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Roadtrippin’ 2022: Sailing through history ahead of Alaska ferry system’s 60th birthday

Sailing through history ahead of Alaska ferry system’s 60th birthday
Updated: Jun. 14, 2022 at 7:14 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Marine Highway System will celebrate its 60th birthday next year. It serves 36 communities over a 3,500-mile network, but it started from humble beginnings, replacing a small private operator that sailed weekly between Juneau and Haines.

In the late 1950s, the needs of coastal Alaska for a reliable transportation system outgrew the system’s one small ship. Plans were made to build ferries to serve Southeast Alaska.

In 1960, Alaska voters approved a $23 million bond proposal to build the new state’s first three ferries. The ferries started sailing across Southeast in January three years later, and they proved to be instantly popular.”It was an enormous success, they had tremendous ridership. Way more than they expected,” said Sam Dapcevich, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

The ferries allowed for vehicles, sports teams, and critical goods to be shipped across previously isolated communities. Southeast, and then coastal Alaska more broadly, became more connected to the rest of the state.

“I’ve heard people say it was life changing for them,” Dapcevich said.

Over the decades, more ferries have been added to the system. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the state of Alaska used some of the funds given to it to buy the M/V Kennicott, which doubles as an oil response vessel.

The M/V Tustumena, which first set sail in 1964, takes passengers and goods from Kodiak to Homer and down the Aleutian Islands to Dutch Harbor. It’s become an important part of the communities it visits, Dapcevich said.

The ship stops in Chignik, and local residents can place orders at the restaurant ahead of time to come aboard and eat while the Tustumena is at port. It has affectionately been given the nickname, “The McTusty.”

Nearing 60, the Tustumena is set to be replaced. Dapcevich said the department is planning for construction on the yet-to-be-named replacement vessel to begin next year.

In recent years, the Alaska Marine Highway System has made news with budget cuts, and when ferries have suffered mechanical problems. There have been long gaps in winter service, and it’s been tough when the ships haven’t sailed.

Members of the military use ferries to relocate to Alaska. Bad winter weather can ground flights, making life difficult for coastal residents who use ferries for medical appointments.

Gwen Sauser, a Haines resident who traveled to Juneau for Celebration, has lived outside of Alaska, and said it’s relaxing to sit back on a ferry and enjoy the slower pace of travel. She described riding on ferries since she was a child, and spoke about their importance.

“With so many small communities not having roads in and out of them, you’re kind of stuck,” she said.

Some ships have been sold while others have been scrapped. The M/V Malaspina, one of the state’s original ferries, is set to become a floating museum a few miles outside of Ketchikan.

In 2019, the first Alaska-built ferries the M/V Tazlina and M/V Hubbard were launched. The Hubbard is being outfitted with crew quarters to extend its range. A new operations board is planning for the system’s long-term future.

“I don’t know if it’s a new beginning, but we’re at a point where it feels like we’re rebuilding the system,” Dapcevich said. “Like we’re moving forward with a lot of positive energy.”

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