The Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Matanuska is moored at the Ketchikan ferry terminal on Monday afternoon before deaprting on the marine highway system's first revenue service voyage to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, since late 2019. Staff photo by Jared Boekenhauer

Alaska Marine Highway System service between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, resumed on Monday afternoon with the AMHS ferry Matanuska departing Ketchikan southbound with 83 passengers and 39 vehicles for the first revenue service on the route since late 2019.  

After the Matanuska returns from its quick round trip on Tuesday morning, it’s scheduled to make a similar roundtrip starting late Thursday night.

"Well, we're thrilled,” Bill Urquhart, who was waiting to board the Matanuska on Wednesday, told the Daily News. “We've been waiting for two years to be able to do this trip again, and we were waiting for the ferries to open up. And we were waiting and waiting, and finally, the announcement came in March that we were gonna be able to start doing Rupert sailings again. And so we waited until the actual first day of reservations, and we had our reservation the first day tickets were available." 

Passenger Lindsay Swaim said that she’d been waiting two years  — “ever since it’s been not happening” — for the return of ferry service to Prince Rupert.

“We're really excited,” Swaim said. “... I like to go down to see my grandma at least twice a year, if not more so. And then my daughter, too, she wants to see her great-grandma."

This summer’s service is limited, with two roundtrips scheduled the third week of July, two in the third week of August, and one in September.

In each of those weeks, after calling on Prince Rupert, the Matanuska is scheduled to continue on its route to other Southeast ports.

The state has not released the fall/winter schedule yet.

The more than 30-month gap in service to Prince Rupert was due to a new federal requirement for armed U.S. Customs agents and the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of Canadian waters. Canada lifted its pandemic closure to ship traffic earlier this year, and a revised U.S.-Canada agreement now allows U.S. border agents to be armed.

Prince Rupert is about 90 nautical miles south of Ketchikan, about a six-hour ferry ride. It’s the last stop on Canada’s east-west Highway 16, about 900 road miles northwest of Bellingham, Washington, which is the southern end of the Alaska Marine Highway System. The ferry system operates service year-round from Bellingham to Alaska.

Rupert was popular with drivers as a cheaper alternative than the longer ferry voyage from Bellingham. The fare for a car from Bellingham to Wrangell in August is $1,066, plus $389 for the driver. The rate from Prince Rupert is about $350, plus $112 for the driver.

Rupert was the original southern terminus of the Alaska ferries when the system started up in 1963 until the state extended its route to Puget Sound in 1967.

Prince Rupert officials in 2019 said about 14,000 travelers used the Alaska ferry terminal each year. The state has a long-term lease on the dock and terminal building, which is owned by the Prince Rupert Port Authority.

Also waiting to board the Matanuska on Wednesday was Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan.

"I am so excited — there's nothing I've heard more about from my constituents from here in southern Southeast Alaska, other than issues related to the Alaska Marine Highway, and specifically, people are more concerned about the lack of access to Prince Rupert, B.C.,” Ortiz said. “I'm so excited to be a part of this first run back, the return voyage, and yeah, I think it's a good thing.”

Ortiz said that he would be meeting with Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain, with whom he had been working on the issue since before the pandemic began.

“Once we started to have problems with the access ...  to Prince Rupert with the marine highway system, I went down and chatted with the mayor, as well as the B.C. Customs Officials, Canada Customs Officials, and understood clearly that they were very concerned about this development, and they wanted to see it return,” Ortiz said. “And so for me to see this happen today, it's just a really good thing. It's real positive for everybody — positive for the people in Prince Rupert, positive for the people in southern Southeast Alaska, and for users of the entire marine highway system.”

Ortiz credited what he called a lot of people who got involved in the process and letting AMHS management know the amount of support there is for the Prince Rupert route, and for overcoming the circumstances of COVID-19 and other issues.

“Now, due to those initial efforts — and I will have to say that the management of the marine highway system, once they understood the importance of it, they've been fully on-board and have been working hard towards it as well,” Ortiz said. “So my hat's off to them, and so it's kind of a combination of lots of people involved, but, in the end, the main thing is, it's gonna happen."

According to AMHS spokesperson Sam Dapcevich, a total of 107 passengers and 55 vehicles were scheduled to travel to Ketchikan on the Matanuska's return voyage early Tuesday morning.

— Ketchikan Daily News and Wrangell Sentinel staff members contributed to this story.