CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that individuals wishing to purchase discounted tickets could do so straight from the counter. They can actually only purchase those discounted fares over the phone or online. This article has been updated to reflect this change.
The Inlandboatman’s Union ferry worker strike has left visitors to the region trapped with their automobiles in the towns and cities of Southeast Alaska.
Poor communication has left many of those stuck with little idea of where to go next.
“They’re not giving information to people here who are trapped,” said Gary Elliott, a visitor from Connecticut. Elliott, who drove to Alaska from the East Coast, was stranded when the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry strike prevented him from making the last leg of his trip down to Canada.
“That’s my frustration. I’m $4,500 out of pocket. Ferries here. Canceled ferries in Canada. Airlines. Hotel. The government is not giving people the information we need.”
The number for the ferry customer service isn’t functional, and so Elliott was obliged to independently find space on a barge to Skagway, where he’ll have to drive back down through Canada.
“I met a guy from New York who has to leave his car here,” said Elliott. There are workarounds to being stranded, but Elliott said the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities had not been especially helpful.
“Presently, we have 8 ships that had been in service tied up at the docks,” said Commissioner for the DOT John Mackinnon.
The ships, which ply the waterways of coastal Alaska transporting people and vehicles to the communities which have no other links to the outside, are paralyzed by the impasse between the IBU and the administration.
Julie Coppens,outgoing program and outreach director at Perseverance Theatre, was moving out of the state when the strike came down.
“It totally changes our packing strategy,” Coppens said.
Packing for an airplane is a completely different game than packing a car for a ferry trip, with airline size and weight restrictions on baggage. She talked about a number of actors who are moving, sometimes with things like large pieces of art or particularly heavy local artifacts, things that can’t be easily or conveniently flown, but can only be moved by car and thence by ferry.
Despite the sudden strike, she was unequivocal with her support for the workers.
“These are small inconveniences, and I absolutely stand with the ferry workers and their cause,” Coppens said. “They’re standing up for all of us. We’ll make adjustments.”
Other parties have stepped in to help where they can.
“What we did do to help in during this time is lowered fares across the Southeast and no advance purchase requirements,” said Tim Thompson, a spokesperson for Alaska Airlines. “That wouldn’t necessarily be the case any other time.”
This means that stranded visitors or people who need to fly can get reduced price tickets from the website or over the phone.
This will in effect till Aug. 4, at which time they’d reevaluate the situation if the strike is still ongoing, said Thompson.
Alaska Airlines was also instrumental in helping a group of schoolkids get home to Wrangell, according to Mackinnon. A group of 46 schoolkids was isolated in Juneau when the strike took effect, leaving them unable to get home. Alaska Airlines rerouted a flight heading to Anchorage to pick up the group of students, drop them off in Wrangell, and continued on to Anchorage. No other modifications to the flight schedules have taken place yet, said Thompson, but they’re keeping an eye on the situation in case they need to reroute more flights or get more aircraft through the region.
Local businesses are impacted as well.
“It’s causing us some hardship,” said Jim Erickson, co-owner of Alaska Glacier Seafood, a local fishery. “We utilize the ferry system quite frequently in the summer to transport fresh fish for Juneau to Skagway, and truck it down it to the Lower 48.”
The fish, if they’re not moved quickly, must be frozen, which knocks off 10-20 percent of their value, said Erickson.
The company usually books their ferry reservations far in advance.
“We have to make ferry reservations back in January for the whole season,” Erickson said.
With the ferry on strike, they have to find other ways to ship their fish, including by airplane. This has its own issues.
“Our volumes are high enough that they can’t accommodate our tonnage,” Erickson said.
The company moves between 25 and 50 tons of fish a week during the peak season of the summer, said Erickson.
For now, the company will try to move their vans using landing craft from a local company. This is only a stopgap measure, said Erickson. Their availability is iffy and less reliable than the ferry system.
“It was one of those things you thought was a guarantee of service and it turns out it’s not,” Erickson said. “Makes you want to get the road going,” he laughed, referring to the occasionally discussed plan to connect Juneau to the Alaska highway system via road.
The DOT has canceled all reservations for all vessels sailing through July 30, said Meadow Bailey, communications director for the DOT.
The MV Kennicott has been canceled out to Aug. 7.
But for some, knowing that the ferries are canceled isn’t enough.
“The governor, the commissioner, they say they’re doing this, they’re doing that, but they aren’t doing anything,” said Elliott.
If you’re stranded
The DOT has a hotline available from 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on weekends at 1-800-642-0066 for refunds from ferry cancellations. Alaska Marine Lines, at www.shipaml.com, offers its regularly scheduled barge services for visitors with vehicles. Alaska Airlines is offering discounted fares for communities in Southeast Alaska.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 523-2271 or email@example.com.