Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Stranded passengers weigh the cost of travel after canceled ferries


February 6, 2020 | View PDF

Canceled ferries coupled with storm systems have left Haines residents and through travelers stuck without Upper Lynn Canal transportation, resulting in dwindling bank accounts and feelings of abandonment by government.

Jim Studley and his daughter Nicole were faced with a 10-day layover in Juneau due to AMHS cancellations. Nicole broke her leg and was life-flighted to Anchorage. Studley’s daughter relies on ferry transportation because her disabilities prevent her from flying with Seaplanes, he said. “We chartered a flight from FlyDrake to get back home. It was a giant expense,” Studley said.

“When was one life in Anchorage more important than one life in rural Southeast Alaska?” Studley asked. “These are life-safety issues that I believe the State of Alaska has been grossly negligent about. Not only this administration, but all of the previous ones.”

Studley said the rest of Alaska does not understand Southeast Alaskans’ reliance on the Alaska Marine Highway, citing military families that use the ferry system and important infrastructure that depends on marine import.

“The whole flow of commerce is grossly affected for the entire state. It is so self-centered (to not prioritize AMHS),” Studley said.

Legislators and staff also found themselves without cars and household possessions for the start of the legislative session as a result of the Matanuska’s mechanical issues. Every year, more than a hundred legislators and staff travel to Juneau for the legislative session, relocating families, furniture and cars.

Josh Walton, chief of staff for Rep. Laddie Shaw from Anchorage, had his car scheduled to arrive in Juneau on the Jan. 25 Matanuska sailing. While Walton flew ahead to Juneau, an auto transport service drove his vehicle to Haines where it remained as the ferry’s sailing was delayed and eventually canceled. 

Last week, he received an email from the legislative affairs agency informing him that his car would be one of several vehicles transported to Juneau via Alaska Marine Lines. The barge successfully delivered his car to Juneau on Feb. 5. He said he is grateful that the legislative affairs agency has taken an active step to get his Honda CRV to Juneau.

The cost of an unaccompanied 15-foot vehicle from Haines to Juneau on AMHS is $134. Barging the same vehicle on Alaska Marine Lines costs $570.71, according to Lynden Transport’s online quote generator. The Legislative Affairs Agency did not respond by press time when asked about the funding source for legislative vehicles barged to Juneau.

The lack of ferry service and subsequent storms delayed Derek Poinsette, executive director of Takshanuk Watershed Council (TWC), an extra five days in Juneau on top of work-related business. “The forced week-long vacation was a hardship for TWC,” Poinsette said. “Things didn’t get done, and we’re behind the eight ball now.”

Poinsette plans to drive to Anchorage for upcoming travel, rather than risk another ferry cancellation. “It cost me over $1,000 to be stuck there,” he said.

Although the short-term effects of the ferry cancellation are significant for TWC, Poinsette is equally worried about long-term effects from lack of service. Project partners include Alaska Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and TWC depends on face-to-face meetings in order to collaborate. “If it stays like this, it will sever some of our ties and relationships we have in Juneau.”

Ady Milos, who lives at 26 Mile Haines Highway, was stranded in Juneau for 11 days. The ferry system reimbursed her ticket price and provided free food and lodging on the Matanuska as it waited in port. Eventually, Milos chose to use the funds reimbursed from AMHS to barge her vehicle on Alaska Marine Lines and fly home. She was lucky, she said, because that was an option for her, unlike the military families moving to Fairbanks and Anchorage with vehicles packed with their possessions, kids and pets.

Milos, a retired AMHS employee, worked as a bartender on the ferry. She said AMHS employees on the Matanuska turned the bar into a place for pets to come in out of the cold by spreading a tarp over the dance floor.

“That was the best part of my week, playing with the dogs,” said Jay Beasley, an AMHS employee who has been working on the Matanuska while it remained in port.

“Every time I went in there, they barked at me,” Milos joked.

Rachael Pattison arranged her vacation around the ferry schedule and budgeted for a $110 ferry ticket each way to travel as a family of four. The ferry was cancelled both directions, so total travel costs including hotel accommodations and flights went up an extra $1,000.

“We were only stuck in Juneau for one day,” Pattison said. “A lot of people had it a lot worse. Money-wise, it is intense for us. But we’ll make it.”

Vanessa Wishstar is in the process of moving to Haines from the Lower 48. After double checking with AMHS that repairs would be completed in time for sailing, she booked a ferry ticket for her vehicle and family of four. They left the affordable comfort of her sister’s house in Colorado, and en route to Washington State, AMHS announced the Feb. 1 ferry cancellation.

“Waiting in Juneau is costing us about $1,000 a week,” Wishstar said. “If this happened in the Lower 48 there would be an uproar. Well, our lives are just as worthy.”

Even if weather allowed for flying home, Wishstar said that a small plane is not an option. After a head injury in 1999, she said symptoms are exacerbated by a sudden change in elevation. “It took me a really long time to be able to ride an elevator,” Wishstar said. “I would practice. I can do an elevator now, but I’m not ready for a small plane.”

“Alaska pride gets in the way. We say ‘no, we can handle it, we are able to weather any storm.’” Wishstar said that if Alaskans complained a little more and “were able to really gather together,” they might see a change.

“Alaskans are very good at survivability, but there is a price to pay for that,” Wishstar said. “It feels like nobody cares. (AMHS), the government, it feels like nobody cares.”


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