The Unalaq, docked in downtown Juneau on December 16, 2021, is a 147.5-foot landing craft owned by Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation. The Native corporation says it plans to bid to use this vessel for supplemental passenger and vehicle service for the Alaska Marine Highway System. (Photos by Jacob Resneck/CoastAlaska)

The Alaska Department of Transportation is looking to private operators to get people, vehicles and freight to five Southeast villages this winter. The bidding deadline has been extended until Monday, Dec. 20.

The morning sun has just risen over the Alaska Marine Lines facility on Gastineau Channel. From the wheelhouse, skipper Mark Hesse is edging into one of Juneau’s freight docks on this cold, sunny Thursday morning. He’s the captain on a five-person crew preparing to load Hoonah-bound shipping containers on the Unalaq, a 196-ton black and white landing craft.

Hesse lives in New Hampshire but has experience in this part of Alaska.

“It’s been a few years, I was a mate on a fuel barge,” Hesse said as crews to prepared for the landing ramp to come down. He says he likes piloting ships through these inland waters.

“It’s a lot more enjoyable than being out on the ocean for sure,” he said.

Mark Hesse pilots the Unalaq, a 196-ton landing craft on Dec. 16, in Juneau’s Gastineau Channel. The 147.5-foot vessel is owned by Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp. The Native corporation says it plans to bid to use this vessel for supplemental passenger and vehicle service for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The Dunleavy administration is looking to private enterprise to offer supplemental ferry service that’s traditionally been provided by he state-owned and operated Alaska Marine Highway System. A recent tender proposes a mix of scheduled and on-call service to five villages from Juneau for passengers, vehicles and freight.

Southeast Alaska firms like Allen Marine Tours in Sitka and Goldbelt, Inc. in Juneau that operate catamarans have expressed interest for passenger service. But the missing link has been vessels that can take both people and vehicles out to the villages in the stormy winter months. 

“Our niche has been as the more remote — maybe shallow draft — for the places where the larger barges and ships may not necessarily be able to get into,” said Clark Hill, operations manager of Bowhead Transport, a subsidiary of Utqiaġvik’s village corporation.

Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation is among the firms to express interest as a private sector solution to long winter gaps in ferry service. The Native corporation’s largest vessel is the Unalaq. It’s already in Juneau doing freight runs to Hoonah on a contract with Lynden’s Alaska Marine Lines, the region’s largest marine shipper. 

The Unalaq was built in 2014 as a landing craft to take heavy equipment to western Alaska and the Arctic. It’s nearly 150-feet long with a 50-foot wide cargo deck for roll on, roll off vehicles and freight.

It can carry more than two dozen cars and trucks. But compared to most Alaska Marine Highway System vessels it’s petite.

We’re not like these other ferries that can do hundreds of passengers,” Hill said.

AML and other freight companies already offer barge shipping to some communities. But the state is mulling putting a ship like this on a schedule or on-call basis to serve the Southeast communities of Gustavus, Angoon, Hoonah, Tenakee Springs and Pelican from a hub in Juneau.

A no-frills supply vessel for coastal villages’ needs

The Unalaq is a working vessel and spartan. But it’s rated to carry 16 people. After the crew, that’d be room for 10 passengers on what Hill says would be a no-frills trip.

“We’re just not set up to be a passenger ferry,” Hill said.

Up the steps there’s a deck with a few wooden tables and benches. There’s a galley with a cooking range and dry goods pantry that could be equipped to offer meals. Hill said they’d like to make the passengers as comfortable as possible.

We can obviously have coffee, we can probably lay out cereal, yogurt and that kind of thing,” he said. “It’s got commercial ovens and toasters. And I mean, it’s well-equipped to host folks and to feed them.”

There are also six four-berth staterooms with modest bunks and a television. But none of the trips would be scheduled for overnight though weather delays mean that couldn’t be discounted.

The Unalaq is a 196-ton landing craft owned by Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation. It was named for an Iñupiaq elder.

The Unalaq is designed for work, not pleasure. So it’s a far-cry from the amenities offered on traditional marine highway vessels. It’s relatively slow – about 8 to 9 knots – depending on the load: that’s half the speed of the $60 million Alaska Class Ferries that have seen little to no use since they were floated about two years ago.

But the selling-point, Hill says, is the boat’s already contracted in Southeast over the next three months. That means it could be called up on relatively short notice to do runs on the state’s dime.

“Certainly, it would make sense to be the on-call type vessel, because it is going to be here in Juneau through March,” Hill said.

The state’s deadline for private operators to bid has been extended at least once. And according to bid documents, the agency is looking to offer private passenger and freight ferry services as early as January.

Booking would still be through AMHS with the same fares as the state’s blue and gold fleet. 

And that could be useful when a state ferry breaks down. Or as more recently has been the case, cost-cutting that’s kept a number of ferries tied to the dock.