Last Alaska Marine Highway ferry leaves Ketchikan for Prince Rupert

ferry Malaspina
The ferry Malaspina passes near downtown Sitka in 2010. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

What could be the last ferry from Ketchikan to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, left Monday afternoon. The Canada-bound passengers say they’ll miss what was their cheapest link to North America’s road system.

Alaska Marine Highway System ferries have called on Prince Rupert since the system’s inception in the 1960s. But a dispute between Canadian and U.S. federal authorities over armed protection for U.S. customs officers has left the line in limbo.

The ferry to Prince Rupert isn’t the only way from Ketchikan to the Lower 48. But for seasonal workers who may not have much in the way of savings, Prince Rupert is a money-saving option when compared to the route from Bellingham, Washington. From Ketchikan, a trip to Bellingham costs nearly $350 for a single person — and it’s more than $1,000 extra to bring a vehicle.

Compare that to the less than $300 or so Sam Kinney from Omaha, Nebraska, paid to get himself and his truck across to Prince Rupert after working here for the summer as a tour guide. He’s headed down to the Lower 48 to find work for the winter. Taking the ferry all the way to Bellingham was too expensive.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that over $1,000 for me and my vehicle is a significant cost, even for work,” he said.

Kinney said he wants to return next summer — but maybe not if the Prince Rupert connection isn’t an option.

Clay Davis, another seasonal worker heading south, said he preferred the six-hour connection to Canada.

“So much cheaper going onto Prince Rupert and just driving versus paying however much for the Bellingham (ferry), and staying on a ferry for three days, too. That’s not ideal,” Davis said.

And it’s not just workers who rely on the ferry.

Three ferries dock at the Ketchikan Shipyard in 2012. Four ships are slated to be tied up for the 2016 season. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
Three ferries dock at the Ketchikan Shipyard in 2012. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

Bob Widness has lived in Ketchikan since 1981. He said he likes to vacation in British Columbia.

“Well, as often as we can. We work hard all summer, and then our winters, we like to get an escape or two,” Widness said.

He likes to take his family out to Smithers, British Columbia, and do some skiing. He said the route to Prince Rupert gives his family a chance to explore.

“It’s a little easier for us to load up the car and the kids and get these kids learning how to ski and experiencing life off of the island,” Widness said.

Without the ferry, though, his options are much more limited.

“Oh, well it’s going to be a pretty devastating change for sure,” Widness said. “I don’t like the idea that I have to fly to get anywhere.”

And with a family, flights get expensive quickly. Brian Weekly has his family with him on a ministry trip.

“Well, it’s a lot more economical for us to do the ferry system compared to flying all of our kids,” he said.

Even though the Weeklys are heading to the west coast, Brian’s wife Tara said the trip to Bellingham was so much more expensive that it didn’t even merit comparison.

“It was, I think, $500 to go with the RV to the Lower 48 with a family of six, versus like $3,000 to Bellingham,” Tara Weekly said. “So cost-wise, it was a huge, big deal for us.”

Because U.S. customs agents can’t carry guns into Canada, earlier this year U.S. federal officials asked the Alaska Marine Highway System to contract with Canadian police for armed backup while the agents check passengers and their vehicles. But Canadian officials said there aren’t enough police available in the area — and the cost of hiring new officers was too high. The Oct. 1 deadline expired before anyone could figure out a solution.

So a key transit connection between Southeast Alaska and the rest of the continent is severed, at least for now.

The last ferry back to Ketchikan from Prince Rupert was due to arrive at 4 a.m. Wednesday.