For Cordova, a winter without ferry service and heavy questions about the future

On one of the last ferry sailings from Cordova, people were frantically preparing for life in an Alaska town that no longer has a year-round link to the road system.

CORDOVA — People in Cordova will tell you: The ferry brings everything.

Fresh fruit and vegetables for grocery stores. High school basketball teams. Lumber. Minivans loaded with flats of canned tomatoes and paper towels from Costco. New trucks. Mothers and newborn babies from hospitals in Anchorage.

But as of Thursday, the ferry dock in this eastern Prince William Sound fishing community is empty, and will be for a long time.

After $43 million in budget cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System, Cordova has lost its winter ferry service for the first time in memory.

The last scheduled sailing of the M/V Aurora docked in Cordova on Thursday. No sailings to Whittier are scheduled until May 15.

Officials with the Alaska Department of Transportation say budget cuts, combined with vessel maintenance schedules and a new directive from the Legislature to try to make money on ferry service, forced them to cut a route with modest winter ridership.

There’s no chance runs will be restored this winter, said deputy commissioner Mary Siroky.

The change plunges the town from a community proud to be off the road system but linked to it, to one fully severed except by air and barge.

Now the town of about 2,000 is wondering if the change will be permanent, and what the future looks like without ferry service for much of the year.

To some people in Cordova, the loss of the ferry feels like something more: a hard push toward giving up on life off the road system, an inexorable shove toward moving to Anchorage or Homer.

“We’ve always had battles to keep this little town going,” said Osa Schultz, a 30-year resident and the owner of a pet store. “But when we get these knocks like this ... it just makes it so hard.”

The last days of the M/V Aurora

In the last days of the M/V Aurora’s daily runs between Cordova and Whittier this past week, it seemed everyone in town was talking about the ferry or preparing to get on the ferry.

People were working through logistical problems ranging from broken pickups to stranded fishing gear to marooned construction equipment. A walk around the steep, rainy streets of Cordova was a tour through ways the ferry’s absence will be felt.

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Down at the small boat harbor, fisherman Hein Kruithof secured a trailer heaped with seine nets behind his ailing pickup. Kruithof said his truck needs service beyond what’s available in Cordova. He needs to get it to Anchorage, but had to choose between finishing out the last days of his salmon seining season and putting it on the ferry. He chose fishing.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. Spend four times as much and put it on a barge, maybe,” he said.

On Cordova’s First Street, high school teacher Debra Adams pushed a grocery cart filled with spinach and asparagus through Nichols Backdoor, a locally owned market. The store is one of two in town, and it gets a lot of what’s on the shelves by ferry.

“I’m furious,” said Adams. “The state only has, like, three obligations to its residents. Education, public safety and infrastructure. And the Marine Highway is our road. That is our road. You maintain the roads in Anchorage. You maintain the roads in Wasilla. You maintain the roads everywhere else in this state. Our road just happens to be water.”

Some families, she said, gesturing to a father corralling two young boys through the frozen food aisle, are thinking about leaving.

‘No service at all’

People in Cordova say they have known big cuts were coming but didn’t expect this.

“We expected a reduction in service,” said William Osborn, a small-business owner. “We did not expect this, no service at all.”

Most troubling, they say, is the idea that their eastern Prince William Sound town could permanently lose year-round ferry service.

“Until the mindset changes, that it is an essential service, I think this is going to be the reality,” he said.

Such a loss would fundamentally alter the town, slow a growing economy and pull away businesses and families, said mayor Clay Koplin.

In a letter to Alaska Marine Highway System sent Wednesday, Koplin wrote that the cancellations threaten more than 350 Prince William Sound fishermen, many of whom live on the road system and use the ferry to get gear to and from Cordova in April and October.

“Cordova is in jeopardy of slipping from the 11th largest seafood catching and processing port in the U.S. with an annual ex-vessel catch value of $95,000,000 to 26th where it ranked a decade ago,” he wrote.

Then there are the festivals, school district events and medical appointments of people in town. They’ll have to fly, or not go, he said.

“It’s not that there aren’t alternatives, but a $300 alternative becomes an $1,800 alternative."

‘We had to balance service — and revenue’

Budget cuts, low revenues and a new directive by the Legislature all combined to doom Prince William Sound’s winter service, according to officials.

Amid a slate of deep cuts proposed across state government, Gov. Mike Dunleavy originally proposed eliminating more than 70% of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s budget.

At public events, he and his former budget director Donna Arduin said ferry ridership and income was down and costs to the state are going up.

Arduin called the system “inefficient” and drew derision for comparing the cost of transporting a vehicle by road to transporting one by ferry — not an option in places like Cordova.

In a series of packed public meetings over the spring and summer, Cordovans argued that the ferry is Cordova’s road, and the state has a responsibility to maintain it whether it’s profitable or not.

Ultimately, the ferry system budget was cut by $43 million, about a third of its annual budget. In August, Dunleavy vetoed an attempt by lawmakers to add $5 million of the funding back.

The decision to altogether cut the Prince William Sound run in winter came as the result of several factors, said Department of Transportation deputy commissioner Mary Siroky, who oversees the ferry system.

First and foremost was the $43 million budget cut approved by the Legislature. Second, boats that were going into maintenance overhaul made it difficult to find a boat that could service the route safely in the winter. The department considered using the oceangoing Tustumena, but decided that boat shouldn’t make the Gulf of Alaska crossing necessary to enter Prince William Sound in winter.

Another major factor: a new directive by the Legislature to make more money. That’s a major policy shift for the ferry system, Siroky said.

“In the past we worked our hardest to get service to people,” Siroky said. “This time we had to balance service — and revenue.”

The Prince William Sound route had an average of 13 passengers and seven vehicles on winter runs, Siroky said. It has the lowest revenue in winter relative to the expense of running it, she said.

People should not expect any service this winter. Restoring some level of winter service to Prince William Sound is a priority, Siroky said.

“If we were to find some additional revenue, Cordova would probably be the first place we would probably look to try to restore service,” she said.

She said she wants people to understand that the ferry system doesn’t like cutting routes.

“People who call and complain — I mean, $43 million cut. What do you expect? It is just as painful for us, painful for the citizens who want the service. But that is what the Legislature gave us,” she said.

‘I believe in ferries’

At the Reluctant Fisherman, a popular bar and restaurant with a view of the harbor and low-slung forested islands beyond, Osborn and Cathy Renfeldt discussed the ways in which the ferry is interwoven into everyday life here.

The low winter ridership numbers don’t accurately capture the ferry’s impact on life and commerce in Cordova, Renfeldt said.

Expectant mothers, who cannot have their babies in Cordova due to a lack of birthing facilities, often take their cars on the ferry to Anchorage, where medical protocol is to wait to go into labor starting a month before their due date, said Renfeldt, the president of the local chamber of commerce and the mother of a 3-year-old.

The baby relocation is already an expensive proposition, she said. Not having a car would make it more isolating and expensive still.

Businesses drop thousands of dollars on supply trips to Anchorage, said Osborn, who helps run the family business, a liquor and convenience store called Laura’s. Osborn says he makes twice-monthly trips to Anchorage year round, buying up to $25,000 in stock at a time, some from specialty retailers like Midnight Sun Brewing Co.

More business owners will buy from Seattle and barge cargo up now, at higher cost and bypassing an injection of money into Anchorage, he said.

Are there people in town who support the ferry cuts, or who don’t really use the ferry?

Renfeldt and Osborn considered this.

Not really, they said.

A major perk of playing high school sports in Cordova has always been the promise of ferry trips to play away games, said Jake Borst, a high school basketball coach who grew up in Cordova himself and moonlights as a waiter.

That promise is pretty much gone for this year, with airline travel all but out of reach. Borst thinks there may be opportunities to play four games total now, down from 30.

"It’s just sad, because that’s what these kids are working for,” Borst said. “We’re in uncharted waters now.”

Then there’s the predicament Jane Spencer and other people doing construction in Cordova face. Spencer, also a waitress at the Reluctant Fisherman, is remodeling a 100-year-old house.

She thought she could count on getting most of her supplies from Anchorage by ferry.

But now she needed to figure out how to return a trailer she had rented from Anchorage by Sept. 19. If she didn’t return the trailer by the end of seasonal ferry service, she would have to pay $6,000, she said.

With all the space to drive it on the ferry reserved, she was waiting on standby to see if she’d make it on.

“Very stressful,” she said.

‘We have spent our lives on these ferries’

One of the last ferries of the fall left Cordova before dawn Wednesday.

Early that morning, in pummeling sheets of rain and high winds, the ferry left the dock in the 5 a.m. darkness.

Onboard there were fishermen trying to get their trucks and RVs back to the road system at the end of the fishing season, families trying to fill up their Subarus with one last mega Costco shop, and a few people leaving for good — or at least the winter.

Dimitry Kuzmin, a commercial fisherman in Cordova who lives in Homer during the rest of the year, reclined on a plastic chair in the solarium, reading his phone under a heat lamp next to his wife, Zina. He’s been a fisherman in Cordova for 18 years, alongside his children.

The reduction in ferry service forced Kuzmin to plan to shut down the commercial fishing operation early because of the effort it takes to get equipment and vehicles properly stored. He had to keep a vehicle in Cordova instead of taking it on the ferry. Unless the schedule changes, he’ll face the same problem in the spring.

“I’m sure they’re going to change it,” he said. “I’m pretty confident they will, because it’s just unreal.”

The crossing was rough, whitecaps billowing up against the M/V Aurora and cooks sliding on the rocking boat as they fried hash browns and made omelets. By the time the Aurora reached Whittier, the seas had calmed. Box trucks and vans streamed off the ferry, headed for the Seward Highway and doctors’ offices and Home Depots beyond.

Another batch of cars, one of the year’s last, waited in Whittier to board the ferry bound for Cordova. Sylvia Lange was first in line.

Lange, a born-and-raised Cordovan and the owner of the Reluctant Fisherman, sat in a van filled with kegs of beer and other supplies for her restaurant plus a plastic skeleton for Halloween.

The Reluctant Fisherman spends close to $1 million per year on goods from Anchorage transported by ferry, she said. Now they’ll likely barge goods from Seattle at much higher costs. They won’t be able to source the Alaska beers they serve on tap, she said.

Lange has spent “untold hours” on the ferry, between kids in sports and running a business, she said. It’s hard to imagine that changing.

“We have spent our lives on these ferries.”

The ADN’s Marc Lester contributed reporting to this story.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.