From Ketchikan to Unalaska, a day of protests, anxiety and anger over a dysfunctional ferry system

More than 200 people rallied in support of the ferry system in front of the state capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Hundreds of people rallied around the state Tuesday to restore the Alaska Marine Highway System’s regional ferry service. The fleet has been largely idle since the last mainliner in service broke down last month.

In Juneau, elected state and tribal leaders told 200 people gathered around the Capitol steps that for smaller coastal communities, regular ferry connections are a matter of survival.

Read our continuing coverage of ferry service problems across coastal Alaska

People who kind of have no idea — who come from a place of privilege — say, ‘Well, that’s your choice (to live in coastal communities).’ Well, they don’t know what it’s like to be born in a community and to be able to say for 10,000 years my forefathers were born in this area,” said Richard Peterson, tribal president of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “We have no reason that we need to move.”

Sen. Jesse Kiehl (D-Juneau) told the lunchtime crowd that Alaska villages deserve a first-world standard of living.

“The store shelves shouldn’t be empty in Alaska communities,” Kiehl said. “They shouldn’t be empty when we’ve got docks and we’ve got vessels and we’ve got skilled people to run ’em!”

Kobe and Keely Nall, hold up a homemade model of a state ferry to Ketchikan’s rally on Feb. 11, 2020. They say they often take state ferries to visit family and friends in Petersburg and Juneau. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

In Ketchikan, about 60 people turned out. Some of them were state ferry workers left high and dry by the shutdown. Wade McClennan worked on the Columbia, which has been tied up since last fall.

In the meantime he’s not drawing a paycheck. 

There’s a lot of uncertainties because we depend on our benefits,” he told KRBD. “And when you’re the breadwinner of your family, the uncertainty — how there is right now — just causes a lot of anxiety.”

Meanwhile in Kodiak about 10 people gathered near that city’s ferry dock. Many were retirees who came by ferry decades ago. Robyn Cassidy is a retired bookkeeper who first stepped off the ferry when she was 13.

“This is infrastructure — this isn’t something special,” she told KMXT. “We don’t have any other highway and it needs to be funded in full and quickly.”

Father and son Archie and Luck Dunbar riffed on President Trump’s national campaign slogan to show support for Alaska’s ferries. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

In downtown Haines, more than 200 people gathered to show their support for the system.

Luck Dunbar and his son Archie held a sign with a hand-drawn portrait of President Trump in his characteristic red ball cap. They had a new take on Trump’s campaign slogan.

“We’re just trying to get through to the people that kind of run the show you know?” the elder Dunbar told KHNS. “It’s kind of something off the MAGA hat, but it says ‘Make Our Ferries Great Again.’ MOFGA!”

Throngs of ferry supporters turned out in the fishing town of Petersburg on Tuesday. (Photo by Orin Pierson/KFSK)

Out in the Aleutian Islands there are just four ferry trips scheduled for the entire year. Jeff Hancock is an senior officer with the longshoreman’s union and helped organize the rally that brought out about 40 people.

He says it takes a half a week to travel by ferry from the road system to Unalaska.

“But we have people — including myself — who have been stuck in Anchorage for multiple weeks waiting for flights,” he told KUCB, “… and it becomes a realistic option to think about getting on a three-and-a-half day ferry trip if you know you’re going to be able to get home.”

Limited regional ferry service is scheduled to resume next month. But under a draft winter schedule released last month, some coastal communities could go without any service through the end of the year.

Gov. Dunleavy has requested $12 million for supplemental ferry funding. But DOT officials told lawmakers this month that the money is needed for the existing bare bones schedule and would not expand service.

With reporting from Eric Stone in Ketchikan; Kavitha George in Kodiak; Claire Stremple in Haines and Hope McKenney in Unalaska.