Cold snap freezes freight orders for small towns in Southeast Alaska

Pelican’s boat harbor in 2013. The community of around 80 in the winter has no airport or barge service. (KCAW file photo)

For safety reasons, Alaska Seaplanes does not operate floatplanes when temperatures dip below 15 degrees — a threshold many communities around Southeast have crossed recently. 

General Manager Carl Ramseth says the company suspended chill freight orders recently because they don’t want perishable goods going bad if falling mercury keeps planes on the dock. 

“With the amount of freight that we had on hand and with the limited flying that we’re able to do right now, just concerned with it not being in good shape by the time it got to the customer on the other end,” Ramseth said.

Below normal temperatures in Southeast Alaska have put a freeze on an important transportation link in the region.

The four towns affected by the restriction are Angoon, Pelican, Tenakee Springs, and Elfin Cove. These communities — with the exception of Elfin Cove, which is not the Marine Highway system — have already struggled to reshape supply chains after winter ferry service was suspended due to budget cuts and unexpected repair costs. 

In Pelican, residents have relied on Alaska Seaplanes as well as fishermen making grocery runs to Juneau. 

Karen Stepanenko runs the Lisianski Inlet Cafe with her husband. Even during normal circumstances they get milk, vegetables, and other fresh products on the plane. 

Stepanenko says they’ve got enough groceries on hand to stay in business, but she might have to switch up the menu as the week goes on — the most important thing is to keep the doors open for residents looking for a hot meal. 

“We have burgers, but if we run out of that then you can always make other dishes, like sweet and sour chicken or pot roast,” Stepanenko said. “You know people are happy if they can come to the restaurant and get a break.”    

This isn’t Stepanenko’s first rodeo. She’s been running the cafe for 33 years, and knows that weather disruptions come with the territory. 

“You learn to anticipate,” she said. “You try to get your pantry stocked so if something like this happens you can survive.”     

The Pelican Community Bible Church food pantry is also dipping into its reserves. The church coordinates with the Juneau food bank and Alaska Seaplanes to fly in everything from canned goods to eggs and meat. Patricia Philips, who helps run the pantry, says they stock up in preparation for potential cold snaps — but even so their inventory is shrinking. 

“We are low on perishables,” Philips said. “But we’re not out. Hopefully this cold snap won’t last too much longer. I know in the past we’ve gone like 21 days without a plane, and hopefully we won’t go that long.”    

There is relief in sight — warmer temperatures are expected throughout Southeast in the near future, but not until after another round of snowfall.   

In the meantime, Philips, Stepanenko, and others throughout the region will have to keep relying on what they’ve got in the freezer until the chill freight can start flowing again.