Four years ago, I was on a ferry headed to Bremerton, Washington, for a quick day trip. I’d taken the red eye from Anchorage the night before and would head back home by close of day.
Despite the early hour and lack of sleep, I spent most of the hour-long trip thinking about Alaska and its future — our future. The future of the Alaska Marine Highway System was very much in doubt. At that time, it seemed like it might already be over.
I’d long seen this coming. Along with many other Alaskans, I’d spent hundreds of volunteer hours trying to forge a new vision for the AMHS. There were other options, and yet another study was underway. But change takes time and money. I feared we would come up short on both accounts.
I’ll spare you the whys and wherefores, but back to those tears. Why was I crying? The Blue Canoe is interwoven with my Alaska story. It has a personal meaning for me that extends far beyond getting from A to B.
My first ride on an Alaska ferry was in the 1980s. I loved looking down from the fourth floor of the Capitol to see a ferry plying its way up Gastineau Channel. In those days, the ferry called at the downtown Juneau terminal. The sight of the ferry pulling into the dock, emblazoned with its Alaska flag motif and the yellow solarium glowing golden in the rising dawn, was a reminder of why we were all toiling away in that hot, stuffy building.
The Malaspina carried me to grad school. I remember how proud I felt. Look at our flagship! What a beauty! For the several years I was away, I could tell when the ferry arrived as a flood of Alaska license plates spilled out into downtown Seattle. I’d go out of my way to see her before she left — always a bittersweet but welcome reminder of home and always with a pang of loss to see her go, wishing I could be aboard.
The Tustumena carried me to Kodiak. She took me back to the mainland five years later. During that time, I watched her pull into a dock encased in ice on winter runs or brimming with visitors each summer. Each arrival was greeted with a sense of anticipation.
Years later, I rode the Tusty and the Kennecott out the Aleutian Chain and marveled at my glorious state — past Castle Cape, miles of seabirds, and hardy coastal communities clinging to rocky islands. On one of those memorable Aleutian runs, the AMHS was named an “All-American Road” because of its unique scenic, cultural and economic values.
I have so many memorable stories from the Chain. The last run in October was “the Pumpkin Run,” because ferry employees worked with an Anchorage grocer to get a pallet of pumpkins to give away to children at each port. When the ferry arrived, children with hopeful faces waited on the dock. Each child anxiously made their choice and then posed for pictures at a makeshift pumpkin patch arranged by the crew on the car deck.
When the ferry pulls into port in the Aleutians, there’s a temporary restaurant in town. So, while the passengers disembarked to have a brief walkabout, the locals lined up to have a steak, hamburger or perhaps a stack of pancakes. Throughout the three-day trip from Kodiak to Unalaska, the time is spent getting to know the other passengers, telling a tale or two, and appreciating the rare opportunity to truly unwind.
The Chenega, Fairweather and Aurora have taken me back and forth across Prince William Sound. A favorite trip to share with visiting relatives was the loop from Anchorage, driving south on the Seward Highway, putting the car on the Alaska Railroad at Portage, traveling through the Anton Anderson Tunnel to Whittier, boarding the ferry to cross Prince William Sound to Valdez, then road tripping back to Anchorage, always with a stop at Eureka Lodge for a slice of pie. Perhaps the best Fourth of July in Alaska can be found in Cordova — camping at Hippie Cove, traveling the Copper River Highway to Childs Glacier and the Million Dollar Bridge, hiking all the Forest Service trails, enjoying the free community barbecue, and telling campfire stories. I worked for the five Prince William Sound communities in regional planning and economic development for a time. As I sat on that ferry to Bremerton, I thought about how impactful the loss of ferry service had already been on these resilient communities. Losing still more was unimaginable.
Four years later, things look remarkably different but still uncertain. Thanks to the Alaska congressional delegation, we have a fighting chance to save the AMHS. We can rebuild the fleet, a challenging task at any time, but especially now when crew is hard to come by, supply chain challenges delay even the simplest projects, and Alaska faces the reality of fiscal uncertainty. Despite those challenges, we have a hope that did not exist four years ago.
Now, more so than at any time in the past 15 years, the stars seemed aligned to make progress to save the Alaska Marine Highway and chart its course for the next 40-50 years.
For ferry-dependent communities, the AMHS is an essential service. For me, the thought of losing the ferry is losing a piece of Alaska. I don’t need it to go about everyday life, but I know thousands of Alaskans who do. The mere existence of the Alaska Marine Highway comforts me. I cherish memories of the ferry and what it has meant to me. I pray I will never need to mourn lost opportunities.
My best advice to Alaskans is to go out of their way to ride the Alaska Marine Highway. Discover Southeast Alaska. Its dramatic scenery and charming communities will enchant you. Go to Prince William Sound. From the crowning glory of the Chugach Range to the sprawling beauty of the Copper River Delta, you will be awed by its beauty and beguiled by the character of its communities. I dare you to go to Kodiak and not fall in love with its bustling fishing port vibe and rugged landscape. You probably shouldn’t do the Aleutian Chain Run – it might inspire Kesey-esque escape fantasies and great notions.
The Blue Canoe, and the Alaska it will take you to, are not to be missed.
• Wanetta Ayers is a lifelong Alaskan, born and raised in Anchorage. She works in the nonprofit sector, focusing on public policy and community and economic development. She is a member of the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board.