The winter freeze on ferry service is starting to thaw, with regional routes resuming this month. But even as some ferries come back online, one Southeast community isn’t ready to celebrate yet — Tenakee Springs is scheduled to get just two sailings for the rest of the year.
Since the ferry stopped running in October, Tenakee Springs has had just two commercial passenger trips — on chartered tour boats. So unless you’ve got a boat of your own, the only way in or out is by floatplane.
Losing the twice weekly ferry sent already high food prices through the roof: A gallon of milk used to cost around $8, but now it’ll set you back $13.
That’s made life complicated for Nikita Chase, a single mother with four kids still at home. She used to take the ferry to stock up in Juneau — now she has to charter a floatplane
“Being a single parent, fixed income, it just kind of punched a whole in everything that we had planned,” Chase said.
The cost of a shopping trip by chartered plane is well over $1000, and that’s before you even factor in the groceries themselves. Losing the ferry has already pushed some people out of town. Chase hopes it doesn’t come to that for her family.
“We have looked into moving to other areas, but really this is our home and we will fight to stay here till we can’t,” She said.
It’s been a tough winter for any town that normally relies on the Alaska Marine Highway. Budget cuts slashed service and mechanical failures disrupted an already barebones schedule, essentially shutting down service by early February.
To make matters worse for Tenakee, the town’s dock is only configured to work with the LeConte and the Aurora. With both of those ships out of service, residents have had to come up with backup plans.
For Gary Rice, the backup plan is paying a lot more money to get to medical appointments.
“It’s been lousy cause I had a stroke a few years back,” Rice said.
Without a ferry, Rice has had to shell out for floatplane tickets to see the doctor in Juneau.
“I don’t make a lot of money, matter of fact I make next to almost nothing,” Rice said. “So a lot of my income now is going to have to be flying in on a plane and flying back on a plane.”
Most people I spoke with in Tenakee agree the town can get by with far fewer than two ferries a week. But, as Rice puts it, they do want some regular connection to the outside world.
“What if they took away all the roads, and all the road maintenance, up north? How would that work for them?” he said.
Tenakee has seen some relief recently. The state Department of Transportation contracted Allen Marine to run two passenger-only trips.
But the only scheduled service for the rest of the year are two sailings by the LeConte in May. And that’s assuming the LeConte’s extensive steelwork gets done on time. Then, the town’s dock is getting replaced starting in July, meaning they won’t be able to get another ferry until December, at the earliest.
DOT commissioner John MacKinnon says the agency isn’t happy about towns like Tenakee getting cut off, but stands by what he describes as the original intention of the budget cuts.
“The purpose of those cuts was to start a conversation among policymakers, and the public of how much we can afford,” MacKinnon said.
Some people think the conversation has gone on long enough.
“We’ve had the discussion, now we need some action,” said Louise Stutes, a state representative from Kodiak Island. Her district includes towns that were left off the winter ferry schedule to begin with. Stutes also co-chairs the House Transportation committee and has led a push to restore some funding to the Marine Highway. She says getting service to stranded towns is urgent.
“These communities will die, they really will. It’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy for Alaskans to treat other Alaskans in this manner,” she said.
Some Southeast communities saw partial service restored in early March when the Tazlina sailed back into the schedule.
But that’s of little help to the fifty or so winter residents of Tenakee Springs. Ken Merrill, who owns the only grocery store in town, is still relying on fishermen to bring in supplies.
“Fishermen are always offering help when they know about it,” he said.
Today, they’re unloading eight pallets piled high with a month’s supply of canned chili, dog food, beer, and more. Some of the goods have been sitting in Juneau for months.
Jerry-rigging the supply chain is a logistical challenge, but the store has been a fixture in Tenakee for more than a century, and Merrill doesn’t imagine it’ll close anytime soon.
“I can keep it up,” Merrill said. “We’ll keep the store open. It’s been here since 1899 so, it’ll survive.”
Merrill thinks he won’t need to stock as much food this summer, because without regular ferries he expects most of the summer residents just won’t show up.