Ferry service to Gustavus draws mixed reaction

Gustavus has a year-round population of around 450. Many residents like to congregate at the town’s ‘Four Corners,’ where the Fireweed Gallery and Coffee Shop is located. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

State ferry service between Juneau and Gustavus is in its third season. While most Gustavus residents are happy with the additional transportation option provided by the Alaska Marine Highway System, others aren’t sure the change is good for the small community.

The first ferry between Juneau and Gustavus sailed on November 23, 2010.

“I waited pretty much most of my life and just thought it was a dream that would never ever happen,” says Sylvia Pederson.

Passengers on the LeConte relax during their four-hour ride from Juneau to Gustavus.

Pederson has spent her whole life in Gustavus, a town with a year-round population of 450. She’s also spent most of her life in fear of flying, which used to be the only way to get to and from Gustavus. So whenever Pederson left home, she had to take anxiety pills.

“There was no other option so I mean I did it, because you have to, but I never liked it. All the pilots would humor me and say, ‘It’s a Sylvia day or not,'” she laughs.

Now Pederson doesn’t let six weeks pass by without traveling to Juneau by ferry. She goes for medical purposes and visits her mother in the Juneau Pioneer Home. On this particular journey, Pederson went with her mother to the Senior Ball, something Pederson would’ve never considered if it meant flying.

Gustavus residents Leslie Sirstad and Betty Markey are also traveling back home from Juneau.

Aboard the LeConte: Gustavus residents Leslie Sirstad and Betty Markey use the ferry to get supplies and to take a break.

“I’m working on family record kinds of thing, so I got some scrapbook things. That was the real reason why I went in,” says Sirstad.

Markey’s trip was for a similar purpose. “I went in to get supplies and just to look around.”

Markey went to Costco and Fred Meyer which are common stops for Gustavus residents who want to fill their vehicles, an option now possible because of the ferry.

Sirstad and Markey also go to Juneau to take a break, “to change the scenery, make home look better,” says Sirstad. Markey adds, “And to get to go to a restaurant, a different restaurant, different foods, ‘cause you’re limited in Gustavus. We’re not complaining. We’re happy the way it is.”

Barb Miranda Bruno is also happy with the way it is. In fact, she may have liked Gustavus better before the ferry. Bruno is co-owner of Sunny Side Market, a health food store and café that opened in 2007 and is geared toward locals. While the ferry does bring more people to her business, Bruno says inaccessibility is a key reason residents live in Gustavus. She calls herself a fence-sitter regarding the ferry.

“It’s just busier,” Bruno says. “It just changes the way Gustavus was. If you talk to the old timers, before the road was paved, that was a big deal, before electricity, that was a big deal, and now we have the ferry so there are these incremental changes that slowly have Gustavus become a little bit more like other places and I think a lot of us chose to live here because it was different.”

Toshco owner Toshua Parker says he opened his business based on the ferry coming to Gustavus.

Toshua Parker comes from a homesteading family in Gustavus. He’s the owner of Toshco, “which is a grocery, lumber, hardware, clothing and marine, and everything else store,” Parker explains.

It’s no coincidence that his store has been around for as many years as the Alaska Marine Highway has been going to Gustavus. Parker says he started his business because of the ferry.

“Without the ferry, there would be really no way for us to get these materials out here economically enough that we could pass the savings on to the customers and hit the price point that we need to hit to make this work. At this point I don’t know how we’d survive without it. It’s really been a godsend for us out here.”

An example of those savings – the price of a gallon of milk is $5.99. Parker says it was double that before his store opened. Toshco and Sunny Side Market are the only grocery stores in town.

Barb Miranda Bruno co-owns Sunny Side Market, a health food store and cafe.

Gustavus is the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park so residents are used to seeing tourists. But Kelly McLaughlin, owner of Fireweed Gallery and coffee shop, says the ferry has changed the type of people who come to Gustavus.

“We see a lot more of independent travelers who aren’t looking to spend a lot of money, who just want to come and see Gustavus. So there’s a higher traffic but maybe not as much money spent,” she says.

The ferry is also bringing in more vehicles.

“The traffic is a little bit difficult sometimes because we’re not used to quite so many cars. People haven’t quite figured out how to deal with all that, but it’s coming,” says Pederson.

Pederson is confident Gustavus residents will bend with the changes. They’ll need to – in October, the Alaska Marine Highway plans twice-weekly trips between Gustavus and Juneau year-round.

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