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Southeast Alaska town cut off by bad weather and a broken-down ferry — leaving high school teams stranded

Update: 9 a.m. Monday: The Alaska Marine Highway System has chartered with Allen Marine to provide a round-trip run Monday between Juneau and Haines and Skagway, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said Monday morning.

The Skagway students stranded in Juneau are planning to return Monday on the Allen Marine boat, said Denise Sager, who is a chaperone on the trip.

The boat will leave Juneau at noon, stop at Haines and then arrive at Skagway around 4:30 p.m. before returning to Juneau in the evening, the department wrote in a statement.

Original story:

Skagway basketball players sleep on the floor at the Ketchikan ferry terminal early Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. Delays in service caused the ferry to depart Ketchikan late and it stopped in Juneau for repairs. The team was stranded until the ferry was repaired or weather cleared enough to fly. Photo courtesy of Denise Sager

There was no way in or out of Skagway Sunday.

The Southeast Alaska town’s only ferry, the Matanuska, stopped in Juneau for repairs. The Klondike Highway, the single route in and out by car, closed Saturday because of a crash, then stayed closed due to blizzard conditions and avalanche risk. The extreme weather also grounded airplanes.

“We’re officially isolated,” Mayor Andrew Cremata said.

Frustration over the situation is building because 16 high school basketball players, two coaches, a chaperone and a handful of other people from Skagway or Haines are now stranded in Juneau until the ferry is repaired or weather improves enough to fly.

“I woke up to a lot of people in panic mode,” Cremata said.

Denise Sager, a chaperone on the trip, said the boys and girls varsity teams left Skagway two weeks ago on Jan. 12 for a semi-annual basketball conference. They traveled throughout Southeast Alaska and played in Thorne Bay, Yakutat, Ketchikan, Hydaburg and Klawock.

“It’s a pretty grueling trip even when things go smoothly,” Sager said. “The kids are setting up beds on classroom floors and then moving to another classroom during the day.”

Seniors Eliza Myers and Jessica Whitehead said they’re ready to be home. They are worried about falling behind in school, running out of clean clothes and the growing amount of money their parents have spent to send them on the trip. They’re also just ready for some space and to see their families again.

“It’s been nice to bond with everyone but everybody has their limits," Myers said.

The students were scheduled to return Saturday but Sager said the ferry instead stopped in Juneau late that night for repairs. The students spent the rest of the night sleeping on the ferry, Sager said. Some pushed chairs into a makeshift bed while others spread their sleeping bags out on the floor.

It’s unclear when the ferry may be fixed but Sager said she was told a mechanic would fly to Juneau on Monday. A spokesman for the marine highway system did not immediately return messages Sunday afternoon.

In the meantime, Sager said the students plan to stay at a hotel for the next two nights and have flights booked for Tuesday, as long as the weather improves. The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway agreed to pay for the students’ expenses while they’re stranded in Juneau.

Cremata said he was not holding his breath for better flying conditions in the upcoming days.

“It could be this way for days,” he said. “The weather is pretty terrible here right now.”

The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning until late Sunday for the Skagway area. Snow started Saturday and nearby Haines had almost 2 feet of snow by Sunday morning. The area was expected to see another 4 to 6 inches by nighttime, said forecaster Kimberly Vaughan.

Visibility was only about a half-mile, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Vaughan said the bad weather will pause Monday before more snowfall moves into the area overnight, which could reduce visibility and impact travel again, she said.

The Klondike Highway was closed Saturday afternoon because of a crash involving hazardous materials, according to the Department of Transportation. The highway connects Skagway to the Yukon. It remained closed Sunday because of blizzard conditions and avalanche risk.

It isn’t the first time Skagway students have been stranded by unreliable ferries. Myers said she was stuck in Juneau for three or four days after returning from a student government conference in October.

“The amount of times I’ve been stranded in Juneau even this year, I can’t even count,” Myers said. “If I’m leaving Skagway, I know I’m probably going to get stuck somewhere.”

The ferry visited Skagway three times a week until Jan. 19, when it switched to once-weekly service for the winter. Whitehead and Myers said they are worried about the reduced services.

Sager said everything is up in the air for now. The students are hoping they’re able to fly home Tuesday but preparing for the worst -- which could mean another week away from home.

“They’re making the best of it, but everyone is frustrated,” Sager said.

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