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Alaska ferry breakdown leaves mother stranded after giving birth, teacher hitching a helicopter ride home after spring break

Published: Apr. 3, 2021 at 7:34 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -

A mother gets stuck in Juneau and can’t bring her daughter home for three weeks after giving birth. A teacher needs a stroke of luck so she can hitch a lift on a helicopter to get back to school and start teaching after spring break.

Those are some of the impacts of a mechanical issue on an Alaska state ferry that has stranded passengers across Southeast Alaska.

The M/V Matanuska has been stuck in Bellingham, Washington for close to a week with an engine problem that required replacement parts to be shipped in from Louisiana. The same ferry has seen several recent breakdowns and multiple service disruptions to communities in the Upper Lynn Canal.

Juliene Price, her husband Andy Miles, 3-year-old son Noah Miles and their newborn baby have been in Juneau for a month and won’t be able to go home to Skagway for at least another few days.

Skagway, like several other communities in Southeast Alaska, only has a small medical clinic, meaning there are no facilities available for women to give birth. Around a month before going into labor, pregnant women from Skagway head to Juneau and wait.

In early March, Price hopped on board a ferry with her car packed with baby supplies, clothes and toys for Noah and sailed south for Juneau. On March 16, she gave birth to Lucille-Mae Miles.

The family was set to head home one week later, but then the Matanuska broke down — again.

The state of Alaska spent $47 million and two years overhauling the 58-year-old ferry. It was back in service in late 2019, but was quickly out of service again with engine troubles. It sailed down to Ketchikan last February for a long-term layup.

Sam Dapcevich, a spokesperson for the Alaska Marine Highway System, sent an email on Wednesday, explaining the recent mechanical problems with the Matanuska. It was expected to sail from Bellingham Friday afternoon, arriving into Skagway and Haines early next week, Dapcevich said.

The sailing delay is costing Price and her husband $90 per night to stay in Juneau.

“It adds up quick, once you do all the taxes and fees and cleaning fees,” she said. “It’s just frustrating.”

Courtney Ellingson, a second-grade teacher from Skagway, was also stranded. She visited her elderly mother in Minnesota during spring break.

Ellingson timed her trip to catch the Matanuska home to get back to start teaching. But then the sailing was canceled.

Marginal winter weather regularly cancels or delays float plane flights in Southeast. Ellingson managed to catch a flight to Haines, but she couldn’t get any further.

It is a 10-minute hop from Haines over to Skagway, flights were quickly booked up.

“They were jammed up with so many people trying to get home,” Ellingson said.

Urgent text messages to friends saw her able to hitch a lift with a helicopter pilot who was headed back to Skagway to pick up some personal belongings. The chance encounter with the pilot, who usually shuttles heli-skiers up the Chilkat Mountains, meant she made it back in time for the start of the school.

“It was a stroke of good luck,” Ellingson said.

Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata sprang into action in mid-March with the first ferry service disruption. He helped organize for a private charter company to help Skagway and Haines residents get to and from Juneau.

With cruise ship cancelations depleting reserves, the Municipality of Skagway can’t afford to pay Allen Marine Tours the nearly $8,000 needed to run ships back and forth to Juneau.

“It’s a pretty untenable situation for sure,” Cremata said.

The highways are closed to Canada, making Haines and Skagway more isolated than usual. Another summer without large cruise ships is making residents nervous.

“Families here are already reeling, people have lost their jobs, they are moving away,” Cremata said, “And not having a ferry service is almost adding insult to injury.”

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