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Uncertain future of Matanuska ferry leaves some Alaskans facing long journey home from Canada

Uncertain future of Matanuska ferry leaves some Alaskans facing long journey home from Canada
Mary Lynn and Jim Dahl’s cabin in Smithers, British Columbia. (Courtesy of Mary Lynn Dahl)

Mary Lynn Dahl and her husband, Jim Smithers, love to ski in British Columbia.

โ€œWe have done more than 160 yatras. So we’ve been doing it for almost 20 years,” she told KRBD over the phone.

The Ketchikan couple usually spend two or three weeks at their cabin in Smithers. After all, getting there is no small featโ€”it’s about four hours of driving through northern BC in the middle of winter. And that’s after a seven-hour ferry from Ketchikan to Prince Rupert.

But it’s always been worth it. All nine of Dahl’s grandchildren learned to ski at Smithers, along with a half-dozen of his Ketchikan friends.

This year, Mary Lynn says the Dahls have planned a longer trip. They will stay for about two months, as there were no ferries operating on the Marine Highway System in January.

“In order to come down for Christmas to visit our friends and our family who drive from Seattle, we had to come down in the early part of December, and we couldn’t go until February 7th,” she said.

A selfie taken by an older couple in winter clothing with a wooden cabin in the background
Mary Lynn and Jim Dahl take a selfie with their Smithers, BC cabin in the background. (Courtesy of Mary Lynn Dahl)

Why not a ferry in January? The Matanuska, a ferry bound for Prince Rupert, was doing some work at the shipyard.

During its annual overhaul, the crew noticed some concerning issues on Matanuska. Deputy Transport Commissioner Catherine Keith told a recent Marine Highways Steering Board meeting that one problem is asbestos breakdown.

“There’s always been asbestos on these aging ships, and we know it’s there. However, when asbestos is exposed, or friable, meaning it’s in the dust, which is basically in the air is, then it becomes a health risk,โ€ Keith said.

Due to which the work stopped immediately. The state does not want welders and pipe fitters to breathe cancer-causing dust. But asbestos cracking wasn’t the worst they found.

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“Also, during the overhaul, there was more discovered steel, which is going to significantly increase the cost of this overhaul and the amount of time that the overhaul will take,” Keith said.

keith calls to repair rusted steel Will dramatically increase the cost of overhaul. And she says the ferry service isn’t sure what to do with the 60-year-old ship.

“We would like to pause on our decisions for capital investment in this project to see what really is the wisest option,” she said. “This steel work could drive the cost of this overhaul up to $8 or $10 million.”

This brings up a whole host of issues. The Matanuska has been the primary vessel serving the so-called “mainline” route that passes through Southeast Alaska. Its sister ships โ€“ the Taku and the Malaspina โ€“ are both out of service. One was cut up for scrap, the other was sold as a floating museum.

And Matanuska will be Major renovation needs to start by December 2024 To maintain a premier certification under the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, known as SOLAS. Required to dock in Canada.

But, of more immediate concern:

“Ultimately, these developments mean that Matanuska will no longer be able to attend our summer program,” Keith said.

Or, for that matter, February’s schedule.

The Matanuska waits at the state ferry terminal in Ketchikan on June 20, 2022, the day of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s first trip to Prince Rupert, B.C., since 2019. (Eric Stone / KRBD)

Ferry service isn’t out of options โ€” Keith says the flagship ferry Columbia is getting off the bench to fill the Matanuska.

“Columbia will now be on our schedule and will leave by February 13,” Keith said.

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This happened only about a week after the Dahls were originally scheduled to go home. Which, if it was coming for Prince Rupert, probably wouldn’t have been a problem. Anyone who travels in Alaska or northern Canada during the winter knows that it’s a good idea to plan a little cushion in case of delays.

But Colombia won’t be going to Prince Rupert. It is not certified for international travel. and if it was Not compatible with Prince Rupert Terminal,

Another ship with the required SOLAS certification – the Kennicott – is is scheduled to hit the shipyards in February For maintenance.

So, a few days ago Dahl says she got bad news.

โ€œThe ferry service called us and said that our ferry home from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan has been cancelled. period. And there are no plans to change that. We said, ‘What? What should we do?’โ€ Dahl said.

They could fly home. But flying with a car full of ski stuff and two dogs is pretty tough. Airlines don’t take cars as checked baggage at all.

A small bulldog wearing novelty reindeer antlers lies on a couch
Sunny, age 7, poses for a festive photo. Sunny is one of two dogs that accompanied the Dahls to Smithers. (Courtesy of Mary Lynn Dahl)

“And they said, ‘Well, you know, there’s no option unless you drive to … Bellingham,'” she said.

Bellingham, Washington, is the southernmost port on the Marine Highway System. It’s a 13-hour drive from Smithers – and that’s in summer with clear roads.

“So we’re going to drive 700 miles from here in Smithers to Bellingham, where we are now, and then we’ll have to get on the ferry a week later and go 750 miles back to Ketchikan in the other direction, which is That’s kind of crazy,” Dahl said.

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KRBD tried to ask the Department for Transport how many people have been affected by the cancellation on Prince Rupert. We wanted to know if there are any plans to send another boat to Canada to bring back the stranded people – be it a government boat or a private vessel. We asked if there were any plans to help people with the cost of driving to Bellingham. But the DOT did not return the interview request or provide a written statement.

So Mary Lynn and her husband are on their own.

“It’s really troubling,” she said. “I know these boats are old. And I know they need maintenance. But that’s something to be expected and planned for. And because you’ve already sold tickets, unless the boat is imminent Don’t drown. I think you should pick those people up and bring them home. She says the ferry service “should have planned a little better.”

And he has some ideas. She says she would like to see more ships in the ferry system being upgraded to handle the Prince Rupert route. She says the Alaska Legislature must find a way to protect the Marine Highway budget from shifting political winds.

But for now, Dahl is planning a long, cold odyssey down south.

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