Local News

John Kanarr: Three decades on the ferry

The ferry Malaspina  gets ready to sail from Juneau's Auke Bay terminal last fall. Its stack has since been painted yellow in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Marine Highway. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News.

The ferry Malaspina gets ready to sail from Juneau’s Auke Bay terminal last fall. Its stack has since been painted yellow in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Marine Highway. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News.

John Kanarr didn’t know how his life would change when he took a job on the ferry Taku.

The able-bodied seaman was working on tugs in Puget Sound, but looking for something better.

“I got a phone call from the union hall one day. And he says, ‘Hey … I’ve got a job for you up in Alaska.’ He says, ‘Come to the union hall and we’ll talk it over.’ ”

“So I hopped into the pickup, and up to Seattle I went from Tacoma. And when I came back that afternoon, I had an airplane ticket for Pan Am the next morning … to go to work at 1 o’clock the next afternoon on the MV Taku. “

“So I went from here to there. And I’m still there.”

Karaar was interviewed by Kelli Burkinshaw of 360 North TV during an anniversary sailing of the ferry Malaspina. (See clips from a 50th anniversary documentary series.)

The marine highway system was part of Kanarr’s life for nearly 35 years. It’s where he met the woman he would wed.

“My wife likes to say this, that the Alaska State Ferry System was the original Love Boat,” he says.

He says lots of other crew members also met their spouses there, even what he calls the “bachelor skippers.”

“The socializing while you were on board the ships was a lot closer than where you work or in your community in a lot of cases. Because you have one common thing together, because you’re on the ferry to start with. And you’re all going in the same direction.”

And it wasn’t just people.

Kanarr tells a story from the ‘60s, before the days of security checks and guarded loading ramps.

He says sometimes, while sailing north, a cocker spaniel would get on board in Wrangell and get off in Petersburg.

“And at first we though it must be with one of the passengers, taking the dog ashore, walking him and bringing him back.”

He watched as the dog came and went, sometimes sailing north from Wrangell, sometimes south from Petersburg.

“I told the terminal agent in Wrangell and he says, ‘Yeh, he’s doing that all the time.” I say, ‘What’s the deal?’ He says, ‘He must have a girlfriend up there.’ ”

Kanaar started with the ferry in 1963. And after three decades, he started making plans to retire.

But then, he got to talking with a young deckhand who was new to the job.

“Finally he says, ‘You know, you worked with my dad. And I says, ‘Really? Who is you dad?’ “

“A few days later we got to talking again and he says, ‘You worked for my grandfather.’ And I says ‘I did what?’ And he says, ‘Yeh, my dad was telling me that you worked for his dad when he went to work for the ferry system back in 1963.’ ”

“And it made me a little unsettled. So I’m thinking, ‘I’ve been here for 34 years. I was going to work 35. But maybe I should just quit now and go out on top of the pile.’ “

And he did.

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