In a single blow, Gustavus, Pelican and Tenakee Springs lost their main supply line for groceries, house materials, fuel and other staples.
Their final marine freight shipment from the Lower 48 is expected on Tuesday.
The Seattle-based Western Pioneer Shipping, the three towns' only large freight carrier, announced last week it is going out of business due to reduced cargo, regulatory pressures and high fuel prices.
Until the three towns can come up with a replacement, residents and community leaders say their cost of living will shoot up dramatically, and could create long-term problems for their communities.
Groceries could go through more handling in Juneau, for example, and likely will arrive by costlier private landing crafts or barges.
"Any frozen products are going to be more limited. It will expose everything to 50 miles of open water," said Bruce Tedtsen, owner of Bear Track Mercantile Grocery store in Gustavus.
Western Pioneer Shipping - moving 2.6 million pounds of freight annually to the three towns - is selling its vessels to another Seattle freight operator that has no interest in Southeast Alaska runs.
"We service western Alaska," said Peter Strong, owner of Seattle's Coastal Transportation. He said he knows two operators that have dropped out of freight shipping in Southeast Alaska.
"It kind of speaks for itself. It's a tough situation," Strong said.
Northern Panhandle towns have scrambled for a new freight carrier before, but this time it may be more difficult for them to fill the void.
The loss of the seafood processing industry in Pelican has created major disincentives for Seattle-based freighters to travel through the region.
In general, "break bulk" ship operators, such as Western Pioneer and Coastal, which deliver loads on pallets rather than in containers, are "a dying business," said Mike Rausch, shipping administrator for Western Pioneer.
Among the three towns, Gustavus may suffer the most.
Its state-owned dock in Icy Passage is a spindly, dilapidated wreck and cannot unload freight containers from barges or ships. Western Pioneer is the only company that would even risk delivering pallets at the 30-year-old trestle-style dock.
"All the food, building materials, fuel, propane, autos, boats and just about everything needed to sustain life in Gustavus, and some surrounding wilderness lodges, comes across (our) outdated structure," said Ken Klawunder, a Gustavus City Council member.
Tenakee Springs and Pelican both have adequate docks and the latter town routinely gets state ferry visits. But they also will face economic setbacks. Residents in the three communities are trying to work together for a joint solution.
"We need to band together to induce another freight outfit. We're too small to do it individually," said Vickie Wisenbaugh, who runs Tenakee Springs' grocery store, Snyder Mercantile.
Bringing freight using the town's Wings of Alaska air service costs 40 to 50 cents per pound, she said.
A typical Western Pioneer shipment exceeding 5000 pounds cost $8.41 per pound for groceries and $20 dollars per 100 pounds for chilled and frozen goods, she said.
A landing craft run to the villages by a small boat can cost $600, with another $100 per hour for loading. Hauling a truck filled with goods could cost $2,000 to $4000, said Juneau landing craft operator Rick Withrow.
Though Gustavus has lobbied the state for dock improvements in Icy Passage for 15 years, its requests have mostly gone ignored, residents said.
Instead, the state wants commercial freight shipments to go to nearby Glacier Bay National Park, which has a fuel dock and public use dock.
"This is a national park," Park Superintendent Tomie Lee said. "It was not set up to become an industrial waterfront."
But state Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner for Marine Transportation Robin Taylor said that the park's Bartlett Cove is the only suitable place near Gustavus for freight traffic.
He contends that winter gales and siltation in Icy Passage will create too much trouble for the dock. "Should we spend $15 million to build a facility that can't be used for half the winter?" Taylor said.
For Gustavus to receive marine freight shipments in the short-term, it appears that residents will need to deal with landing craft operators that can travel up the Salmon River to a World War II-vintage launch ramp.
Like the dock, however, the launch ramp is falling apart.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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