Without Alaska’s ferries, timber and fish businesses wonder who will carry that freight

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. (Photo courtesy of 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 Logging Co. His company usually relies on the ferry to get their product to market. They load lumber onto unattended trailers or pickup trucks, then put them on the ferry for buyers in Juneau to receive.

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.

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, though, 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.

He said the vessel is a similar style to the World War II D-Day boats you’d see in “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 up to Tenakee Springs 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 other options.

“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.”

Tenakee Logging Co. 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 Co., Yakobi Fisheries 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 were shocked to find their town was entirely left off the ferry system’s draft summer schedule when it was released in late January.

Stewart admits it’s not ideal.

“Am I worried? Yeah,” he said. “I mean, 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 Gordon Chew — at least, he’s not in the market for a landing craft yet. Yakobi Fisheries 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 and Public Facilities before then. Like contracting with a private freight company for the summer, perhaps.

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.