U.S. North to South 2015: Wrangell and Ketchikan, Alaska

Matt Gasnier
by Matt Gasnier

Leaving Petersburg to continue on our way south requires a ferry as Petersburg’s road network only reaches 30 miles out of town and does not cross any water along the way.

Next we visit Wrangell and Ketchikan before leaving Alaska for good. As well as analysing the car park in these two tiny towns, this is an opportunity for me to try and convey to you how it feels to take the most common means of transportation in Southeastern Alaska: the ferry.

“This is our highway, this is how we transport stuff” said one of the boat stewards during one of our trips. It really does feel that way on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry.

Slow, convoluted and expensive as soon as you need to transport more than just yourself, the Marine Highway is your bloodline if you are one of the 95 percent of Southern Alaskans that don’t own a personal floatplane. I saw locals drive into the car deck, drop their cargo and leave before the ship set sail as someone else would be picking it up the cargo at its destination. Visit times for pets on the car deck are regimented and religiously respected, and the snack bar is open 22 hours per day.

The ferry allows life to go on uninterrupted here.

The Alaska Marine Highway takes you either way from Skagway in Southern Alaska to Haines (1 hour), Juneau (5 1/2 hours), Petersburg (10 hours), Wrangell (4 hours), Ketchikan (6 hours) and finally to Prince Rupert in British Columbia, Canada (13 hours) or Bellingham in Washington State, USA (39 hours). The ferries operate almost daily during summer and all but stop in winter. Twice a month during summer the ferry crosses the Gulf of Alaska from Haines to Yakutat then on to Whittier near Anchorage.

I took the Juneau to Bellingham arm of the trip, meaning I never left U.S. territory and the various ferries I hopped on all stayed on Alaskan time (one hour behind Pacific time). Being that the ferry is a service provided by the State of Alaska, onboard personnel are public servants which creates a rather interesting anomaly: it is illegal to tip waiters!

The times to reach places are obviously longer, but it does make you re-evaluate car transport as the default option for everything.

This slower pace and unique route also gives you access to completely unscathed huge swaths of wilderness. Literally thousands of miles of forests, fjords, glaciers, snow-capped alpine peaks, and — to my relief — a very calm sea, are what you’ll be met with on this journey. If you think you were lucky spotting one humpback whale on your last touristic outing, the waters in this part of the world are literally streaming with them to the point where I can’t remember how many I spotted, especially between Juneau and Petersburg. Sometimes two or three of them do a simultaneous tail wave. Sailing Alaska’s waters is an absolutely unforgettable experience and one I highly recommend over flying if you find yourself in this part of the world. As the weather is highly unpredictable, chances are you won’t see anything from a plane anyway.

My most eagerly anticipated crossing during my ferry trip was just after Petersburg: the Wrangell Narrows passage — a.k.a. ‘pinball alley’ — which requires the vessel to negotiate 46 turns during a 22-mile section that is only 300 feet wide and 19 feet deep at times. I was expecting steep cliffs on each side but the landscape was actually quite flat and made the crossing a little less impressive from the boat. It would be quite a sight from shore to see the ferry towering over its surroundings.

We then arrived at Wrangell, one of the oldest towns in Alaska and the only one to have existed under three flags and ruled by four nations: Tlingit, Russia, Britain and America.

During the gold rushes up the nearby Stikine River between 1861 and 1897, Wrangell was described as a “lawless, ruthless pit”. With the timber industry crashing in the 1990s, Wrangell has been struggling to find its balance, though it seems now to have turned a corner as the town is gaining residents ( as opposed to Petersburg) according to the 2010 census. Cruise ships are only a once-a-week occurrence, so the town is less gentrified. Welcoming locals take pride in making sure you don’t miss the ‘elephant head’ mountain across from town, even if you just stop for the 15 minutes the ferry allows.

The car park of Wrangell is a collection of middle-aged, full-sized pickups such as 1980s Ford F-150s and early 2000s Ford F-250s, as well as a few mid-sized trucks like the Ford Ranger and Toyota Tacoma. SUVs follow while passenger cars are rare.

From there I went to Ketchikan. Once known as the “Canned Salmon Capital of the World,” Ketchikan now settles for the “First City” tagline as this is the first Alaskan port for northbound ferries and cruise ships. Fishing still accounts for roughly one-third of the local economy, but tourism is what makes this town’s heart beat. Somewhat sadly, Ketchikan is now a major cruise ship port-of-call, though no ships were denaturing the landscape while I was here. Another (sizeable if you ask me) handicap of Ketchikan is its unbelievable annual rainfall.

Looking up the Ketchikan section on the Alaska Lonely Planet reads: “If you stay in Ketchikan longer than an hour, chances are good that it will rain at least once if not several times.”


Note that local residents have given up using umbrellas and go on with their life as if the sun was shining at its fullest. Ketchikan’s cruise-ship-induced wealth is noticeable on the street: brand-new Ford F-250s and Ram 2500s are a common occurrence. The larger the better as far as Ketchikan inhabitants are concerned. You can see all Alaskan sales figures here.

Next we leave Alaska to hit Seattle, Washington.

Matt Gasnier is based in Sydney, Australia. He runs a website dedicated to car sales statistics, trends and analysis called BestSellingCarsBlog. The website features sales data for 190 countries worldwide including 80 countries updated monthly.

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  • AprilFools AprilFools on Nov 02, 2015

    In Ketchikan, is this is ferry terminal across from the Best Western Hotel? I was there for Three days in September 2014. The last cruise ship had come and gone, and in downtown all the stores were packing up their good to send them back or put them in a warehouse. Most streets were empty. I saw a good mix of cars/trucks/suv at Wal-Mart. I seem to recall a local telling me that most folks left once the cruise ship season is over, and fishing season closed. Lovely place. It stopped raining for a few hours so I could check out the creek downtown and watch the salmon run. I have been enjoying your articles/posts on your travels.

  • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Nov 03, 2015

    That Ford is about to chomp that Camaro for brunch.

  • Lou_BC "respondents between 18 and 80 years old" Basically anyone deemed an adult who might be allowed to drive.
  • Lou_BC They will do fine if they come up with some cool sedans ;)
  • Mister They've got their work cut out for them. I live in a large metropolitan city of 1.2+ million people, the is a single Mitsubishi dealer. It's really more like a used-car dealer that sells Mitsubishi on the side. With the remarkably cheesy name of "Johnny Legends".
  • Kjhkjlhkjhkljh kljhjkhjklhkjh WHAT !?
  • Jeff Matt--I think this is a good move for Mitsubishi to expand their presence with satellite dealers. I had a 85 MItsubishi Mighty Max and my sister had a 83 MItsubishi Starion. MItsubishi needs to add a compact pickup to compete with the Maverick and the Santa Cruz but offer it for less. A smaller more affordable truck will sell. I believe MItsubishi should still offer an inexpensive subcompact like the Mirage it will sell in a slowing car market with high msrps. Yes I know the Mirage is probably going to be canceled but I believe in these times it is a mistake and they should reconsider cancelling the Mirage. Toyota is having problems selling the new redesigned Tacomas and Tundras with the turbo 4s and 6s. Most Tacomas have MSRPs of well over 40k. There is room for MItsubishi to grow their market share with more affordable vehicles. I am not saying Mitsubishi is going to overtake Toyota, Honda, or Nissan but they should take advantage of the more affordable market segment that these companies for the most part have abandoned. MItsubishi doesn't have to be the biggest just increase sales and become more profitable.