M/V Tustumena makes its last run before winter ferry service gap

M/V Tustumena crew finish last preparations before they push off on Saturday. (Kavitha George/KMXT)

Kodiak Island’s last ferry of the season pulled away from the dock on Saturday, and there won’t be one returning until April. Aging vessels in need of repairs and cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System budget have extended the service gap this year, making life for village residents more difficult in the meantime.

On Saturday afternoon, Ouzinkie resident Fred Shanagin is sat in a line of idling trucks waiting off to one side of the Kodiak pier. Everyone in the line lives in the remote villages of Ouzinkie and Port Lions, and they’re waiting to load up for the M/V Tustumena’s last run of the season.

“Just gotta make sure you have a lot of canned goods and like, paper towels, toilet paper, that kind of thing,” Shanagin said.

Shanagin’s truck bed is piled high with suitcases, cardboard boxes, even a bulk package of paper towels. With no ferry service for more than three months, he says he’ll still be able to make shopping trips to town, but it will be more expensive.

A little further down the line, Port Lions resident Melvin Squartsoff is bringing his boat back to the village after getting it fixed up in town. In winters like these, when frozen bays make boating over impossible, ferry travel is the safest way for people in Port Lions to get into town.

“It’s actually really terrible with no service over there in Port Lions for that long, makes it extremely hard in the winter months, especially when Anton [Larsen Bay] is frozen up, can’t come by boat,” Squartsoff said. “And it’s expensive to have to fly over and take groceries and goods.”

When the ferry is running, Squartsoff says he uses it two to three times a month to get to Kodiak. That’s not uncommon. A lot of village residents will schedule their lives around ferry sailings, making trips for groceries and car repairs, collecting building supplies, or bringing an elder who isn’t comfortable flying into town for a doctor’s appointment.

Squartsoff says most people in Port Lions have a similar feeling about the winter service gap.

“Like we’re all getting the short end of the stick out of this deal somehow,” he says. “There’s got to be other solutions to this, you know, to be able to rectify the situation.”

Village residents are used to unpredictable ferry schedules. Boats get cancelled and delayed for weather and needed repairs. Winter service gaps are common too, but at more than three months, this year’s gap is particularly long.

Part of the reason for the gap is that both the vessels that service the island, the Tustumena and the Kennicott, are scheduled to be in overhaul for repairs at the same time this year. Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesperson Meadow Bailey told KMXT in September that overhauls happen every year, but repairs for the 22-year-old Kennicott and the 56-year-old Tustumena are more extensive this year.

A nearly one-third cut to the Alaska Marine Highway System budget last year has also resulted in a significantly pared-down sailing schedule.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes slightly more money for AMHS than this year’s budget, but DOT is already warning that coastal Alaska residents will continue to see long service gaps.

Sen. Gary Stevens, who represents many Gulf communities including Kodiak, says the proposed allocation isn’t good enough.

“We need to put more money into it. And we also need to address the fact that vessels are getting older. We need to replace the Tustumena,” he said. “If you’ve noticed that at this point, over half the fleet has been tied up for various reasons.”

Stopping in at the ticketing office, Tustumena Captain John Mayer says for the next few months he’ll miss stopping in Kodiak and seeing his usual passengers, many of whom he knows by name.

“They bring us food, smoked salmon… we’re part of the family,” he says. Asked how his passengers feel about the break in service, he replies “They’re very patient people. They put up with it. They don’t like it. People in Kodiak don’t like it, but we have no choice at this time.”

Half an hour later, with all the vehicles loaded up, the crew folds up the gangway and Captain Mayer yelled a goodbye down to the ferry office staff.

“Keep our spot warm!” he shouted. “This is our spot, don’t give it away!”

“Okay, nobody can moor here while you’re gone!” staffer Camilla Jordan shouted back.

And just as they pushed off, Mayer honked out a Morse code letter “K” on the Tustumena’s whistle.

“Bye Kodiak! We’ll be back!” he said in farewell.

The next ferry to stop in Kodiak will be the Kennicott, on April 25.

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