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In most of Southeast Alaska, there are no roads connecting the towns. People depend on their ferry system the way other Americans depend on cars or public transportation. You bring home new babies on a ferry. It's how food comes in. So it's a big deal that the system is being hit by state budget cuts. NPR's Melissa Block took a ferry ride for her series Our Land.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Two to Juneau.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: All right, thanks.
We are boarding the MV LeConte heading from Haines, Alaska to Juneau, the capital.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right, propane, gas cans or firearms?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No.
BLOCK: It'll be a four-and-a-half-hour trip down the Lynn Canal.
(SOUNDBITE OF FERRY BOAT HORN)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let go of lines. Let go of lines.
BLOCK: And what better spot to take it all in than up on the ship's bridge with the captain and crew?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Departure round complete, car deck is secure.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Bridge copy.
BLOCK: As they set their course south and east.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: One-five-two.
BLOCK: Our speed on the LeConte...
BRIAN FLORY: School bus speed, about 15 knots or 18 miles per hour.
BLOCK: That's Captain Brian Flory, 18 years with the Alaska Marine Highway System.
FLORY: The name, the Marine Highway System, is to try and jog people into thinking that it's not just a ferry on, you know, back and forth. We don't just go back and forth on a 10-minute run all day and all night. We basically provide - the moving highway is the deck of the ship.
BLOCK: We're on a relatively short trip today. But some of the southeast runs are well over 24 hours. Get on in Ketchikan at 1:00 in the afternoon, get off in Skagway at 6:00 p.m. the next day. School sports teams in Southeast Alaska do this all the time to get to a game hundreds of miles away. The kids pile on the ferry, spread sleeping bags out on the deck floor. And a few days later, games over, they do it all again in reverse.
Captain Flory had 260 kids on the ferry recently heading to a music festival in Sitka.
FLORY: We might have even, you know, have said, like, leave your instruments downstairs, you know, like, check your guns at the door. So all trumpets and all left down on the car deck. But they were a very well-behaved group. So it was kind of fun.
BLOCK: What's not fun? Budget cuts. Alaska has a state budget deficit of nearly $3 billion due to low oil prices and declining oil production. And that means the ferry system has been hit hard, losing nearly 30 percent of its state funding over the last four years. They've had to take ferries out of operation. They've cut service and port calls. And they've laid off staff.
FLORY: The normal American model is commercial enterprise can do that. Well, the reason we're doing it is commercial enterprise can't do it and make a profit. These aren't necessarily profit-making operations. They're more like an essential public service is what we're doing.
BLOCK: Down below in the solarium, passengers while away the hours with cards and books, that is, if they can tear themselves away from the spectacular landscape we're passing by - the dense pines of the Tongass National Forest, snowy mountains off in the distance, porpoises cavorting alongside us. But for people who live and work in Southeast Alaska, like Wyatt Rhea-Fournier, this ferry isn't just a scenic cruise, it's a lifeline.
WYATT RHEA-FOURNIER: A lot of our little communities up here, this is what delivers the groceries up. You know, we don't have Costcos and Fred Meyers and anything in bulk, you know? So everything's coming up and down here on the inside passage. This is our major artery (laughter).
BLOCK: The ferry brings everything to these very small towns - construction supplies, a mobile mammogram van. And purser Mary Dahle has come to know her passengers well. She'll often see people heading to Juneau for medical care.
MARY DAHLE: We get to see everything from babies coming home for the first time to we bring the caskets of the elders back to the villages to be buried. So we are part of the community's life. We're part of that fabric.
BLOCK: As we approach Juneau, I step outside onto the rear deck. Well, this is just about perfect. We had gray skies as we were leaving Haines. Now we're almost all the way to Juneau. The sun is out. It's setting behind the snow-covered mountains off to the west. And there is a perfect rainbow arching over the ferry. And passenger Phyllis Sage has spotted something else.
PHYLLIS SAGE: It was a whale. He just came up by the rainbow arch.
BLOCK: And I missed it.
SAGE: Well, you were looking up. (Laughter) It's a beautiful rainbow - oh, double, double, double rainbow. Look it - double.
BLOCK: You couldn't ask for a better finish. Melissa Block pulling into Juneau on the MV LeConte.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BROOK'S "HUBERISM")
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