Kyle Clayton
About 225 residents signed a “Save Our Ferries” poster during a rally Tuesday that mayor Jan Hill will take to the legislature next week. The rally, in solidarity with communities across Southeast, advocated for appropriate ferry service in the face of cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System and mechanical issues that have plagued vessels and service across the region.

More than 225 Haines residents gathered at the public safety building at noon on Tuesday to rally in support of the ferry system. “A diverse group united by a profound need” were the words event organizer Vanessa Salmon used to describe the crowd who waved signs and cheered as she spoke. The turnout, Salmon said, had exceeded her expectations.

The Haines Save our Ferries rally was one of several held in coastal communities including Skagway, Petersburg, Cordova, Anchorage, Juneau, and Kake to show support for an adequate level of ferry service. 

Rally attendees held signs with slogans like “MOFGA-make our ferries great again” and “Save the blue canoe.” Foregoing a traditional sign, Haines resident John Norton said he spent an hour assembling the three-dimensional cardboard ferry hat he wore.

“Giving people an opportunity to be seen and heard on this issue… is critical,” Salmon said. She took the lead in organizing the rally after “news came out that we’d have no ferries for a month. A lot of people jumped in and expressed interest in doing something, with the goal of raising our voices in support of a reliable and reasonably funded ferry system.” 

Other speakers at the event shared stories about the impact the lack of service is having on the youngest and oldest members of the community.

Margaret Sebens, from Southeast Alaska Independent Living, described the severe impact the ferry breakdown has had on the elderly and people with disabilities. Alaska Marine Highway System vessels are set up to serve people in wheelchairs, she said. While the Allen Marine charter in January allowed many stuck in Juneau to return home, it was a less than ideal alternative since getting on and off the ship is extremely challenging for people in wheelchairs. One man had to be carried because his wheelchair could not handle the dock in the Small Boat Harbor, she said. 

Without the ferry, Chilkat Valley resident Ed Warren had to put off a CAT scan because he is in a wheelchair and can’t fly, Sebens said. Other seniors, she said, are on fixed incomes and can’t afford to get stuck in Juneau when they travel for medical appointments. 

“Having accessible, safe, reliable transportation for all is not a lifestyle choice. It is a right, and it is the right thing to do,” Sebens said.

Caroline Hankins, site manager for the Haines Senior Center, said the past month had taken a toll on older people in the community. She shared the story of a senior who was stuck in Juneau for a week after the Matanuska broke down. Another was forced to cancel an appointment with the cardiologist due to lack of transportation, she said. 

Some seniors are unable to fly because of their wheelchairs or oxygen tanks, Hankins said. Others waited for medication during the week in late January when planes were unable to fly due to weather. During this same time, the food bank ran dangerously low on provisions, which a number of seniors depend on for meals, she said.

High school student Brennan Palmieri, who had just returned from Juneau, said the ferry system is important for students in terms of academics and nutrition. In some communities, he said, the ferry brings produce for school lunches. In other cases, the ferry allows students to travel for athletic competitions. The Skagway basketball team was stuck in Juneau for five days after the Matanuska broke down. For students struggling in school, missing an extra five days of classes because of lack of ferry service could be an insurmountable academic hurdle, he said.

Palmieri said he spoke with legislators during his trip to Juneau. While the response was not what he’d hoped for as no one was able to offer a short-term solution, “at least they know where we’re coming from,” he said. “This is a highway. It’s the marine highway.”

Sophia Armstrong brought her first-grade class to the rally. Her students signed the large banner reading “Save our Ferries” that Mayor Jan Hill said she plans to deliver to the legislature next week. Armstrong’s class had also written letters to legislators sharing the importance of the ferry in their lives. “I asked them ‘why do we need our ferries?’ and they all had really good reasons,” she said. 

One student’s mom has cancer and flew down to California for treatment, Armstrong said. “She got stuck in Juneau on the way back. She had already been away for two months.” Other students have parents in Juneau who they can’t visit regularly because of the lack of service, she said.

Armstrong said she supports a return to regular ferry service because “there are times when you have to go to Juneau.” She recently had a car part recalled. “The only place they would pay to fix it was in Juneau,” she said. If this had happened after the ferry sailings were canceled, she would have had a much harder time getting her car fixed, she said.

Kyle Clayton
Art Woodard couldn’t carry a sign because he had to manage his dog, Gooch who’s “Too Big to fly!”

Many of her students are afraid to fly, Armstrong said. In her own letter to legislators, Armstrong discussed the down side of relying on small planes for transportation. Flying her family of four to Juneau is cost prohibitive, she said. “It’s five hundred dollars for all of us one way.”

Hill said she was pleased with the positive spirit of the event and thanked Haines for coming out in full force. She said the overwhelming message she had heard while at Southeast Conference is that people need to send letters and stories that let policymakers know how the ferry issues are affecting them.

While letters like those written by Armstrong and her class will be delivered to legislators, it is unclear if and how lawmakers will address their concerns. Hill said lobbying efforts were making headway with legislators but not quickly enough. Meanwhile, without a ferry, Haines residents continue to run the risk of missing school, work, and medical appointments.