Author standing at the Sitka terminal ramp May 22 waiting to board the Columbia to Haines. (Photo courtesy of Regina Discenza)

Author standing at the Sitka terminal ramp May 22 waiting to board the Columbia to Haines. (Photo courtesy of Regina Discenza)

My Turn: My costly experience with the Alaska Marine Highway System

Last year during the summer of 2022 I wanted to visit a few small towns in Alaska with the ferry. Air service to Gustavus was limited so I tried the Alaska Marine Highway System a few times. Once, from Petersburg to Juneau, then a round trip from Juneau to Gustavus. I liked it very much and even though catching a ferry at 4 a.m. was inconvenient, I loved traveling with the locals. I met so many wonderful people. Including a few who just helped prevent me from being a homeless tourist.

I made the decision to return to Alaska in the summer of 2023 without using a plane. This was quite an adventure to plan considering I live on the Jersey Shore. The airports were not fun and I watched how easy it was for everyone to drive their own car, truck or camper on the ferry.

The summer ferry schedule was very late this year. I inquired for a few months because I was trying to make lodging reservations and I could not plan my trip until I had a transportation schedule. On March 7 my first major disappointment was realized — there would be no ferry service from Juneau to Yakutat to Whitter. I would not be able to visit the Hubbard Glacier, nor take the 26-glacier cruise out of Whittier nor visit the towns of the Kenai Peninsula. I had hoped to ride “Rusty Tusty” to the Aleutian Islands. My dream trip was drastically changed.

Within hours I had to re-plan my entire trip around the Inside Passage only when I learned how limited and infrequent the schedule would be.

So I made arrangements to ship my car to Bellingham and I made an AMHS reservation northbound on the Columbia for May 5. I went cross country on Amtrak.

I allocated three months for this trip- and it went very well — two weeks in Sitka, Haines, Skagway, then Juneau. After I arrived in the capital city, I went to the governor’s office to see if I could explain in person how the abbreviated AMHS schedule affected my trip. A young man at the reception desk explained there was no one in the building to speak with me since the legislative session was over. So I asked him for a name, email and phone number of a governor’s aide. I was given Tyson Gallagher’s name. I have yet to hear from him personally, but his assistant did acknowledge my email. Then I proceeded to the DOT commissioner’s office. Ryan Anderson was in Fairbanks but I got his email. At some point I also acquired Mr. Tornga’s email as well.

Soon I hear a ship has rusty pipes — my first thought was poor old Rusty Tusty — then I found out it was the Columbia. I checked the schedule for my next sailing to Ketchikan from Juneau — and it was missing from the calendar. My heart dropped. I called the next morning and was told all trips were canceled for emergency repairs. The excitement and fun of my trip was gone in an instant — I knew I could get myself out of Juneau, but what about my car? I made a few calls and got prices for shipping by barge. Not only did my temperature rise, but also my trip costs — by over $1,000 and I was in danger of becoming a homeless tourist. That wasn’t on my itinerary.

While I realize Mr. Tornga is new at AMHS, I thanked him for responding to my email. But there’s really only one person, the governor, that can fix what ails the AMHS.

Governor Dunleavy, please call an emergency meeting of the state legislative finance committees. Get money together for at least one more ship to be built ASAP. The AMHS was never meant to be profitable to anyone. It’s a water highway for the residents of the Inside Passage islands — an absolute necessity. It’s costly for residents to fly and then rent a vehicle to just go to a doctor’s appointment. And those rental cars are in short supply — that is why I made the decision to ship my car. I wanted transportation in all towns.

The personnel of AMHS are a special group of dedicated employees who love their ships and take pride in keeping them afloat. Help them to continue serving the people of this great state, truly The Last Frontier.

Don’t make us all beg for you to fill the potholes on the Alaska Marine Highway.

• Regina Discenza is a resident of Forked River, New Jersey.

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