Slow travel to Alaska's Kodiak Island along Alaska Marine Highway

There's an easy way to reach Kodiak Island, the USA's second-largest island, home to the world's second-largest bears. But where's the adventure in flying there when you can hop an overnight ferry instead?

Kodiak Island is one of the stops strung out along the Alaska Marine Highway System. Even in the 21st century the aquatic byway is invaluable, with mainline vessels, day ferries and small shuttles connecting dozens of Alaska's coastal communities.

"When we go to Kodiak, I'd hazard a guess 90 per cent of the cars on the island came across on Tustumena or Kennicott," says John Mayer, captain of the MV Tustumena, which includes a vehicle elevator. "There's no other alternative except container ships and that's four times the expense."

In other words, the ferries are a lifeline, something hammered home in the summer of 2019 when the ferry workers' union called the first strike in more than 40 years, tying the fleet to the dock for 11 days.

The ferries, all named after glaciers, are popular with tourists in summer. "Tourists in the winter need to go to the looney house, I think," says Mayer with a laugh. "Beginning in mid-September to as late as early April, we're subject to the genesis of a lot of storm systems that end up going across North America. They manifest themselves out here in the Gulf. We could see as big as 10-metre seas and 50-knot to 60-knot winds.

"I'm not going to stick my neck out in that. Believe me, not even people with tickets want to go – it's just not prudent. In the last couple of years, the intensity of the storms has increased. They're getting a lot stronger.

"If we put the seas on our stern [rear], she [the Tustumena, nicknamed Tusty] rides well but if we're pounding into it or it's on the side, it's a nightmare."

Recreational fishermen also catch the ferries to reach their favourite spots in Alaska's fish-rich waters. When I roll up at Homer's ferry terminal, six fishermen – old mates who know each other through the Baptist Church – take me under their wing.

One of the flirtier ones, who hails from Louisiana, says in a southern drawl: "Katrina? Oh, you're bad news." Once aboard, they show me what they believe is the best spot for bunking down for the nine-hour journey.

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I sleep well on the padded bench and reunite with the guys over breakfast (the ferry's cafeteria is one of the few US restaurants where you're ordered not to tip).

I don't realise a side lounge near the dining room will make an even better bedroom until my return journey.

Back in Anchorage, someone had warned me their kid's sporting team would be aboard the vessel. I forget, board late and discover the benches already snagged with unrolled sleeping bags.

An announcement informs passengers that cabins are available but, upon hearing they're still full price, I trudge away. The employee kindly chases me down, ushering me to the empty side lounge that looks more luxurious than the bare-bone cabins.

The next morning, after another great sleep, I head outside to see if any hard-core adventurers have followed the tradition of taping their tents to the open deck. No, but several sporty teens have strung up hammocks. They dangle from the railings, cocooned like joeys in a pouch, even as Homer hauls into view.

As the breeze tugs my hair and a dog walker along Homer Spit raises her hand in welcome, I realise the best thing about this slow journey is the bonhomie of the high seas.

THE DETAILS

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traveller.com.au/alaska

travelalaska.com

CRUISE

The Alaska Marine Highway covers 5632 kilometres of scenic coastline from Bellingham in Washington State to Dutch Harbor (Unalaska) in the Aleutian Islands. In 2019, the service introduced dynamic pricing (book early for the best fares). Both the Tustumena and Kennicott take vehicles while passengers sleep either in public areas or in a cabin (extra cost). See ferryalaska.com

FLY

Alaska Airlines flies direct to Anchorage from Los Angeles and other US cities including Seattle, Portland and Honolulu. RavnAir flies from Anchorage to Homer (40 minutes); otherwise, it's a four-hour drive. See alaskaair.com, flyravn.com

STAY

It's a short walk (no taxi required) from Kodiak's ferry terminal to the 38-room Kodiak Compass Suites See kodiakcompasssuites.com

Katrina Lobley took the ferry at her own expense and travelled to Alaska with Brand USA.

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