Spending four days on a choppy boat with no Internet sounds daunting, especially when it’s spent on a deck chair and not in a cabin. But Alaska’s ferries offer an odd but charming mix of local culture, scenic views, and until recently, cheap drinks.
The Alaska Department of Transportation recently announced that they will be eliminating the famous and beloved bars on the ferries operated by the Alaska Marine Highway system. According to the Department, the bars have been losing $100,000 annually, and the estimated $750,000 that will be saved by closing them will contribute to alleviating a $3.5 million deficit. Gift shops on the ferries will also be eliminated, but it has been stressed that there will be no layoffs because of the cuts. Bartenders and gift shops workers will be assigned to other duties onboard the ships.
Many worry that the budget deficit will eventually lead to reduced service as well, despite the reassurances of the Department of Transportation. Alaskan residents who live in remote towns and islands such as those of the Inside Passage and the Aleutian chain rely on the ferries for transportation.
Out of town travelers may be affected as well — they usually pack the ferries in the summer months and provide much-needed tourism dollars to Alaskan businesses. The lack of bars may prove a disincentive for travelers to use the ferry system at all.
In the end, it’s not so much the booze as the bar culture that ferry riders will miss. Ferry routes can last as long as four days, and the bars allowed people from all occupations and walks of life to mix and converse in a relaxed atmosphere on extended trips. The bars were also famous in their own right. The tiny Pitch and Roll Bar lives aboard the Tustumena, which serves a notoriously choppy route from Homer to Kodiak Island. The 1970s decor scheme, which includes red carpet on the walls, also features barf bags and convenient railings. Its charm and distinctive qualities led Esquire to name it one of the 10 best bars in the world in 2007.
Wine and beer will continue to be served during meal hours in single-serving sizes, but it won’t be quite the same. Tony Tengs, the Alaska Marine Highways’ senior bartender, sums up the ineffable quality of the onboard bars: “There are things that have value that just can’t be equated and which people will never forget. Like the folks who got married in the bar on the Taku and the many who have gathered there on their way to and from funerals.”
Although the bars will be closed, the six ferries that once possessed them (Kennicott, Matanuska, Columbia, Tustumena, Malaspina, Taku) will remain in service. On a positive note, the news of the bar closings can also serve as a reminder to travelers contemplating Alaskan trips to take advantage of what is perhaps the world’s most beautiful and unique transportation system.