With Alaska ferries in chaos, island timber and fish businesses wonder who will carry their freight to market

Pelican harbor, pictured here in late 2019. Pelican was left off the draft summer ferry schedule, leaving the town’s seafood processor worried about how they’ll get product to market. (Heather Bauscher)

The breakdown of the Alaska Marine Highway System has left many towns struggling to bring in building supplies, groceries and other goods. But for some businesses, the challenge of getting freight out of town is just as urgent — and without ferries, they’re taking a hit. 

Even under normal circumstances, shipping logs out of Tenakee Springs is not exactly a walk in the park. 

“We crane lumber off our barge and stack it near the entrance to the ferry,” said Gordon Chew, owner of Tenakee Springs Logging Company. His company usually relies on the ferry to get their product to market.  

“And then with rental trailers or borrowed trailers or pickup trucks sent unattended on the ferry, we’d load, load out lumber for buyers in Juneau,” he said.

But these are not normal circumstances. Tenakee hasn’t seen a ferry in months and, with the town’s dock slated to be rebuilt starting in July, it may not get another sailing until December. 

Read our continuing coverage of Alaska’s marine highway breakdown

That leaves Chew without many good options for shipping lumber. And, he said, it’s especially frustrating after spending years tailoring his company’s system to work with the ferries. 

“We’re desperately trying to figure out ways to do freight,” he said. “And it’s taken us eight years really to get the logistics all worked out with renting trailers, having them staged on the ferry unattended.”     

Now, it’s right back to the drawing board. Without any obvious fallback options, and uncertain of when they might see another ferry, Chew is getting creative.   

“We’re looking at possibly buying a motorized landing craft,” he said.

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

He said it’s a similar style to the World War II D-Day boats you’d see in the film “Saving Private Ryan.” Except this time, it would be transporting lumber, not tanks. Chew said it’s far from an ideal option. The boat itself is down in Washington state, so just getting it here will set them back a lot in fuel costs. Then, there’s all the maintenance. Chew said the boat isn’t in great shape. 

Still, he said, there aren’t a lot of alternatives.  

“It’s not the smartest idea that we’ve come up with, in terms of getting our own boat,” he said. “But we don’t know what else to do.”   

Related: With no ferry service this winter, Cordova’s economy feels the pinch 

Tenakee Logging isn’t the only family business in Southeast looking for alternative ways of moving freight.

“We’re doing well over 100,000 pounds of product out of Pelican in four months,” said Seth Stewart, owner of Yakobi Fisheries in Pelican. Those four months are during the summer. The product: frozen fish — a lot of it. 

Like Tenakee Logging Company, Yakobi has worked out a ferry-based supply chain. Fish totes, freezer bags, building supplies and more come in by ferry. Fish goes out.  

Also like Tenakee, Pelican hasn’t had a sailing since the fall, and residents said they were shocked to find their town was entirely left off the ferry system’s summer schedule when the draft was released in late January. Stewart admits it’s not ideal. 

“Am I worried?” he said. “Yeah. I would like to not have to worry about how we’re getting product in and out of Pelican, considering that the ferry system was set up, you know, exactly for these sorts of reasons. So people could build their businesses or build their homes or live their lives with the support, knowing that there’s a highway going to Pelican.”        

Stewart is feeling more optimistic than Chew. At least, he’s not in the market for a landing craft yet.

Yakobi won’t start shipping out processed fish until the summer, and Stewart thinks the town might be able to work out some kind of compromise with the state Department of Transportation before then. Like perhaps contracting with a private freight company for the summer, he said.

Amid this uncertainty, Stewart said, just figuring out a way to get through this summer would buy them time to work out a more durable solution. 

“It’s not gonna turn out well,” he said. “It’s gonna cost us more money this summer than I think is profitable in the long run. But if we can just make it through this season, then it gives us time to plan out something that is viable for long-term.”  

Either way, Stewart and Chew should have more information soon. The state plans to release a final ferry schedule later this month.