Ferry service linking Ketchikan to Prince Rupert, B.C. temporarily restored

The ferry Taku loads up at the Prince Rupert, B.C., ferry terminal July 24, 2014. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The Alaska Marine Highway is temporarily resuming its link with Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Sailings ceased this month following an impasse, with U.S. customs agents working in Canada demanding armed security inside the Prince Rupert ferry terminal. Now, the state ferries have added two special sailings as officials on both sides of the border work on a long-term solution.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents can’t carry guns in Canada. The unarmed federal agents check passengers and vehicles bound for Alaska. But earlier this year, they put the state on notice: without armed backup from Canadian police, they wouldn’t clear travelers bound for Ketchikan.

An October 1 deadline came and went without a compromise. Officials in Juneau and Washington are trying to find a way out of this impasse but in the meantime, it’s severed Southeast Alaska’s closest link with the North American road system.

But this week the Alaska Department of Transportation says it’s added two special sailings. Spokeswoman Meadow Bailey says ferries will sail on October 29 and November 25 in both directions between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert.

“This is temporary right now there are a lot of issues that still need to be ironed out,” Bailey says. “They include the financial implication of a long-term solution, what would that cost and what would that look like.”

Rep. Dan Ortiz — an independent state lawmaker from Ketchikan — has made at least one trip to Prince Rupert trying to find solutions with Canadian officials. He’s been working with the city – which has no police department – to contract with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to provide armed security for two special sailings.

“I’m very thankful for that,” Ortiz says. “And I see it as a first step towards a long-term solution.”

Now, he says it’s Alaska’s turn to put in the resources to keep the service going.

“If I’m asked to advocate for funding for that particular purpose, I certainly will be active in that role,” Ortiz says.

By no means is full service restored to the twice weekly service normally offered in winter. And the future remains uncertain. New U.S. requirements to security in Prince Rupert remain one of many long standing issues that are unresolved and will need to be addressed for Alaska’s ferries to maintain links with Prince Rupert, B.C.