It’s been a frustrating winter for ferry service in Southeast Alaska. A combination of supply chain issues, and an aging fleet, has made marine highway schedules especially sporadic this year. KCAW spoke with one Sitka resident about the far reaching effects of Alaska’s failing ferries. Listen below:
Like many rural Southeast communities, Sitka has seen long gaps in ferry service this winter. For Michelle Putz, her plans to move to Colorado have been at the mercy of an unpredictable ferry schedule.
“We’re taking the ferry is sort of our last way of, you know, leaving Sitka,” Putz said. “The movers cannot take anything that’s liquid, because it will freeze during the winter time. And turns out that smoked salmon jars have liquid in them. So we’ve got to bring like liquids and stuff that’s important to us for the next couple of months and three cats in our truck on the ferry.”
Putz and her husband Perry are in the process of selling their house in Sitka. They were scheduled to leave on January 16, but then the Matanuska sailing was cancelled, leaving them without a ride. They’ve been renting a place while they wait for the next boat to arrive, an extra expense on top of the big move.
“We’ll have all been paying for the rental for a couple of weeks. Luckily, we’re able to do that. It’ll make it not not ridiculously more expensive, but you know, just more challenging,” she said.
It’s been nearly a month since Sitka’s last ferry. And with maintenance on the Matanuska extended through the end of January, the state has been attempting to fill in long service gaps throughout the region. While the LeConte replaced some of the Matanuska’s trips to Haines and Skagway, it did not replace any of Sitka’s canceled sailings for December or January. Putz said they would have moved earlier if they could.
“Part of the reason we’re moving now is because there were no ferries for October and November, like none, not a single ferry was coming through Sitka, which is crazy,” said Putz.
The Alaska Marine Highway, facing budget cuts and mechanical breakdowns, has become less and less reliable for the Southeast communities which once considered it a lifeline to the outside world. For Putz, while delays have been inconvenient, they haven’t necessarily been a surprise.
“There’s definitely been a reduced schedule and reduced quality of travel because, you know, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.” I knew that the ferries were…the schedules were questionable. So I thought if we waited until the middle of January, that they’d have had everything figured out by then.”
The couple was rescheduled for a sailing on January 30. Then the state cancelled that sailing too, pushing their trip back to February 13, almost a month behind their original departure date.
The reduced schedule means that if they have to push something back then essentially everything gets pushed back.
According to the Department of Transportation, the Matanuska is supposed to come back in service at the beginning of February, but right now it’s still in a Ketchikan shipyard. Putz said people have been asking her what they’ll do if the ferry doesn’t come.
“My answer is always…. wait,” she said, half laughing. “So we’ll be waiting.”
Sitka saw its first ferry in over a month on January 12- the Kennecott. But for those who want to travel to Bellingham, they’ll have to wait on the February 13 sailing of the Matanuska.
Editor’s Note: After this story aired, the Department of Transportation announced contracts with at least two vendors to run catamarans to Southeast villages. Read more about that here.
Tash Kimmell is a Report for America Corps member