Matanuska ferry’s uncertain future complicates Southeast Alaskans’ Canada trips

a Canadian cabin
Mary Lynne and Jim Dahl’s cabin in Smithers, British Columbia. (Courtesy of Mary Lynne Dahl)

Mary Lynne Dahl and her husband Jim love to ski in Smithers, British Columbia.

“We’ve done over 160 trips. So we’ve been doing it for about 20 years,” she told KRBD by phone.

The Ketchikan couple usually spends two or three weeks at their cabin in Smithers. After all, it’s no small feat to get there — it’s about four hours of driving through northern B.C. in the middle of winter. And that’s after a seven-hour ferry from Ketchikan to Prince Rupert.

But it’s always been worth it. All nine of the Dahls’ grandkids learned to ski in Smithers, plus half a dozen of their Ketchikan friends.

This year, Mary Lynne says the Dahls planned a longer trip. They’d stay about two months, since the Marine Highway System wasn’t running any ferries in January.

“In order to come down for Christmas to meet with our friends and our family, who drives up from Seattle, we had to come down in the early part of December, and we couldn’t leave until February 7,” she said.

a couple
Mary Lynne and Jim Dahl take a selfie with their Smithers, BC cabin in the background. (Courtesy of Mary Lynne Dahl)

Why no ferries in January? The Matanuska, the ferry that runs to Prince Rupert, was in the shipyard getting some work done.

During its annual overhaul, crews spotted some concerning issues on the Matanuska. Deputy Transportation Commissioner Katherine Keith said at a recent Marine Highway Operations Board meeting that one problem is crumbling asbestos.

“There has been always asbestos on board these aging vessels, and we know it’s there. However, when asbestos becomes exposed, or is friable, meaning it’s in a dust that is in the air, basically, then it becomes a health risk,” Keith said.

That stopped work immediately. The state doesn’t want welders and pipefitters breathing in cancer-causing dust. But crumbling asbestos wasn’t the worst of what they found.

“In addition to that, during the overhaul, there was more discovered steel, which is going to increase the cost of this overhaul significantly and the amount of time that the vessel would be in overhaul,” Keith said.

Keith says repairs to the corroded steel will dramatically increase the cost of the overhaul. And she says the ferry service isn’t sure what to do with the 60-year-old ship.

“We would like to pause on our decisions for capital investments in this project, to see what really is the wisest choice right now,” she said. “This steel work could increase the cost of this overhaul up to $8 or $10 million.”

That brings up a whole host of issues. The Matanuska has been the primary vessel serving the so-called “mainline” route that runs through Southeast Alaska. Its sister ships — the Taku and the Malaspina — are both out of service. One was cut up for scrap, the other sold off as a floating museum.

And the Matanuska will need to start major renovations by December 2024 to maintain a key certification under the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, better known as SOLAS. That’s required to dock in Canada.

But, for a more immediate concern:

“Ultimately, what these developments mean is that the Matanuska will not be able to be on our summer schedule,” Keith said.

Or, for that matter, the February schedule.

the state ferry Matanuska
The Matanuska waits at Ketchikan’s state ferry terminal on June 20, 2022, the day of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s first voyage to Prince Rupert, B.C. since 2019. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

The ferry service isn’t out of options — Keith says the flagship ferry Columbia is coming off the bench to fill in for the Matanuska.

“The Columbia will now be on our schedule and sailing as soon as February 13th,” Keith said.

That’s just about a week after the Dahls were originally scheduled to sail home. Which, if it were coming to Prince Rupert, might not be a problem. Anyone who’s traveled in Alaska or northern Canada during the winter knows it’s a good idea to plan for a bit of a cushion in case of delays.

But the Columbia won’t be going to Prince Rupert. It’s not certified for international travel. And even if it was, it’s not compatible with the Prince Rupert terminal.

Another ship with the necessary SOLAS certification — the Kennicott — is scheduled to hit the shipyard in February for maintenance.

So, a few days ago, Dahl says she got the bad news.

“The ferry service called us and said that our ferry home from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan has been canceled. Period. And there’s no plan to replace it. We said, ‘What? What are we supposed to do?’” Dahl said.

They could fly home. But it’s awfully hard to fly with a car full of ski stuff and two dogs. Airlines don’t exactly take cars as checked baggage.

a dog
Sunny, age 7, poses for a festive photo. Sunny is one of two dogs that accompanied the Dahls to Smithers. (Courtesy of Mary Lynne Dahl)

“And they said, ‘Well, you know, there is no option unless you drive down to … Bellingham,’” she said.

Bellingham, Washington, is the southernmost port on the Marine Highway System. It’s also a 13-hour drive from Smithers — and that’s in the summer with clear roads.

“So we are going to drive 700 miles to Bellingham from here in Smithers where we are now, and then we have to get on the ferry a week later and go another 750 miles the other direction to get back to Ketchikan, which is kind of crazy,” Dahl said.

KRBD tried to ask the Department of Transportation how many people were affected by the Prince Rupert cancellations. We wanted to know if there are any plans to send another boat to pick up the people stuck in Canada — whether it’s a state ferry or a private vessel. We asked if there were any plans to help people with the cost of driving to Bellingham. But DOT didn’t return interview requests or provide a written statement.

So Mary Lynne and her husband are on their own.

“It’s really irritating,” she said. “I know that these boats are old. And I know they do need maintenance. But that should be that should be expected and planned. And because you’ve sold the tickets already, unless the boat is imminently going to sink. I think you should pick those people up and bring them home.” She says the ferry service should “plan a little better.”

And she has some ideas. She says she’d like to see the ferry system upgrade more ships to handle the Prince Rupert route. She says the Alaska Legislature should find a way to insulate the Marine Highway’s budget from shifting political winds.

But for now, the Dahls are planning for a long, cold odyssey south.

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