I believe in ferries. I believe in the wonder of stepping onto a ferry, turning off my cellphone, stuffing it in my backpack and taking out dice, a deck of cards or the book I’ve never had time for. In my short story collection “The Dead Go to Seattle,” the ferry has a pivotal role as a time travel device.
It’s sort of true. Time does wonderful things on the ferry while we travel at 16 knots, weaving to and from islands, passing breaching whales and fishing boats. I’ve written a lot of poems and read a zillion books on the ferry. I’ve played card games with strangers and talked story with pursers, cooks, stewards, visitors and neighbors. My husband and I even saved a man’s life on the ferry once.
We Wrangellites depend on our ferries. Wrangellite Loretta Ewing Rice said: “We were on the ferry en route to Juneau for my son’s wedding in May 2007. There was a paddle wheeler full of tourists that ran aground west of Juneau. The ferry stopped to offer aid. They transferred passengers, most of whom were elders, from the U.S. Coast Guard boat to the ferry. The crew was amazing with all of us. Free meals were provided and the rescued passengers were well taken care of. I was proud to be an Alaskan.”
Southeast Alaskans are practical people used to making do and using our imaginations. But ferries are too expensive. You don’t need ferries. Take a plane. We’ll build a road, a bridge, dig a tunnel, add more airplanes. We’ll privatize. Yes, Southeast Alaskans have heard it all. It’s obvious the naysayers don’t live in Southeast and lack common sense. We have ferries because of common sense and community.
Here’s Wrangellite Jillian Privett: “We brought my niece home from the hospital on the Alaska Marine Highway System 13 years ago. Living in a small rural town we have to rely on outside resources. Fortunately, families can load up their vehicles and take AMHS to a bigger city, Sitka, Ketchikan, Juneau, carrying our most precious cargo at all stages of life — Alaska’s future. We depend on AMHS so we can reach proper medical care, work, sports, education, food, fun and more.”
I imagine a highway shared with friends, one where you eat a good meal, leave your car and your worries and let someone else drive for you. Not like a bus, but more like a train. Naysayers see money, money, money, and don’t live on islands, obviously. I am old enough to recall my elders talk of Southeast seceding from the rest of Alaska to become its own state; some said, “our own country.” Mainly, the issue is politicians who don’t live in the archipelago making decisions that affect our well-being. Southeast Alaskans depend on ferries for our well-being. Ferry travel is freedom, education, health, business, food, family — all part of living a good life. Ferries are a part of Alaska’s culture.
Here’s a bit from another Wrangellite, Deidre Christianson Jensen: “This is a small perspective, but an important one for our family. As everyone who has moved to Alaska and away from their family, staying connected is hard. With a family of five, it would have been impossible to see our families in Canada and the Lower 48 without the ferry system when our kids were younger and money was tight. I could not have afforded to fly every Christmas and every summer, but the ferry system made it possible.”
We thrive among the islands and the connections we make between communities. We wouldn’t be able to afford a private ferry company’s prices and air travel is out of the question. Our businesses successes depend on ferries. Small communities like Petersburg and Wrangell don’t get many big cruise ships. We depend on the independent visitors. Our schools depend on ferries for traveling to our kids’ sporting events like volleyball and basketball. Our ferry travel is not a luxury.
My father reminds me that our ferries were never designed to make money. They were designed to serve a need, just like a paved road. Ferries are not a money-making venture. He was alive when ferries were nonexistent, when they were an idea, when the first ferry sailed the sea. Most everyone, except those who don’t actually depend on ferries, will say the ferry system is a success. A recent study even concluded that ferries are a success. We don’t need another study. Ferries are a vital part of Alaska’s road system.
Taking the ferries away is like removing the road to and from the hospital. We, and others who can’t fly, take the ferry to bigger hospitals for medical reasons. Elders in our nearby villages travel by ferries. Ferries are a medical lifeline for Metlakatla, Prince of Wales, Kake, Angoon, Hoonah and Gustavus.
Wrangellite Janell Privett believes in ferries: “My daughter traveled by ferry to Ketchikan to have her baby. She also traveled for major nose and sinus surgery and couldn’t fly home, so we ferried. No other choices. My son had tonsil and adenoid surgery and his ears had to be operated on at the same time. The doctor would only release him if he traveled by ferry. It was the same with me, no flying due to blood clots. So the ferries are our health link.”
The ferry crews and passengers are our neighbors and friends. The ferry boats — our “blue canoes” — are family. Are we just sentimental Southeast Alaskans? No, it’s practicality. And we are practical people. If you read the history of the AMHS section on the state of Alaska’s website, you can’t help but be proud to be Alaskan, to be from Southeast and to be a ferry rider.
Back on Dec. 31, 1999, there were rumors of Armageddon, natural disasters and worldwide computer malfunctions. Most of it, I ignored. In reality, on Jan. 1, 2000, slot machines in Delaware stopped working and the U.S.’s official time clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory provided an odd date of Jan. 1, 19100.
Alaska’s ferries kept on running and I got married. As I stood on the back deck of the ferry in a blizzard, in my wedding dress, sailing past Salisbury Sound, I held a wish rock. A wish rock is a typical Alaska rock with a white unbroken ring around it. My new husband and I each held our rock, and in ceremony, we tossed the wish rocks off the ferry into the sea. Make a wish and don’t tell anyone is the rule. Can wishes change over the years? Maybe so. I’m going to cash mine in, make a new one. Here goes: I wish …
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.