Travel with Hafeez to Alaska
Having seen a major part of mainland USA, I was now bracing myself to visit Hawaii and Alaska in one go. When my traveling agent went through my itinerary, he said without looking at me, “No problem but air-fare alone would be around US$ 5,000”. It was a stunning blow as I had a total of US$1,500 for all & sundry - hook, line and sinker. With a heavy heart, I stood up, straightened my back and left the travel shop.
In the next two days, I searched on Google, sent emails to friends and forums like Thorn Tree & Globe Trotters. Mostly advised me to cut either Hawaii or Alaska and look for a cheapest of the cheap deal on websites like kayak, orbitz and Travelocity. But Michael Schmidt, a friend in USA, dropped a hint for traveling by Alaska Ferry and, my God, that solved the problem.
On 25thJune, 06, I left for Los Angeles by Qatar Airways via Doha & London. I reached Los Angeles next day and after resting for two days continued my travel -first to Seattle and then to Bellingham, about 2,300 km away from Los Angeles. I stayed at both the places for a day or two for acclimatization. For the next 10 days, I covered Alaska at very low budget.
Affectionately called Panhandle, because of its shape, Alaska is a happy mixture of water, land and heritage. In Native American it means "the great land". It is the Last Frontier of USA and its largest state, 2,240 km long and 4,320 km wide. Its capital is Juneau accessible only by boat or plane. Alaska is almost as close to Tokyo Japan (5,200 km) as New York City (5,248 km).
Its revenues mostly come from oil and natural gas industry. Besides, it supplies salmon, crab, halibut and herring to other parts of USA. It earns heavily from tourist trade as it has snow-capped mountain, sea and water channels.It has a majestic wilderness with abundant wildlife such as whales, eagles, otters, seals, bears, foxes and wolves. Also plenty of birds like pelican, raven, heron, water fowl, hawk, falcon, crane, gulls, swallows and ducks.
Alaska Marine Highway System
Alaska Marine Highway is not a coastal road. It is name of the company which owns and operates 11 ferries. Its primary object is to provide transport facilities to people who live and work in Alaska. Catering to tourists is secondary. The company's ferries are like small cruise ships with decks for passengers and vehicles. There are cabins, observation lounges, restaurants, gift shops and spacious decks.
AMHS ferries serve in the Inside Passage which is shaped by the staggering force of massive glaciers millions of years ago. It has wildlife-filled fjords and forests — habitat for bald eagles, sea lions, porpoises and whales.
It is heavily travelled by cruise ships, freighters, tugs and fishing boats. Because it is a narrow channel, the sail is smooth, no rolling or pitching.
I reached the Bellingham Port and went straight to AMHS office on June 30,2006. By paying $352 through my Visa Card, I got a ticket as walk-on passenger. On entering the ferry, I deposited my traveling bag in a safety box and secured the key. Next I located a reclining chair in "the dark lounge" and dozed off.
In the evening the ferry sailed. By that time, I had enough rest and came out to enjoy the passing scenery. Soon twinkling lights of Vancouver were in sight giving an impressive view. Next the ferry passed by Bella Bella, an island village of British Columbia. The sail was very pleasant and the views were spectacular. The canal was flanked by high, steep mountains on each side. Numerous small islands dotted the surface. The route became increasingly scenic as the channel narrows and the snow peaks loomed closer.
After about two hours, I went inside. There was a café selling cereals, sandwiches, yogurt, chips and cookies. The café had about 100 seats arranged tables for two, four or six. I had a light meal with tea and moved to forward lounge, with wraparound windows and captain chairs. There were many solo travelers like me. An instant camaraderie develops among us. I especially like Rick, a retired engineer who had served in Alaska for 20 years and loved to have a joyride on the ferry every six months or so. Another was a single mother with her kid. She grew up in Alaska, but had lived on the mainland USA for five years. She was back to find out possibility of re-settling but confided in me as “May be I get sick of living here in Alaska and go again to New York.”
Ist July, 2006
Next morning, I started off with a hot water shower, had a nice breakfast and sat in the passenger lounge surrounded by a by spectacular scenery. Alaskan summer has a very long day. For quite sometimes, I sit on a bench and spotted many kind of fishing boats. A fellow-traveller explained to me unique features of each.
The water was calm and the ferry was said to be making 17 knots per hour.
By mid-day, I went up to the solarium, which had a partial roof with several banks of overhead heaters. This was the favorite spot of adventurous travelers who avoided the extra cost of a stateroom, choosing instead to "camp out" in this protected outdoor environment. Many had their tents or mattresses. There are other areas on the ferry where passangers were allowed to curl up and sleep for free like movie lounge. But the best is the upper deck for sleeping under the stars.
There were few alerts when whales were found near the ferry. These can be easily spotted as there was a mist like cloud due to their forceful exhaling of air. Also, there are some organized programs on board. A maritime wildlife ranger gave a talk on Alaska's flora and fauna. In addition, there are regular movie shows, announced in advance over the ferry's intercom.
On July 2, 2006
Early in the moring, a fire broke out in the auxiliary engine which temporarily impaired steering and propulsion. At that time, the ferry was passing in Seymour Narrows in Canadian waters. The ship motored to Duncan Bay, British Columbia for damage assessment. The passengers were warned of the damage but were advised not to worry. After a few hours stay, the ferry continued on to Ketchikan's dry dock for more extensive repairs. All passengers were advised to disembark and proceed to a nearby ferry office for further arrangements.
For me, Ketchikan was the first and last port of call. Rick asked me what my plans were? I told him that I would pursue the original plan of going to Skagway. He smiled and told me that in South East region, Ketchikan was number one place. He lured me to a grand plan: (i) we insist on going back. It would be free, (ii) once we are at our respective homes, we ask for refund of US$ 352 paid through Visa Card, and (iii) we ask for compensation for the mental torture we suffered because the aborted tour. “Think Hafeez,” he stressed, “this entire trip would be free plus at least a sum of US$ 200 as compensation." It appealed me that I agreed to tow his line.
So we went to Ferry Office, raised hell for cancellation of the voyage and asked for immediate arrangements for our return. The management apologized for the inconvenience and regretfully informed us that the earliest connection was two days away. This suited us but we made faces and asked for free accommodation. The company has no such provision but sent an assistant with us to get us a concessional rate for staying two nights. It was a peak season and a hotel room was difficult to find. Despite this, the company representative managed to get us a double at Black Bear Inn for US$50 per night. This was quite reasonable and we accepted it.
Alaska's First City
Ketchikan is known by many names like the "Salmon Capital of the World" and "Alaska's First City". It is a scenic town perched along the shores of coastal mountains and surrounded by protected waterways. It is a popular cruise destination, as well as a wonderful spot for travelers who want to experience wilderness and adventure. Native cultural influences continue even today as majestic totem poles can be viewed on downtown streets, in local parks and museums.
We were told by local that being located in the heart of Tongass National Forest; the town gets good rain (160 inches). Because of rain, their fishing was unmatched; wildlife abundant and trees dark green.
The most interesting area was Creek Street. It was a boardwalk winding along Ketchikan Creek. It had many art galleries like Soho Coho (5 Creek Street). There were a large number of shops selling a variety of high-end crafts such as velvet scarf, pendleton blanket with Indian themes, silver pendant and bronze sculpture. One store has a sign which shows the odds against the prospectors in the Gold Rush: 20,000 came north, 4000 found gold, 300 could be considered wealthy and 50 held on to their wealth.
We had a good walk for reaching a tram station. It lifted us to Cape Fox Lodge located on a hill top overlooking the city. The hotel had an interior décor reminiscent of a ski lodge with a river rock fireplace, pine-beamed ceilings and overstuffed furniture.
There’s an old saying: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We were in a town famous for its hailbut fish. So we smelled around to find out where fish was being fried. We found one ramshackle restaurant and had a hearty lunch of halibut and chips.
Most interesting feature of Ketchikan was float planes which were taking off or landing in the channel one after another. That is why Alaska is said to have highest number of pilots per capita, one pilot for every 58 people
In the evening we returned to our hotel and slept like a log.
Alaska in only $650 all inclusive
Next day, we boarded a southbound ferry and returned to Bellingham. While Rick left for Portland, Oregon, I spent another 20 days visiting friends and relatives in Detroit, Columbus Ohio and Norfolk.
On return, I claimed a refund from Visa International and in about two month I got it along with US$ 200 as compensation.
My Alaska tour cost was: Return air fare for Karachi-Los Angeles $ 750, Alaska Ferry $352, lodging at Ketchikan $50 and roughly $100 for foods and side travel. In all I spent about $1,200 of which I got back 550 as refund or compensation. That means that I spent only $650 on Alaska Tour against $5,000 for airfare alone quoted by the agent.
Once when I was passing by the travel shop, I saw my travel agent standing at the door. My blood boiled up and I could not resist shouting,” Alaska in five thousand dollars, you cheat. I did it in 650.”