Sailing up the BC Coast on the Alaska Ferry?

Camping on the ferry deck under the midnight sun is just one of many adventures to be had on the 60-hour journey through the Inside Passage

Credit: Kathy Sinclair

30 tents huddle in a colourful cluster on the Alaska State Ferry

Ferrying through the Inside Passage from Bellingham to Alaska is a 60-hour journey – plenty of time for on-deck camping, wildlife sightings, Alaskan pale ale and adventures under the midnight sun

“Hold on tight! We’ve got to set this thing up before it blows away!” I yelled across the high winds to my travel companion. The flimsy fabric of our tent billowed like a sail as we stood on the sunny back deck of the MV Columbia, an Alaska State Ferry that would leave Bellingham, Washington, for Skagway, Alaska, in less than an hour.

To our right, 30 tents huddled in a colourful cluster. A teenaged camper offered us help, and together, the three of us set up the blue and yellow structure, duct-taping it down so it wouldn’t get swept away.

Camping through the Inside Passage

The tent would be our home over the next two and a half days and 929 nautical miles, providing shelter through the drizzly Inside Passage. 

I’ve taken hundreds of ferries in my lifetime, but I’d never been on one for 60 hours, and I’d certainly never camped on one before.

That night at sea, as the sun turned the sky orange and our fellow 450 passengers retired to their own tents, private staterooms, or lounge chairs in a heated outdoor solarium, I knew this was the perfect start to a long journey north.

BC Coast Scenery and Wildlife

As we sailed up the BC coast on Saturday morning and into the Great Bear Rainforest area, amazing scenery and wildlife sightings more than made up for the rain. A humpback whale surfaced just past Port McNeill, and minutes later, a pod of porpoises leapt out of the water.

Later, on the shores past Queen Charlotte Strait, bald eagles became nearly as common as BC crows. 

At Bella Bella (population 1,400), we sailed past a beautiful wooden building bearing a striking First Nations emblem: the Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre, which serves, promotes and preserves the heritage of the Heiltsuk Nation.

Alaskan Beer and Canadian Tunes

At night, we took advantage of the services on board, including a cafeteria, gift shop, licensed dining room, and movie screenings. 

In the ferry’s pub, I sipped an Alaska Brewing Company pale ale and played cards with friends new and old.

When he learned we were Canadian, the bartender, Tony, put on a Blue Rodeo album in our honour; later, a couple of musical passengers performed a set.

Alaska’s Glaciers and Fjords

On Sunday, we arrived at our first stop, Ketchikan. We then set out through the Wrangell Narrows, a 35-km-long channel so narrow and shallow that larger cruise ships can’t pass through it. 

To my delight, the midnight sun turned out to be no myth; on Monday morning at Juneau, the sun was blazing by 4 am. There, Alaska’s stunning fjords and the Mendenhall, Taku, and Herbert glaciers came into view.

We docked in Skagway on Monday afternoon. I still had a long journey to make – a connecting bus would take me to Whitehorse, and from there I’d catch a ride to Dawson City, a further six-hour drive.

But as I walked off the boat, still feeling a bit of ocean motion, I knew one thing: it would be an adventure.

See more photos of Kathy’s ferry trip up the BC Coast

Kathy Sinclair is a Vancouver writer who was born four kilometres away from a ferry terminal. She’s now enjoying Dawson City’s midnight sun.