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September has arrived in Ketchikan with some lovely weather and a spot of rain. Local schools are back in session, the commercial fishing season is tapering off, and, although cruise ships will continue to call through the end of the month, Ketchikan feels like it’s making the shift into fall.
The streets seem a bit quieter, although on Tuesday morning the sidewalks near the state ferry terminal accommodated a number of walkers taking in some Ketchikan air during the ferry Malaspina’s port call.
The ferry’s signature yellow smokestack was visible from Tongass Avenue, the bright hue a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Marine Highway System that was celebrated back in 2013.
The first ship in the newly formed Alaska Marine Highway System, the Malaspina made its inaugural call in Ketchikan 56 years ago, arriving here to great fanfare on Jan. 21, 1963.
Since then, the “Mal” has carried a great many people to and through Southeast Alaska. On Tuesday, it had departed Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to once again carry passengers and vehicles on the 90-mile voyage to Ketchikan and then farther north to Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines and Skagway before turning around and tagging the same ports — in addition to Kake — on the southbound run.
Many residents of those communities will take note of the Malaspina as it passes, recalling trips and memories made aboard the ferry. Some residents first arrived in Southeast Alaska on the Malaspina. Many have relied upon it for school, work and vacation travel. Some have shipped vehicles and other freight on its spacious car deck. Every voyage is another thread weaving the Malaspina and its fleetmates into the fabric of Southeast Alaska life.
Seeing the Malaspina in port as the quiet of the fall season arrives is a reminder that things will soon become quieter still, especially in regards to Alaska Marine Highway System.
As of Tuesday, you can’t book a voyage on the Malaspina past Sept. 30, when it departs Prince Rupert for Ketchikan. The last mainliner voyage currently scheduled is the Kennicott, which is set to depart from Bellingham, Washington, at 8 p.m. on Oct. 5.
That’s not to say there won’t be any ferry service after that point. AMHS plans to have the 2019-20 winter schedule available for booking by the third week of September. But it won’t be a winter schedule that most people familiar with the ferry system will recognize.
As the marine highway system noted in mid-August, “please keep in mind that AMHS funding for the fiscal year 2020 has been reduced by $43 million and the winter schedule is fiscally constrained.
“Additionally, recent refunds have reduced the AMHS budget by approximately $3 million,” the AMHS announcement continued. “In recent weeks, AMHS received many comments about the schedule, and requests for additional service. AMHS will provide the best possible service to communities while maintaining regulatory and safety standards for vessels. The 31% budget reduction from previous fiscal years will limit the adjustments that can be made to the schedule.”
And that was before Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed another $5 million from AMHS funding.
The proposed draft schedule shows the Matanuska as the sole mainliner operating in Southeast Alaska from October through the end of April. During that time, the Matanuska would sail south from Ketchikan to Bellingham three times a month, and to Prince Rupert once a month. Northbound service from Ketchikan would be once a week on the Bellingham weeks; twice a week during the Prince Rupert weeks. It’s service, but a mere shadow of what it once was.
We’ve written here several times about the current administration’s keen interest in ending the Alaska Marine Highway System. We won’t reprise that now, other than to thank Sen. Bert Stedman, Rep. Dan Ortiz and other legislators for keeping AMHS sailing for the time being.
Tuesday was a reminder that, for the past half century, the coming of a quiet fall and winter season didn’t mean the arrival of isolation in Ketchikan. The ferries have been there, providing reassuring links to points north and south. We’re about to experience a significant change in that service, with many travel opportunities that we once enjoyed and likely took for granted no longer available or feasible. Time will tell just how significant the loss to Ketchikan and the rest of Southeast Alaska will be.