My quirky family and I recently embarked on the great adventure from Alaska to our new home in Washington. We decided to take the Alaska ferry. Having two teens who experience autism that can’t fly it turned out to be a great idea. Special thanks to my mother and father for making it possible, and for being such a huge support in this long journey. They are incredible.
“The State of Alaska Marine Highway Ferry System offers year-round ferry service from Bellingham, WA to the Inside Passage communities and Haines, AK, about 800 miles South East of Anchorage and Fairbanks, AK. Access to these cities via Haines require a drive through Canada. ” – Alaskaferry.com
Make sure you have all your important paperwork in order for both borders. Being divorced and having custody of my two, I had to have copies of the divorce decree, custody paperwork, and the guardianship papers for my son who is 18.
Also, make sure you have iPads charged, snacks, and things to do on the iPads that don’t need Wi-Fi. (Unless you want to pay huge amounts of money by trying to use the Canadian Internet.) You’ll be traveling into Canada and then back into Alaska until you reach Haines.
One thing that I did to prepare was show the kids pictures of the ferries on their website and explain where we were going. A social story would also be helpful, and even a picture book made with the information you can find on the Internet. I also read the rules of the ferry to them often. When possible, I looked up pictures for the different places we would be staying so they would be a little more prepared. Bringing along comfort items made them feel a little bit more at home. It’s also important to let the staff know that you have someone traveling with you that has autism. In case of emergency and also in case of muster. This drill is a mandatory exercise with the objective to familiarize all guests and crew with the location where they are to assemble in the unlikely event of an emergency. During this drill, additional safety information is presented. This can be very very loud and distressing for someone who experiences autism. Noise canceling headphones are a must for the noise sensitive.
The process of boarding the Alaska Ferry can be quite chaotic and in hindsight it would have been best to take the kids on board first, and then have the other two adults grab the luggage from the vehicle deck. It’s quite the sea of chaos with everyone trying to get vehicles on the ferry, and boy do they cram them in! They do give you opportunities a few times a day to go down to your car if needed but make sure you take the important items first. ( like someone’s special stuffed Nob and Larry). You can bring your own food but there is no refrigerator, microwave, etc. in the room. The rooms consist of four single bunk style beds. A big window, and a small sink toilet and shower. They are actually quite comfortable. The kids both loved looking out the windows. There is no Wi-Fi on the Alaska ferry so make sure you have your iPads or phones on airplane mode or you will once again get hit with a gigantic bill. The food on the ferry was excellent. We were pleasantly surprised. The cafeteria was big and it was fun to sit in the booths and look out the windows. They have tables with the different wildlife you might see labeled on them that are really fun for kids to look at. You will find restaurants, cafeterias, theatre areas, and play rooms available on the ships.
My son loved going for walks around the ferry and looking at the ocean. My daughter didn’t want to leave the room. She was perfectly content in the cozy little cabin. It’s interesting how both have autism yet both have totally different comfort levels in new places. Haley stayed with her grandma and grandpa in their cabin, and Ty and I stayed in the one next-door. This worked out very well because they both got some sibling free time, since you were on the ferry for about four days total. Some people slept in tents on the upper deck but safety is always an issue with autism and this would not have been a good plan for my family. At all. Plus it was cold at night! We also like having easy access to bathrooms.
We saw whales, porpoises , sea lions, beautiful houses, Islands, seabirds, and the bright lights of the many places we passed. Overall it was a really great experience. Change can be quite difficult with autism, as well as new surroundings and places. Both kids adapted really well and we were all quite pleased. The staff was very friendly, and it ended up being quite relaxing. Much more than it would’ve been crammed into a car driving the whole way. The ferry is a great choice and ended up being quite autism friendly.
It was wonderful pulling into Bellingham. For me, it was going home. I’ve always been a PNW girl at heart. We got to spend a few days in Semiahmoo and see Birch Bay. My kids played and threw rocks on beaches that I had grown up on. They were able to see some of their cousins for the first time. It was such a reminder that family is so important. That being near to people that will love and support you and accept your kids for who they are makes a huge difference. As my kids get older and I get older I realize how much that is needed.
We are now in the Spokane area. It’s beautiful here. They have 4 seasons! 4!! There are cows, big waterfalls and giant trees. A beautiful river, new places to explore, great opportunities for teenagers and adults on the spectrum, and my extended family. I will miss my Alaska autism family and the wonderful people I met who do such a great job advocating. It’s been an honor to work with you and to learn from you.Thank you all for teaching me so much, and allowing me to partner with you to make a difference. Keep fighting the good fight, and if you are ever in Spokane, come say hello. We’ll take you to see the amazing sight of milk at the grocery store that is only $1.76.
– Maria Pepperworth