Empty grocery store shelves are becoming a common sight in coastal communities that rely on the Alaska Marine Highway System to stock food.
As the shutdown in regional ferry service continues, private business owners are trying to keep up with the demand as desperate customers look for options.
Elleana Elliott is a mother of two in Hoonah. She said the town’s stores stocked up on groceries in anticipation of reduced ferry service.
But after more than a month without a boat, most of those supplies have run out.
“Now we walk into the store, and their shelves are empty. There’s no eggs, there’s no milk,” Elliott said last week by phone. “They’re doing their best to fly stuff over, but it’s no comparison to the ferries.”
Elliott said many people in her community are now relying on air transport for basic necessities, ordering groceries on Instacart or having family and friends that live elsewhere ship them.
Shipping costs are expensive, and weather delays mean there’s no guarantee for when those orders will arrive.
Elliott’s sister in Juneau recently sent her a head of lettuce and a gallon of milk. She said when the care package arrived, it felt like treasure.
Even still, Elliott said it’s hard not to feel abandoned by the state right now.
“We have no support,” she said. “It’s getting rough. I have to ask people for help to where I didn’t have to before, and it feels just degrading.”
Communities like Angoon, Gustavus, Hoonah and others that rely on ferries are desperately seeking options to get the things they need.
Ward Air is one of the private charter services picking up the slack.
On a Friday afternoon in the company’s hangar in Juneau, pilot Desmond Kiesel kept busy.
He was scheduled to take off at 1 p.m. with a load of groceries destined for Hoonah, but the weather didn’t cooperate.
“We just have to be a little more patient this time of the year,” Kiesel said.
Business has been brisk for Ward Air and a few other flight operators in the region.
“With the ferries down, we’ve definitely picked up service to the communities that we normally probably go to infrequently this time of the year,” Kiesel said.
This being Alaska, flight delays are common. And that’s not ideal for perishables like produce and meat, even though Ward Air has freezer storage.
Over in Gustavus, Toshua Parker owns a grocery and hardware store called ToshCo. When the ferries are running, that’s how he regularly ships goods in from the Costco in Juneau.
But more than a year ago, he decided to invest in a boat of his own — a 96-foot landing craft.
“So we were 100% ferry dependent and only did this as an insurance policy against the potential of what was going on with the ferries, which kind of ended up happening,” Parker said.
He makes the six-hour trip to Juneau pretty much every week to stock up.
Even though he’s found a workaround for the time being, he said the cost of operating a private vessel isn’t sustainable, at least not without raising prices.
“We would much rather just see the ferries running,” he said. “For everyone involved, it’s the best way to go.”
Last week, Juneau Native corporation Goldbelt Inc. partnered with Huna Totem Corp. to transport a load of basketball players, tax accountants, groceries and supplies to Hoonah on board one of Goldbelt’s catamarans.
Goldbelt’s interim President and CEO McHugh Pierre said regional corporations are looking for ways to work together like this to help communities weather ferry gaps.
“We see this as a bridge,” Pierre said. “Obviously, we can’t carry automobiles or motorcycles. But we can carry, you know, 10,000 pounds of cargo at one time and, and that’s certainly a help.”
Pierre said Goldbelt also submitted an application to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities earlier this month to provide charter service to Angoon, Kake and Hoonah. Those communities aren’t slated to see a ferry until March.
DOT has not yet said when charter service would start.