through the tight straights and channels. We crossed lots of other leisure and fishing vessels, as well as passing one barge. At one point the mountains and islands parted and the highway opened directly to the Pacific Ocean.

It was pleasing to us to see that there are still a lot
of wild places that man hasn't yet conquered with concrete. And it was great to be back to our own little home away from home in Alaska.

Next on the Juneau junket: Juneau.

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