The Alaska Marine Highway’s ferry Matanuska passes the Eagle Glacier on its way south to Juneau. (Juneau Empire File)

The Alaska Marine Highway’s ferry Matanuska passes the Eagle Glacier on its way south to Juneau. (Juneau Empire File)

Southeast communities feel the hurt with no ferry service

Lack of reliable transport is leaving things uncertain

For the coastal residents of Southeast Alaska who depend on the Alaska Marine Highway System for shipping and transportation, the lack of ferry service is starting to take its toll.

The City of Angoon looked into hiring a private vessel to make up for lack of service, but that’s going to cost much more than a trip on the ferry would.

In Pelican, a private citizen has gotten additional licensing and insurance to be able to contract with the city of Pelican to move goods to and from the remote community.

Tenakee Springs has to rely on seaplanes to deliver goods, but weather can limit when flights are available.

In addition to making it difficult to get goods, including critical goods like medicine, the lack of reliable transport is affecting the economic outlook of these small towns.

Margie Demmert, who lives in Angoon and works at Angoon Trading Company, the town’s only grocery store, told the Empire that she’s had her hours cut back and the owners have had to pay extra to fly goods from Juneau.

“We went from opening at 10 a.m. and closing at 5:30 p.m.,” Demmert said. “Now we go in at noon.”

Demmert said that a family friend, Randall Gamble, a man she described as her adopted brother, had passed away recently and some family members might not be able to attend services because they can’t afford the cost of travel.

“There’s families that won’t make it home because they can’t afford the $150 to fly home one way,” Demmert said.

Gamble was Angoon’s fire chief and an Alaska National Guard veteran. Demmert said the National Guard had offered to fly Gamble’s body home on a helicopter.

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But because Gamble hadn’t retired from the service, regulations didn’t allow for human remains to be transported, said Candis Olmstead, public affairs officer for the Alaska National Guard.

“They did try,” Olmstead said of Gamble’s fellow guardsmen who had researched the regulations. “They wanted to be helpful if they could.”

Olmstead said the Alaska National Guard would be providing an honor guard for Gamble’s funeral.

Several of the Alaska Marine Highway’s vessels have been taken out of service recently because of a lack of funds for repair costs. The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities announced it would be taking the M/V Malaspina out of service in early Jan. 2020 because the department could not afford the $16 million in repairs the 56-year-old ship required.

Shortly after, on Nov. 4, DOT announced costs for repairs to the M/Vs Aurora and LeConte had been higher than expected and that it could not complete maintenance on both ships. On Nov. 21, DOT announced it would be repairing the LeConte while M/Vs Fairweather, Chenega, Aurora and Malaspina will be in long-term layup.

The lack of service is also having an impact on the workers who operate the ferries.

“The morale’s not very good,” said Robb Arnold, vice chairman of the Inland Boatman’s Union of the Pacific, the union which covers ferry workers. “We’ve lost work and people are looking for other work elsewhere.”

Arnold said the resumption of service for the Tazlina helped, but there was still not enough work for union members.

“My problem is the retention of skilled employees, how are they going to get everything ready in the summertime?” Arnold asked.

Lack of maintenance was also affecting work hours, Arnold said.

“Usually we’ve had yard jobs, all the chipping and painting, all the administrative work, basic maintenance of the ship,” he said. “Our budget won’t allow the normal amount of people.”

Some vessels can’t serve some communities

When it was announced there weren’t funds to complete repairs on both the Aurora and the LeConte, DOT announced that ferry service to Angoon, Pelican, Tenakee Springs and Gustavus would be suspended and Haines, Skagway and Hoonah would receive reduced service.

Local municipalities and lawmakers urged DOT to postpone upgrades to the M/V Tazlina and return that ship to service. While DOT announced the Tazlina would be resuming service, not all the communities in Southeast are equipped to receive it.

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Angoon’s dock is in need of repairs and while plans are in the works to get its ramp operational, the Tazlina isn’t scheduled to arrive until Dec. 15. Both Tenakee and Pelican can’t receive the Tazlina, which means those communities will have to wait until the LeConte resumes service in May, 2020.

That’s left some people in those communities concerned about the winter.

“We’re not going to curl up and die,” said Pelican Mayor Walt Weller, but “this is affecting way more than just a couple of people trying to get groceries.”

The ferries could ship a lot more than just groceries, Weller said, trucks for maintenance or fuel for generators were just two of the things that would come over on the ferry.

“There’s all kinds of things you can run out of at any time,” Weller said.

Previously Pelican residents would get supplies from Juneau using Jerue and Smith Transportation. But that company has suspended its operations now that the ferries aren’t running.

“We’re basically out of business,” said Greg Jerue, co-owner of the business. “We canceled our insurance on our vehicles, we’re hanging in there hopefully until May with the LeConte.”

Jerue said that for the past 15 years his company has made one trip a month to Pelican in the winter and twice a month in the summer. This was the longest disruption to ferry service Jerue had seen in the duration of his business.

“It’s going to devastate the community,” Jerue said.

Tenakee Mayor Dan Kennedy said this time of year was usually popular with deer hunters or fishermen who come and rent cabins. Without ferry service, the only form of transport to and from the community was seaplane.

But, Kennedy said, ” with weather in the winter you just don’t fly sometimes. No one wants to risk being stuck here or going into Juneau and getting stuck.”

Kennedy said that most people in the community lived a subsistence lifestyle and had freezers full of game meat. But perishable foods like milk and eggs were lacking.

Seaplanes are able to bring in a certain amount of supplies, but it raises the cost of those things. Many people in Pelican are living on Social Security and a fixed-income, Weller said.

“They’re feeling cut off and stranded,” he said. The lack of ferry service has also affected home prices, according to Weller. Where once there may have been an option to sell your home and move to a larger community like Juneau or Ketchikan, no reliable transport has negatively affected home prices. “Folks have lost an option,” Weller said.

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Planes aren’t for everyone

Another hardship mentioned by Weller, Kennedy and Demmert was the difficulty elderly or handicapped people have in getting on and off the small seaplanes. Many people in island communities need to travel for medical appointments and having to rely on seaplanes makes that difficult.

“It’s very hard to make reservations when you can’t depend on the weather,” Weller said. People with mobility issues would typically avoid seaplanes if they could, according to Weller. “Those people would make a point of traveling on the ferries for personal comfort.”

Cuts to the ferry system have been met with significant push-back from the community and lawmakers of both parties. While frustrated with the situation, many of the people interviewed for this article expressed appreciation for elected representatives.

“I appreciate what our representatives and senators are doing,” Weller said. “I know they’re working hard for Pelican.”

Even Arnold, whose union went on strike this summer over contract negotiations with the state, expressed appreciation.

“I think the state’s been trying to work with us and our union,” Arnold said. “We need to thank the people that are out there, the mayors and the communities, people realize there’s a problem.”

Though not all were so generous.

“We’re not very happy with the state government right now,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s pretty disturbing. This is our highway, none of the highways up north make money. I’d like to tell all the people from the governor on down they should close down the Alcan, see how they like it.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or

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