Trailering Magazine Archives - Destinations
Boating in the 49th State
Alaska is far away
In fact, you can be in Alaska and it's still far away. If you put the most eastern part of the state in Atlanta, Georgia, the easternmost part of the state in Atlanta, Georgia, the westernmost part of Alaska would be in Los Angeles. That's how big it is.
For example, Trailering Club Member Jeff Nicholas made the trip from his home in Spartanburg, South Carolina to Homer, Alaska on the southern tip of Kachemak Bay and back towing his boat. Total distance: 13,000 miles.
"There are Anchorage residents who pull their boats south to Homer for fishing and it's a four-and-one-half hour trip one way," observes Jeff Johnson of the state's Office of Boating Safety in Anchorage. "We don't think anything of doing that."
That's because only a third of the state has roads. Johnson notes that outside of cities like Anchorage, Homer, Fairbanks, Seward, the main way of getting around is by boat or airplane. But where there are roads, there are plenty of boats and tow vehicles.
"We have a transient population," observes Johnson, "and a lot of this is the result of the fact there are two military bases here (Elmendorf Air Force Base and the U.S. Army's Fort Richardson) plus we have an active oil industry. So people are very fluid and many have come here with boats on trailers."
Before You Go
"My advice for anyone giving serious thought to pulling a boat to Alaska is this," offers BoatU.S. Member John Wright in Watsonville, California: who tows a 20-foot Crestliner. "Don't start with looking at what's in your boat. Instead, start with what's inside your head. Do some research. Get the necessary charts. Know where you can anchor, where you can get fuel, know the tides and the circumstances that may make them extreme (full moon or new moon is one such factor) and always have plans to be at anchor no later than 4 p.m. If you can do all of this, I will tell you you're not going to be sorry you made the trip. Alaska is an incredibly beautiful part of the world." Wright has some experience with making the trip: He's done it seven times and will be on the road (and water) for an eighth trip next month.
BoatU.S. Member Richard Cook has traveled to Alaska a number of times from his home in Utah. "Challenges include unpredictable and often cool, wet and windy weather," he says. "You need good clothing and outerwear, and a really well equipped and well maintained cruising boat, almost certainly with a cabin. You need backup for many systems, tools and spares, and experience using them. You need to keep on top of tides and currents, and marine weather conditions and forecast, and be willing to let the weather determine where and when you go -- adhering closely to a schedule can be a disaster." Cook has done this with a Bounty 257 as well as a C-Dory 22 Cruiser.
"I tell Alaska residents as well as visitors to do a serious pre-departure check," advises Jeff Johnson."Know how your boat trailer is put together and always carry spare parts, like bearings and a spare tire. Help isn't always close by and that holds true for the road and the water. We have to rely on ourselves. Let's put it like this: We don't have a lot of collisions up here."
There are three ways to make the trip from the lower 48 contiguous states: drive it, take a ferry or a combination of the two.
The 1,422 mile-long Alaskan Canadian Highway, also called "the AlCan," begins at Dawson Creek in British Columbia (it's 1,000 miles from Spokane, Washington and about 810 miles from Seattle) makes a westward turn at Prince Rupert ending at Delta Junction, Alaska. Some boaters, like Richard Cook and Jeff Nicholas, will launch at Prince Rupert crossing about 100 miles of open water before putting in at Ketchikan, Alaska on the southeast corner of the state for fuel, supplies and to clear customs.
The AlCan was completed in eight months as a military supply route after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Today, it's a well-traveled paved road with adequate gas stations along the way. Many who have used the AlCan strongly suggest purchasing the magazine "The MilePost" (www.themilepost.com) which has an up-to-date guide to locations for fuel, hotels, food and places of interest along the way.
The second way is more expensive but easier on the tow vehicle mileage: the Alaskan Marine Highway.
While costly, it will save 700 - 1,000 miles of driving depending on the destination. Begun in the 1960's the Marine Highway is a ferry system serving 30 communities between Bellingham, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. A number of trailer boaters who have made the trip suggest driving one way and taking the ferry back. This allows time to witness the Alaskan landscape (puffins, whales, bald eagles and glaciers to name just a few of the common sights).
A third option, using parts of the first two, is preferred by John Wright: From his home in Watsonville, California, he'll drive to Bellingham, Washington (972 miles) where he'll take on food supplies (he and his wife stay on their boat) and do a thorough inspection of the trailer. Then they take a Washington State Ferry (different from the Alaska Marine Highway ferry) to Vancouver Island.
"Be prepared for Canadian Customs officials to do a search of everything you are bringing in," he warns. "I've done this numerous times and I can tell you if there is something suspicious going on, the inspections and searches will be all the more detailed. It's important to have all your documents including passports and boat documentation ready for the customs agent. It's not as simple as it used to be but it's because of the crazy world we live in now." Wright recalls officials finding a plastic bag of aspirin and doing an inspection of each pill in the event he might be trying to bring drugs into the country.
From there they pull the boat north to Port Hardy and launch at low tide for a four-to-five-hour run in the Queen Charlotte Sound to the Inside Passage of Alaska. From there, they explore the many inlets and fjords (long narrow bays with steep sides) that make up the Inside Passage coastline.
Places and Things
The Inside Passage is a 500-mile-long body of water running north to south between the Alaskan mainland and coastal islands. The dozen different cruise ship lines bringing half of all the tourists to the state every year all travel the Inside Passage, stopping at the ports of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka. This is also a popular destination for kayakers and canoeists.
Boats can be launched in two places in and near Juneau: the Amalga Boat Ramp and Echo Cove (south of Juneau Harbor). Anglers begin their journeys for Chinook salmon from these facilities. And in keeping with the theme of wide-open spaces, the 16-million-acre Tongass National Forest (it's the size of West Virginia) takes up much of the shoreline. This and the smaller Chugach National Forest (it's only 5.9 million acres) are available for recreation purposes as well as some limited commercial pursuits such as logging. Juneau is the third largest city in the state and began as a site of the 19th Century gold rush. Today, it is the topic of debate among residents, as recently as February of this year, to move the state capital from Juneau to Anchorage, the state's largest city. So far, Juneau has won out but arguing about the location of the center of government has been going on since 1925---decades before Alaska even became a state.
Juneau is situated at the outlet of the Lynn Canal, one of the deepest fjords in North America (depths reach more than 2,000 feet) that runs 90 miles to the town of Skagway. As the Lynn Canal is used by the Alaskan Marine Highway System and cruise ships today, it was also used as a "highway" during the Alaskan gold rush. But you'll see smaller boats too. It is not unheard of to launch in Juneau and travel the canal while someone else drives the tow vehicle and trailer to Skagway where the boat is retrieved at the town's small boat harbor (the cost is $5 to launch and retrieve in Skagway).
From Juneau, it's worth parking the boat for a day and taking a ferry across the Inside Passage to Sitka, located on the west side of Baranof Island (it's also served by the Marine Highway and any number of ferries operating out of Juneau). Sitka was the site of the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States in 1867. For a while, it was the first capital of the territory. James Michener researched and wrote his bestseller Alaska in Sitka.
The Kenai Peninsula
About 160 miles south of Anchorage is the Kenai Peninsula, a 150-mile long strip of land with Cook Inlet on its north shore, the Gulf of Alaska on the southeastern shore and Kachemak Bay at the end. The towns of Homer, Soldotna and Seward are located on the peninsula and are a destination for anyone with a taste for salmon, be it Chinook, Coho, Pink or Sockeye.
Soldotna is at the mouth of the Kenai River, an 80-mile long waterway cutting through the center of the peninsula. This river has the distinction of producing more record breaking fish than any other river in the world (a Chinook Salmon at 97 lbs. 4 oz. was pulled from the river recently). The city operates the Centennial and the Swiftwater boat ramps, both with a launch fee of $10.50.
"From Soldotna, you'll see a lot of jet boats going 'upriver'," notes Jeff Varvils, manager of the West Marine store in Anchorage and host of Alaska Outdoors that will be shown on Fox television this October. "The jet boats draw less and that's why there are so many of them used in this part of the river. There are a number of state parks upriver where you can launch into deeper water."
Farther south is the town of Seward with a small boat harbor on Resurrection Bay. "It's a small fishing community," says Varvils, "and it has the feel of an old-time East Coast fishing village." It's also the closest town to Kenai Fjords National Park, a 650,000 acre expanse along Resurrection Bay's northeast shoreline. "There are any number of small cruise boats that will take you to the park," Varvils says, " but you can take your own boat just as easily. It's not unheard of to drive the boat right up to a glacier or to beach it along the shore. But if you do beach it, keep in mind the shore is rocky. A lot of folks with their own boats will tow a dinghy for this purpose."
"Most of the time Seward is quiet on weekdays," observes Jeff Johnson, "but if it's related to a run of fish then roads, boat ramps, stores, hotels become crowded."
Homer, with a population of 5,300, just got its first traffic light three years ago, in part because of the ever increasing number of sport fishermen coming to town. Calling itself the "Halibut Capital of the World," the city has a small boat harbor with a ramp (cost is $12 per day) located on "the spit"---a five-mile sliver of land stretching into Kachemak Bay.
The Homer Spit was almost taken off the map after the largest earthquake ever to hit North America occurred on Easter Sunday in 1964. More than 116 were killed, mostly by tsunamis that resulted from the 8.6 Richter scale event.
"Kachemak Bay is a gorgeous part of Alaska," observes West Marine's Varvils. "It's small but you'll see whales and puffins when you're out there. It's also known for the 'clam tides'---at low tide you can walk out and dig through the huge population of clams."
On the way from Anchorage to both Homer and Seward, you are going to come across the Turnagain Arm--- so named by explorer Captain Cook who had been sailing north along the West Coast in search of a trans-Atlantic passage in North America but had finally given up and opted to "turn again." It's a narrow branch of water that flows into Cook Inlet but is home to the phenomena called "bore tides" that usually occur after an extreme low tide, a few days before or after a full or new moon. The bore tide is literally a wave that sweeps in very quickly and is something trailer boat owners should watch from the road rather than the water. The Turnagin Arm bore tide is so popular that it even has its own YouTube video.
"I've seen it any number of times," Jeff Varvils says. " It looks like a six-foot wall of water and ice, it's almost like a curtain that sweeps across the width of the arm. Sometimes folks will be out there with surfboards or they'll have kites hooked to their boards and take a ride on the bore tide. This is why no recreational boats are allowed in Turnagain Arm; too many bad things can occur." Visitors are urged to avoid walking out into the water during low tide because the soft muddy bottom is akin to quicksand.
Alaska is going to show you the world in its natural state---or get you as close as is possible. If you are there in June during the Summer Solstice (June 20 this year) you'll never have to turn on the headlights, as the sky remains sunlit long into the night.
"Winter is nine months long," observes Jeff Johnson who has lived in Anchorage since 1978. "Alaskans are crazy about getting out to enjoy the scenery. I always think of the words Chaucer used in The Knight's Tale: 'Days like this are far too rare to be cheapened with heavy-handed words.'"
Heavy-handed or not, words can still paint quite a nice picture.
"Going to Alaska includes watching humpback whales up close," says trailer boater Richard Cook (no relation to the "Captain" above). "You'll see incredible numbers of eagles and sea birds, sea otters, sea lions, bears, fantastic fishing, crab and shrimp, glaciers calving icebergs into the sea, dramatic snow-capped mountains, beautiful and peaceful anchorages and incredibly gorgeous scenery in general."
Alaska Fast Facts:
- Alaska has more boats than snowmobiles.
- Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas. It's 2,261 miles east to west and 1,420 miles north to south. Alaska occupies 16% of the total U.S. land mass. The Alaskan shoreline is 33,904 miles.
- They lived in Alaska:
- Actress Michelle Johnson, born in Anchorage (Melrose Place, Judging Amy, Blame It on Rio).
- Actress Irene Bedard, born in Anchorage (The New World, The Outer Limits)
- Actor Khleo Thomas, (ER, CSI)
- Actor Joshua Morrow, born in Juneau (The Young and the Restless)
- The "Bridge to Nowhere"- a $398 million benchmark approved by Congress that was built to connect 52 residents to the mainland, has become a tourist spot. It's located in Ketchikan in the southeast part of the state. Yes, trailer boaters can go under the bridge if desired.
Alaska Fishing License www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=license.main
Alaska Marine Highway System www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs
Inside Passage information www.alaskainfo.org
Alaska Office of Boating Safety www.alaskaboatingsafety.org
West Marine, 8401 Dimond D Circle, Anchorage AK 907-349-5299
But if you do need assistance...
When you take your family and your boat to Alaska, you'll have Trailer Assist benefits in the event your trailer needs repairs. And if something happens out on the water, bring along BoatU.S. Unlimited Towing.
It will provide up to 30 miles of towing from wherever your boat breaks down or goes aground along the way. If you want to get towed further, our Unlimited Gold Card will have your boat towed up to 50 miles!
BoatU.S. Vessel Assist partners, have over 100 towboats along the West Coast and British Columbia that are ready to "assist" 24 hours a day. For more information, go to www.BoatUS.com/vesselassist.