Alaska State Ferry Columbia

Alaska Marine Highway

Friday June 16 through Monday June 19, 2006

Return to Larry and Linda Pearson -> 2006 Alaska Vacation

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We rode the Alaska State Ferry Columbia from Bellingham, Washington to Juneau Alaska. The voyage took three days. We made three stops along the way.

The Alaska Marine Highway System describes the M/V Columbia as having the following statistics:

Passenger accessible decks from top to bottom are:

Alaska State Ferries are not cruise ships. We were reminded time and again. In fact, it has become a running joke between us. When service or passenger behavior got goofy at, we whispered to each other "this is not a cruise ship."

The ferry terminal in Bellingham, Washington is very nice, clean, and well run. We arrived at the ferry terminal around noon Friday. The ferry didn't start loading until 4:00 PM. When we walked into the terminal building, our stomachs were still on Central Time so we were pretty hungry. We ate at the snack bar in the terminal building. Their food was surprisingly good. But before we ate, we checked in as instructed at the window below. Pretty easy process. They are getting like the airlines. No "official" picture ID, no boarding pass.

The second floor waiting area in the terminal building fills up as ferry departure time approaches. It is generally pretty comfortable but I wouldn't want to spend more than the four hours we did spend there. Some folks appeared to have been camped out for much longer.

Embarking

If you are bringing a car onto the ferry, you need to show up lots earlier. Good news is, you get to get on the ferry before the foot passengers.

The ferry boards from the second floor of the terminal building. The ramp goes from the terminals second floor over to the Upper Deck on the ferry (Columbia). The Upper Deck is one deck above the car deck. This is also the deck where the Purser's Counter is. That is nice since the elevators can be slow going when lots of folks are getting on or off the ship. The Upper Deck is the lowest deck that ferry passengers always have access to. There are three passenger accessible decks above it. By the way, Bellingham is the only location where walk on passengers board like this. Everywhere else, all boarding was done from the car deck (one deck below the Upper Deck).

Before you get to walk the ramp below, you have to present your boarding credentials (its like a ticket) to a Purser's in the terminal. If you have reserved a cabin, you will walk on board and head straight away to the Purser's' Counter to get your cabin assignment and cabin key. If you don't have a cabin, you will race to the best camping spot and stake your claim. More about ferry camping later.

Ship time is on Alaska time which is one hour less than Pacific Time. That is, 6:00 PM in Seattle is 5:00 PM on the ship. I've never crossed a time zone on a gang plank before.

Cabins

When riding this ferry, you don't have to have a cabin. In fact, cabins cost extra. Some passengers paid for cabins and others elected to sleep in the public areas of the ship. We chose to have a cabin. I wouldn't do it any other way. People without cabins can pitch tents on two of the ferry decks, sleep outdoors in the covered Solarium deck on plastic lounge chairs, or sleep in one of the four public lounges. Chose an option that matches your sense of adventure or your circumstance.

There are a variety of cabin options on board the Columbia. You can get 2 berth, 4 berth, and 4 berth with a sitting room. So far as we could tell, all cabins had private sinks, toilets, and showers. We opted for a 4 berth with sitting room cabin for the two of us. We figured we would be much more comfortable if we could spread out. Yes, this is a bit piggy of us but we paid extra.

From the sitting room facing the cabin door. The top bunks have ladders which are removable. I laid the ladders on the top bunks. We slept on the left hand side. Linda on the bottom bunk and Larry on the top bunk. On the right hand side, we put our big luggage (50 pound roller bags) on the bottom bunk and miscellaneous carry on type stuff on the top bunk.

The luggage would have easily fit on the floor under the bottom bunks. But then we would have had to slide them in and out to get to our stuff.

Reasons this is not a cruise ship. No maid service. No one came to change our sheets, make our beds, replace our towels, or empty our trash can. There was a bar of soap. No shampoo. Towels, hand towels, and wash clothes were washed thin in time. Exactly four of each. Had we wanted to visit the Purser's' Counter everyday, we could have changed out the towels but that would have been too much hassle. This is not a cruise ship.

The sink and close hanging rods are to the left of the door. The toilet and shower are behind a door to the right of the cabin door. The bathroom door wouldn't stay open. While Spartan, the accommodations were certainly functional. No problems with water pressure or hot water. The toilet worked a little differently from a standard commercial toilet. It used the same type of lever to start the flow of water. Then there was a monstrous whooshing sound as the toilet bowl contents were sucked away. However, the toilet worked well. I had expected some form of yucky clogging marine toilet.

We've saved the best for last. The sitting room was nothing like we expected. We had grand visions of a couch, comfortable chair, and end-table arranged around a window with a gorgeous view of the inside passage. While waiting for the ferry to start boarding in Bellingham, we got a brochure describing M/V Columbia that provided a detail map of the decks and cabin locations. We saw that the largest cabins (which we correctly assumed one would be ours) were on the upper deck facing the bow of the ship. We also thought that the Upper Deck would be higher than the Cabin and Boat Decks. We would run over to the ferry terminal windows to peer out and try to match the deck maps to the ferry.

What we got wasn't a cruise ship. The sitting room is somewhat cramped. There is a tiny round table bolted to the floor in the middle of the sitting room. The immovable table had three rather smallish uncomfortable chairs around it. Under the window was a small table that made it hard to look out the window. The floor of our cabin was lower than the deck our window overlooked so that the bottom of our window was nearly even with the deck in front of us. When the deckhands were outside on that deck, they could easily see inside our room. Kind of creepy when you are in your underwear. From our window, it was not possible to see over the bow deck railing. Large equipment is fastened to the deck in front of these windows further obscuring the view. At around sunset, all forward facing windows are shuttered off. The shutters are not removed until well after sunrise in the morning. The Purser's explained all this to us when we got our cabin assignment. To keep the ferry from running into things in the water, they post a lookout on the bow when the weather is bad and when it is dark out. Lights from cabins and observation decks impairs the lookout's vision.

No Cabin?

Passengers without a cabin will find themselves living in the ferry's public spaces. We met on couple from Switzerland in the ferry terminal who planned to pitch a tent on the deck. This was their second trip to Alaska. On their first trip up the inside passage, they arrived on time for boarding. Unfortunately for them, on time meant they were at the end of the line. When they found a spot to pitch their tent on that first trip, is was a less than optimal spot. The second time around, they purposefully arrived at the ferry terminal early in the morning, well in advance of boarding. Needless to say, they were the first in line for boarding. One of the things they did to maintain their place at the head of the line was to enforce the line whenever late arrivals tried to cut ahead of them. We didn't assist in line enforcement but we certainly benefited from it. Other passengers joined the Swiss couple in keeping the line orderly.

The way we lined up was interesting as well. Passengers lined up their baggage in the middle of the hallway starting at the terminal gate. Then they would sit in the chairs to maintain eye contact with their baggage.

Passengers without a cabin may want to take the Swiss couple's approach. Line up early, maintain their place in line, and board the ferry as early as possible to secure the best campsite location.

We had heard that people would pitch tents on the ferry. Seeing it is a whole other thing. Below is one of the two official tent and camping areas. It is on the Cabin Deck, one deck up from the Upper Deck. This is generally the second camping choice.

The preferred tent and camping area is on the Bridge Deck next to the Solarium. I would have thought this deck was more exposed by looking at the deck drawings. It may be that the wind and weather isn't as bad on the Bridge Deck. I visited both camping areas while the ship was underway. It seemed to me that the wind wasn't as bad. I didn't venture out on deck when it was raining hard. I don't know how bad the rain was in each campsite.

If you do plan to camp out on the deck in a tent, bring your tent stakes. While you can't hammer the tent stakes into the steel deck, you can tape them down. This just goes to prove that Duct Tape can be used for anything. Don't forget to bring a couple of rolls.

Almost every tent was taped to the deck. Tent stakes are run through grommets on the tent and then placed on the deck (parallel) and taped down. To further ensure that tents didn't fly off into the ocean, some campers tied cords from their tents to the railing.

Another option, that provides less privacy but more comfort is camping in the Solarium. Solarium campers don't pitch tents. They race up to Solarium and stake claim to one of the plastic lounge chairs. In a lounge chair, you can lie down or sit up comfortably. There are heat lamps in the Solarium area ceiling that help keep things warm. The solarium is open on the back. I would expect that folks sleeping in this area need to have sub-zero sleeping bags. When the weather turns bad at night, it can be pretty cold living out on the decks.

On the second night of the voyage, the weather did turn bad. It was raining and in the upper thirties. In the morning, I saw a number of campers making their way down to the Purser's' Counter to try to secure one of the few remaining cabins. Since we weren't at the peak season for the ferry, there were some cabins available. We recommend you get a cabin anyway. Camping on the decks may be fun for some but it isn't without its risks.

Additional cabin free cruising options are also available shipboard. At night, the lounges are littered with folks trying to sleep. Some of the lounges are better than others. The best lounge appears to be the Recliner TV Lounge. Remember, we aren't the sort of folks to want to sleep in public places so our views on this subject are slanted. Your mileage will vary. Movies (not first run - this isn't a cruise ship ;-) are shown daily in the Recliner TV Lounge. The recliners make this lounge my top choice for public sleeping. Below, Linda models one of the recliner chairs.

Clean public showers and restrooms are available on the Cabin Deck. I didn't research towel, washcloth, or soap availability. Since this isn't a cruise ship, you may want to bring your own stuff. Given that shampoo isn't provided in the cabins, it is a safe bet that shampoo wouldn't be complementary in the public showers.

One pleasant surprise was the availability of washers and dryers on board. Washers and dryers are located in the Men's and Women's Showers. We did a load of laundry which really helped out. The coin-operated machines were not as expensive as expected. Little boxes of laundry detergent can be purchased in the ship's store.

As mentioned above, there is a Gift Shop (ship's store). For a gift shop, it is pretty small. You can't really get more than two adults in there without having trouble turning around. It may be small in size but it is crammed full of stuff. Some gift shop souvenir type items and some other necessities like tooth brushes and toothpaste. I bought a map of The Alaska Inside Passage in addition to laundry detergent.

 

Food Service

There are four ways to capture calories. Candy and soft drinks are available in the vending machines. If you have trouble as we did with the vending machines, a Purser's can help you resolve the problem. We used vending machines to get bottled water. Vending machines are located on the Upper, Cabin, and Boat Decks. They take dollar bills and coins.

The Cocktail Lounge (bar) is behind the Forward Observation Lounge on the same deck as the Snack Bar (cafeteria) and Dining Room (restaurant). Each evening, a country/western duet performed. The Cocktail Lounge was never crowded.

The Snack Bar is a cafeteria of sorts. While it is always open, they don't always serve hot food from the kitchen. Off-hours, the cafeteria only sells prepackaged food from the refrigerators and freezers. They didn't even sell bottled water. We didn't eat in the cafeteria.

The Dining Room is a restaurant. The food is slightly better than college dormitory cafeteria food. Hours of operation are somewhat restrictive and inconvenient. When your stomach is on Central Time as our's is, you would want to eat earlier. They do take credit cards. Getting a table in the restaurant when it first opens is hard to do. Waits for mealtime seating can be an hour. One nice thing they do is hand out pagers. The pager will alert you when a table is available for you no matter where you are on the ship. Just like a real restaurant.

Sightseeing

The inside passage is full of beautiful sites and provides opportunities to see wildlife as well. The ferry has two forward facing lounges that make good viewing areas. You can also go out on deck on the back and sides of the ship. The Forward Observation Lounge provides the best views. Because the way the ferry is constructed, you really have to be standing up next to a window to effectively see out of it. When seated the chairs are too low to be able to see below the horizon. Since the observation lounge windows all point forward, they are shut off at night to ensure the night bow lookout can identify any hazards in the ship's path. The couple below is sitting in the front row of the Forward Observation Lounge.

Our favorite forward lounge to hang out in was the observation lounge on the Cabin Deck. There were tables with padded bench seats (like a booth in a restaurant only with both ends open) that you could sit at. Also, there were outlets close by and we could work on our PC's.

We did see lots of beautiful stuff while on the ferry. One problem is, some of the best stuff to see is along areas the ferry passes at night. No light, can't see. The longest day of the year was the week we went. The first night it got dark by 9:00/10:00 PM (ship/Seattle time) because it was overcast. When clear, it might be light until 9:30/10:30. The last night on the ferry, it was dark by 10:00 PM ship time.

We saw one whale. On the ship, there were two whale sightings We missed the first one. I think it was a Killer Whale.

 

Just north of Wrangell, in the Wrangell Narrows, we say hundreds of Bald Eagles in the trees above Rocky Point Resort. It was like the HItchcock movie The Birds made with Eagles instead of Crows.

 

Sometimes, the interplay between light and shadow when shrouded in mist, fog, and rain is irresistible.

 

Kayakers paddling about in the ocean. Couldn't tell if the facility is part of a lighthouse keeper's home or not.

Pets Onboard

You can only bring your pets onboard if you are bringing a vehicle onboard the ferry. The animals have to stay in your vehicle except during special "Pet Calls." Three or four times a day, you can visit your pet on the car deck for around 15 minutes. If you have a dog, you will be able to walk your dog during the 15 minute Pet Call. There was a dog imprisoned on the car deck below our cabin that we could hear crying for a half hour after each Pet Call. Before torturing your pet for extended periods on the ferry, really think about how they will respond to being restricted to the inside of your vehicle for eight hours or more at a time.

At ports of call, pet owners are allowed to walk their dogs off the ferry. Of course, they have to board the ferry before it departs. Lots of passengers with dogs did this. You have never seen such a happy group of dogs. They were literally pulling their owners along by the leash as they struggled to leave the ferry behind them. The dogs were less enthusiastic about coming back aboard.

At ports of call, pet owners are allowed to walk their dogs off the ferry. Of course, they have to board the ferry before it departs. Lots of passengers with dogs did this. You have never seen such a happy group of dogs. They were literally pulling their owners along by the leash as they struggled to leave the ferry behind them. The dogs were less enthusiastic about coming back aboard.

 

Disembarking

The ferry was scheduled to arrive in Juneau at 4:45 AM. The ship's crew had instructed us to be vacated from our cabins before docking. So, we woke up at 3:45 AM, took a shower, finished packing everything up, and vacated our cabin by 4:45 AM. The ferry was late and didn't actually dock until 5:30 AM. We, and everyone else on the ship, suddenly needed to use the single elevator. Being on the Upper Deck, which is one elevator stop up from the Car Deck, allowed us to take advantage of a common flaw in elevator design. Wanting to go down the elevator, we pressed the up button. The elevator went down to the Car Deck with its load of people. On its way back up to the top, it stopped at our deck. We got on and continued up to the Cabin Deck where there was a long line of people waiting to go down. We had filled up the elevator with four people and were unable to take any of the Cabin Deck folks back down with us. Doors closed and we were on our way down. Then the doors opened at the Upper Deck where we started out. We said hello to the people who used to be behind us in line. The elevator doors closed once again and we went down to the Car Deck where we disembarked.

Copyright © 2006, Larry Pearson - All Rights Reserved