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Alaska Marine Highway (Alaska Ferry System)

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My wife and I are thinking about “cruising” to Alaska via the Alaska ferry system. No car, just walk on. Our scheme is to ride the ferry between ports and then spend a night or two in the port. Has anyone any experience with this mode of “cruising”?

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If you get a cabin the ferry is more expensive than a cruise, BUT, you get to spend more time at locations of interest. And it can be a little tricky with arrival and departure times at 4am or 6am.

I did it years ago.on the MV Columbia. No cabin. We took sleeping bags and slept at the solarium where it was nice and warm (and 100 other people). Some people took tents and had them on the deck below us. They had to be taped down due to the strong winds!

Using the ferry definitely takes some planning......

 

Another option to consider. Fly into Juneau and use the ferry system to explore different locations in the SE. From Juneau you can take the ferry to Gustavus which is the jumpoff point for exploring Glacier Bay. The day cruise out of Glacier Bay lodge is fantastic.

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They offer a free DVD that describes their system. Or it may be that you can stream the video now...I have not checked for some time.

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I would also check on the Alaska forum of tripadvisor. Travellers over there tend to be more adventurous than cruisers.

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I would also check on the Alaska forum of tripadvisor. Travellers over there tend to be more adventurous than cruisers.
Also get a copy of milepost. It will give you a mile by mile description of the highway and any stops or notable items along the route.

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You might read the book "Tip of the Iceberg" (2018) by Mark Adams. He explored Alaska fairly recently by ferry, following the route of the 1899 Harriman expedition (that had John Muir aboard). As I recall, he had to wait as much as a week between ferry rides, but it depends on where you want to go. It would be fun to do on a limited basis I think.

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Our ferry system has been facing reduced budgets and broken ships for the past several years. That said, I LOVE the ferry and would highly recommend it as a way to experience the real Alaska. Just take a look at the schedules, because you may have to remain in one place for more than a night or two. Also be prepared for uncertainties should a vessel break down and change the schedule. Take bicycles for transportation. Take the time to talk with Alaskans onboard and you will gain a wealth of information on where to go and what to see. We love sharing our state with travelers! You could ferry from Bellingham or Prince Rupert and stop in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Sitka, and Juneau. Then hop on a different ship to Haines or Whittier. Ferry ports are generally not in the main city centers, so transportation within each port will be necessary.

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Also note the ferry isn't a "hop-on-hop-off" service. You pay for each leg, and the price can get pretty steep. (In general the ferry costs considerably more per-person-per-day than cruises, so the flexibility and freedom comes at a price.)

 

If budget is a concern, you might look at flying to some port in SE Alaska such as Juneau and doing shorter ferry trips from there. You can travel to some of the smaller picturesque villages, like Tenakee Springs or Pelican, from Juneau, or visit beautiful Sitka, which few cruise ships visit. You could also take the ferry from Juneau to Gustavus, gateway to Glacier Bay, or up to Skagway. Flying into Juneau is not terribly expensive, and it would allow you the opportunity to see some of the Inside Passage scenery at a generally lower cost.

 

Tenakee Springs -

 

tke_04.JPG

 

Pelican -

 

Pelican-P1020857.jpg

 

Sitka -

 

8566420169_234bf8f510_c.jpg

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I've been pondering using the Alaska Marine Highway for my own "cruise" awhile now. This thread has got me to thinking about it enough to be working out a plan. I'm thinking about flying round-trip to Ketchikan and using that as our jumping off point. It looks like it will take about 14 days to do what I want. My main points of interest are Sitka and Haines. Along the way it looks like we'll have stops at Wrangle, Petersburg, Hoonah, etc. The Wrangle and Petersburg stops are in the middle of the night on the way to Sitka - I'm hoping those two stops are are during daylight hours on the way back to Ketchikan. I've read that while stopped at the different locations they will let you off the ferry for a little while - is this true? How long is an average stop? I'm not expecting several hours but would hope to have enough time to walk through the downtown areas. Right now the scheduling only goes through April 2019 - I'm interested in the April/May time period as I've done May cruises and that's my preferred month. My goal is to spend several days in Sitka (I *think* I'd like to live there) with only a couple days in Haines to visit a friend - the Sitka-Haines travel is what has me bogged down trying to figure out... If I have to fly out of Juneau, that is okay but would prefer going all the way back to Ketchikan if my vacation time allows. I'm more excited about this "cruise" than the others.

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The stops vary in time for each sailing. For instance we were in ketchikan for about 2 hrs so a bus came by and took us to Totem Bight for a quick look. My friends who went the following month only had a 30 minute stop. And we arrived in juneau around midnight and stopped for about 2 hrs. Our friends arrived at 2am .

I think tides are a big part of the timing.

Give the AMHS folks a call. They're generally quite helpful. And try these folks:

http://www.alaskaferryvacations.com/index.html

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While we live in Alaska we live in Fairbanks (the Interior). In 2016 we took the Tustamena from Kodiak out to Dutch Harbor (where we spent several days before flying out). Due to that trip we are now on the Alaska Marine Highway System e-mail list. So we are now receiving almost daily e-mail updates on various sailings. Anyone considering this idea needs to pay attention to the post by AKfamily. This state has a severe deferred maintenance issue and there are a number of issues with the state ferries. So flexibility would need to be a serious consideration.

 

But the suggestion by Gardyloo is great -- consider working out of one area.

 

And to answer the question by SuperCrewBear -- times at the communities will vary as demonstrated by the ferry schedule. One major consideration if the size of the community. Particularly in the Aleutians some of the stops are considered "community visit" stops so are timed for either lunch or dinner. Members of the community board the ferry to purchase a meal and also food. When the community has 45 residents or so purchasing fruit by the piece or a salad from the ferry is much cheaper than anything that could ever be airfreighted into a community of that size. So not only do those folks purchase a meal they also leave the ferry with bags of fruit, green salad and vegetable trays.

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The AMH returned $2 for every $1 invested but as the RailBelt (Anchorage-Fairbanks) has more congress persons, it's been sadly neglected as they don't understand why we can't drive to the next island or take the jet and barge our vehicles.

 

 

 

M/V Columbia (1973), M/V Malaspina (1963), M/V Matanuska (1963), and the most recent blue canoe is the M/V Kennicott (1998). Recent breakdowns have required bypassing scheduled ports and required the manufacturing of no longer available parts.

 

 

 

Ferry terminals in Sitka, Ketchikan, and Juneau have been relocated out of downtown beyond walking distance in favor of the cruise industry. You just do not hop off the ferry into town.

 

 

 

I still enjoy riding the ferry a couple of times of year but my time is flexible. If you have hard time constraints like airline flights and don't deal with stress well, probably not the correct choice.

 

 

 

But you will get to go to the Alaska that the mega ships don't/won't/can't.

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We have used the State ferries a lot in the past, I once called them my "Poor Man's Cruise"clear.png?emoji-wink-1685, LOL. I'm originally from Cordova on Prince William Sound, which has no roads, so have traveled there a lot over the years on the ferry, from Valdez, Whittier and Seward. In addition, we used to fly to Seattle and buy a new pickup truck, drive it to Prince Rupert in B.C. then catch a ferry to Haines, get off and drive the rest of the way to Anchorage. If we timed it right we got two nights on the ferry, in a cabin, by catching the one that goes through Sitka. Has been a while though, sounds like the tariffs have really increased, back then, no way was the ferry more expensive than our cruises.

Here is an excellent and recent article about "Do It Yourself (DIY)" voyaging, mainly using the Alaska Marine Highway System. A lot of excellent pictures go along with this story, albeit all in the Southeast (Panhandle) portion of our State. "The story attempts to follow the footsteps of writer John Muir in 1879 when he first visited Alaska’s Inside Passage, which was the seafaring route through the densely islanded panhandle of America’s northernmost territory. Muir eventually founded the Sierra Club and was a huge supporter of our first national parks."

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/21/travel/alaska-inside-passage-john-muir-ferries.html?hpw&rref=travel&action=click&pgtype=H omepage&module=well-region®ion=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well

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Hi All,

 

Thanks for all of the info provided! Clearly our scheme is more complicated than a simple “hop on - hop off” cruise to Alaska. You have provided me with a bunch of ideas to explore!

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Hi All,

 

Thanks for all of the info provided! Clearly our scheme is more complicated than a simple “hop on - hop off” cruise to Alaska. You have provided me with a bunch of ideas to explore!

 

It is more complicated than I though too! I imagine that MOST of their passengers are locals and only interested in getting from Point A to Point B. Doing a "cruise" is definitely a head scratcher. I'm looking at April 2019 and want to start and end at Ketchikan - I'll fly in and out of there. I'm only interested in spending time in Sitka and Haines - if I'm able to get off the ferry anywhere in between, even if for only an hour or so, will be icing on the cake. I also decided that the Malaspina and Colombia would be the two ferrys I want to use. But all of the arrivals, departures, north bound and south bound time tables were just getting too much for me to get straight in my head. I had to make this chart so I could map out my plan. :D I'm also a little bit O/C... Ha Ha

 

44743895261_dc01b47640_o.jpg

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I absolutely love riding the AMHS ferries! I even have a refrigerator magnet I got on-board (before they closed the gift shops) that says, "I believe in 'ferries'". I have been traveling on them since 1996, and have had good experiences. There have been a few hiccups, but I am a very laid-back traveler, and am able to adapt when things go awry. Since 1996 I have ridden the ferries at least once a year; more when our daughter was a student at UAS in Juneau....any excuse for a visit (read "ferry trip").

As for port times: in Juneau the port times tend to be a little longer, as Juneau is kind of a "hub" for the system. In Ketchikan, if you are on a ferry going south to Bellingham, WA, you will leave at 3:00PM. no matter what time you arrived from Wrangell (the last stop before Ketchikan on this run). Sometimes you can be in K-town for several hours. I always run across the street to the A&P (Alaskan and Proud) grocery store to stock up on ferry snacks for the 36 hour trip south. As opposed to the cruise ships, you can bring on pretty much any kind of consumable you like...but alcoholic beverages must be consumed only in your cabin (if you have one). Sadly, they have taken the bars off all the ferries.

Back to port times: Sitka is usually about a 3-4 hour stop due to having to wait until slack tide to transit Sergius Narrows, about an hour and a half north of town. Because of rapid currents in the narrows, the ferries (except for the catamaran "fast ferries") can only transit every 6 hours. There is a white school bus to take passengers into downtown Sitka if they wish (small fee) and return them before the ferry sails. Most other ports are usually 45-minute stops. Between Wrangell and Petersburg is another narrow passage, Wrangell Narrows, and a pilot must board to guide the ferry through at slack tide. This trip is especially interesting at night, when red and green nav aids and white range markers line the entire hour or so passage through the Narrows.

The ferries themselves are a haven to world-weary travelers. Not much phone service, unless you have a satellite phone, no WiFi, no internet, no TV. And believe it or not, people actually survive the trip without electronics!

The food on the ferries is nothing fancy, but I find it pretty good. There is usually salmon or halibut dinners, much cheaper than in the rest of Alaska (which tends to have very high restaurant prices because of high transportation costs. A 12-pack of soda pop can run $7-$8 in grocery stores.) There is a daily soup, sometimes fish chowder, and always good regardless of the flavor. There is a microwave in the cafeteria, and many bring their own food. That's perfectly OK. You can buy microwave pop corn in the vending machine, but I pack my own favorite brand.)

I was very disappointed to see the AMHS take the gift shops and bars off the ferries, but it's all about the bottom line. Gift shops had clothes, books, pens, pencils, postcards, stationery, toiletries, toys, etc. Too sad.

As was mentioned before, the ferries run 24/7 on their route, and arrival and departure times are not often when it is convenient for you. I will promise that if you have a lodging reservation in one of the ports, no matter the hour, they will absolutely be there to pick you up or drop you off. Alaskans understand the ferry system, and its schedules. I have traveled in and out of Southeast towns at all hours, and have never been refused transportation to/from my motel or hotel.

Admittedly, most all of my trips have been in the off season when the ferries are not crowded. Summer travel requires advanced reservations made the winter before (or as soon as the Summer Schedule is available), ESPECIALLY if you want a cabin, or are taking a car on board. Lines in the cafeteria will be long.The m/v Columbia is the only ferry with a sit-down dining room, but it has a quick-serve cafe as well. Same food, same prices; but you can have an alcoholic beverage with your meal in the dining room.

Pets must remain on the car deck at all times. You may visit and walk your pet off the ferry at each port call, otherwise they must stay in a crate or in your car. If you are on a leg lasting more than 6 hours, there will be a "car deck call", announced over the public address system, so your pet can be taken out around the car deck for a walk. Clean-up supplies are provided. These over-water calls are only allowed if sea conditions permit.

The ferries are pretty much the only way for SE citizens to get around economically. You will very often be invaded by high school students traveling to another SE town for a sporting event or academic activity. They can take over the cafeteria and/or the lounges, and if they are on board overnight, they will sleep on any available floor space. But, to be fair, non-student passengers who do not wish to pay for a cabin can take up a lot of floor space too.

Since there are no gift shops on board anymore, make sure you have all your necessities, plus any reading material, puzzle books, cards, games, etc. you might need to entertain yourself. This is not a speedy way to travel, and only making 12 knots, the ferries are a great way to admire scenery, but time does pass rather slowly.

This is quite the post, I know, but if you have a question about anything I didn't cover, my travel advice is happily shared. I am most familiar with the Southeast (Panhandle) routes. Except for Pelican and Gustavus, I have been in every SE ferry port. I have also been on 6 Alaska cruise ship trips. I shall travel the AMHS as long as I am able.

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I absolutely love riding the AMHS ferries! I even have a refrigerator magnet . etc.

 

Great post. I just love the ferries as long as you have plenty of time for your trip. You meet some really interesting people on the ferries. We are taking our grandkids to AK this summer and I would love to take them on at least one ferry trip just for the experience but sadly we just do not have enough time to do it.

 

DON

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Don,

Thank you for the kind words.

I certainly share your affinity for the AMHS. The Blue Canoes (except for the Kennicott and the fast ferries) are getting a little long in the tooth, and I hope that when they sail their last, the system isn't reduced to all water taxi type service. Sadly, I kind of see that coming. A few years ago they were discussing a circle trip of South Mitkof Island (for Petersburg), Wrangell, Hollis, and Ketchikan; I guess that never happened.

Get your grandkids on a trip while you still can! From Juneau you could invest the 2-hour fast ferry, or as they refer to it "day boat", for a quick trip to Haines. Haines terminal requires a trip into town, but it's a cute place to visit until the ferry back to Juneau returns from Skagway. The scenery from Juneau to Haines in the Lynn Canal is awe-some. Two lighthouses, dolphins riding the bow wave, seal lion rookery, and snowy mountains. But you probably already know that.

Just a thought.

Thank you for your reply, fellow AMHS fan!

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Don,

Thank you for the kind words.

I certainly share your affinity for the AMHS. The Blue Canoes (except for the Kennicott and the fast ferries) are getting a little long in the tooth, and I hope that when they sail their last, the system isn't reduced to all water taxi type service. Sadly, I kind of see that coming. A few years ago they were discussing a circle trip of South Mitkof Island (for Petersburg), Wrangell, Hollis, and Ketchikan; I guess that never happened.

Get your grandkids on a trip while you still can! From Juneau you could invest the 2-hour fast ferry, or as they refer to it "day boat", for a quick trip to Haines. Haines terminal requires a trip into town, but it's a cute place to visit until the ferry back to Juneau returns from Skagway. The scenery from Juneau to Haines in the Lynn Canal is awe-some. Two lighthouses, dolphins riding the bow wave, seal lion rookery, and snowy mountains. But you probably already know that.

Just a thought.

Thank you for your reply, fellow AMHS fan!

 

Thank you for the excellent information! I had been studying the schedule for the Colombia and decided I could ride from Ketchikan to Haines (skipping Sitka northbound). Then I could spend a few hours in Haines while the ferry makes the trip to Skagway and back - then continue on to Sitka. I have a friend in Haines who I would like to visit with but having lunch and a ride around town would be plenty enough. Something like that is what it sounds like you've done before. By my pouring over the schedule for April 2019 It looks like I could have about 7 hours in Haines. If I had a cabin for the entire trip from Ketchikan to Sitka I should be able to leave all luggage and such on the ferry - does that sound reasonable? Would they allow me to stay in Haines while they were gone to Skagway - assuming I buy a ticket from Ketchikan to Sitka via Haines/Skagway?

 

Thanks again! :)

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If you are a "through passenger", your belongings are safe in your cabin (or in a lounge on a chair or two. I've noticed unattended sets of belongings in the lounges are left undisturbed by other passengers.) in your absence. Since the AMHS doesn't really track your on/off wanderings at any given port electronically, as on a cruise, they don't know if you are onboard or not. (Good? Bad?) As long as you are sure to take your documents with you (ticket and ID) to re-embark in Haines, you're good.

And a friend in Haines will save you taking a taxi into town! Haines, IMHO, has the greatest restaurants per capita of anyplace in the Southeast (Sitka being a close second). I haven't been there for a few years, but an old favorite is the halibut fish and chips at the Bamboo Room on 2nd St. (Alaskan Amber optional :D).Chilkat Bakery was very good, too.

The Columbia is a good vessel to travel on. There are two forward lounges, and the dining room (solely a Columbia feature) is very nice.

Not to topic, exactly, but on one of my yearly November trips to Sitka, which always sees me returning to the Lower 48 by ferry, for some reason on that trip the ferry made the northbound trip to Skagway before heading back south. It didn't cost any extra, and the AMHS apologized profusely for taking me out of my way. Joke was on them....I loved the extra ferry time!

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If you are a "through passenger", your belongings are safe in your cabin (or in a lounge on a chair or two. I've noticed unattended sets of belongings in the lounges are left undisturbed by other passengers.) in your absence. Since the AMHS doesn't really track your on/off wanderings at any given port electronically, as on a cruise, they don't know if you are onboard or not. (Good? Bad?) As long as you are sure to take your documents with you (ticket and ID) to re-embark in Haines, you're good.

And a friend in Haines will save you taking a taxi into town! Haines, IMHO, has the greatest restaurants per capita of anyplace in the Southeast (Sitka being a close second). I haven't been there for a few years, but an old favorite is the halibut fish and chips at the Bamboo Room on 2nd St. (Alaskan Amber optional :D).Chilkat Bakery was very good, too.

The Columbia is a good vessel to travel on. There are two forward lounges, and the dining room (solely a Columbia feature) is very nice.

Not to topic, exactly, but on one of my yearly November trips to Sitka, which always sees me returning to the Lower 48 by ferry, for some reason on that trip the ferry made the northbound trip to Skagway before heading back south. It didn't cost any extra, and the AMHS apologized profusely for taking me out of my way. Joke was on them....I loved the extra ferry time!

 

Thank you very much! My plans are coming together. I think it will be a very interesting trip. Thanks again!

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Years ago took the ferry from Whittier to Cordova. Was told it was a whistle stop day. They announced they would be stopping in Chenega as a resident was bringing supplies to the island. As we pulled into port the locals were dancing on the dock. The ramp went down and a woman driving an older pick-up truck backed down with the important cargo.It was a whole load of MILLER LITE BEER!!!!! No wonder everyone was dancing! Have also taken the ferry from Homer to Kodiak. There were 16 foot seas. Probably why they called the ferry "the vomit comet". There were forest rangers on the ships pointing out the points of interest. Both trips were very interesting.

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Diesel,

You're right, folks don't realize how much Alaskans depend on the ferry. I have seen people drive on in Juneau with a car packed to the gills, just having been on a supply run to Freddy Meyer, WalMart, and Home Depot.

What a trip to Kodiak! I have always wanted to take the "Trusty Tusty" out to Dutch Harbor some summer. Maybe someday!

Your trip like on the V.C. strains those old Canoes to the limit. I don't seem to get sea sick, but I don't think I've ever experienced 16 foot seas. Came close one year in Queen Charlotte Sound and Georgia Strait. The creaking and groaning of the Mal was deafening!

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Some of the people who planned on going to Dutch Harbor got off at Kodiak as they had enough. I was in a sleeping bag on deck and had to tie it to a pole so I wouldn't slide overboard!! Was one of my most memorable experiences in the 20+ years of exploring up there!

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Another interesting experience is when I went to Cordova. I had rented a Kia Sophia in Anchorage from Rent=a=Wreck (and it was) and took it on the ferry with me. I drove it down a 50+mile gravel(Burma) road to Childs Glacier. Sat for hours watching and listening across the Copper River at the glacier calving. What an experience!!! Also took a walk on the abandoned Million dollar bridge. From what I understand the road has been washed out and is now inaccessible. Very fortunate to have seen it !!!

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Another interesting experience is when I went to Cordova. I had rented a Kia Sophia in Anchorage from Rent=a=Wreck (and it was) and took it on the ferry with me. I drove it down a 50+mile gravel(Burma) road to Childs Glacier. Sat for hours watching and listening across the Copper River at the glacier calving. What an experience!!! Also took a walk on the abandoned Million dollar bridge. From what I understand the road has been washed out and is now inaccessible. Very fortunate to have seen it !!!

 

Hate to say this but a month or so ago on the Copper River Highway, 45 miles from Cordova, the road washed out again. The Million Dollar Bridge and Childs Glacier viewing and campground are at Mile 49.

 

 

 

Now this washout is at Mile 45, the washout at Mile 36 happened about six years ago which took a bridge and part of a long section of road, hasn't been replaced yet. I have a picture from a friend in Cordova who runs a B&B down there in the summers and in conjunction with that he takes visitors out to the Million Dollar Bridge and the US Forest Service campground there. He does this by driving them out to Mile 36, then using his airboat, takes them across the breach where he has vans on the road and drives them on up to the Bridge, he provides lunch etc. Now he cannot do that anymore because of this new road washout. Or at least that is what I think he does, also, I guess there is at least one other outfit that does the same (did).

 

He could take them all the way up the Million Dollar by airboat, from 36 mile, but that is quite a run and the way I understand it is visitors don't care much for a long cold run like that in a screaming airboat. Click on the picture to enlarge it, if it comes up.

 

 

39762330_10212762999776004_7782305359657435136_n.jpg?_nc_cat=104&oh=2cfa1f8573f9bb851a2d198ec278e983&oe=5C2FED29

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Mile 49 with Childs Glacier and Million Dollar Bridge on Copper River Highway.

Edited by kennicott
Picture didn't take

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Here is a shot of Mile 36 back not long after it first washed out. Looking up river. Childs Glacier can be seen in the upper left hand corner.39743713_10212763045257141_7988419641896599552_n.jpg?_nc_cat=100&oh=4152226d5d0e2617c848477149b50018&oe=5C5B7ABD

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