HUNGRY ALASKANS FOLLOW

FOODSTUFFS’ JOURNEY

BY SEA, AIR, RAIL, AND ROAD

By Dianne O’Connell

“We’re a meat and potatoes port,” comments William J. Sheffield, former Governor of Alaska and current Director of the Port of Anchorage, “the first point in the groceries delivery system for the whole state, except Southeast.”

 “We have a seven to fourteen-day supply of food and fuel here in Alaska,” he continues.  “If the Port were to be disrupted for any reason, it would take less than two weeks for every householder shopping in Anchorage to experience the shortage and to know exactly where his or her family’s food comes from and how long it takes to get here.”

In 2008, there were 4,370,276 tons of goods shipped through the port, approximately eight and a half tons per each of the state’s 510,000 residents served by the facility.  

Marion G. Davis is vice president and general manager of Horizon Lines, one of two cargo container transportation companies serving the Port. He agrees with the governor.

“Eighty to 85 percent of all foodstuffs and other freight coming into Anchorage, the Interior, Seward, Kodiak, the Aleutian Chain and Western Alaska comes through the Port of Anchorage,” according to Davis.  

“There are a few exceptions,” Sheffield continues. “The Alaska Railroad contracts for a barge from Seattle to Whittier which takes a week to get here.  Alaska Marine Lines is the barge company. That’s part of Lynden Transport. About two-thirds of the barge capacity is dedicated to containers of non-perishable foodstuffs. The containers are offloaded to railroad cars in Whittier and brought to Anchorage and on to the Interior.”

Sheffield should know.  He also was CEO for the Alaska Railroad for a number of years.

“Seven to ten percent of the state’s food, I’d say, comes in on that railroad barge. A small portion is trucked up the highway system or flown into the villages, but the majority is shipped via container ships.”

So it is that Alaska relies on food and other products from Outside (the state).  Aside from some home gardening, and a bit of barley, milk, and beef, Alaska today relies, as we have in the past, upon a complex web of containerships, steamships, tugs and barges, boats, fleets of big trucks and privately-owned small trucks, hundreds of railcars, and a flock of airplanes of all sizes, to move canned goods, dried foods, fresh produce and meat, exotic spices, whatever the chef in your house could possibly order, plus heating oil for rural areas and jet fuel and gasoline.

Alaska has approximately 200 towns and villages ranging in size from the Municipality of Anchorage with 300,000 residents, to Wiseman, in the Brooks Range, with a population of twenty-one. Everybody from Anchorage to Wiseman has to eat and to stay warm.  How are the fuel and goods shipped to Alaska and distributed to these communities?

***

“We are a container port,” Sheffield explains.  A container is a standardized, truck-sized, cargo shipping module which is sealed and loaded intact onto container ships, railroad cars, planes or trucks. Huge cranes lift the containers off the docked ship and lower them onto the backs of waiting trucks, or are rolled off of roll-on/roll-off vessels.

Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE) with about ten Hostler trucks, and Horizon Lines (formerly SeaLand) with about 25, are the main suppliers of container transportation services at the port.  These two competitors work with individual companies and also with consolidators.  The largest volume of freight is handled by consolidators such as Span Alaska, Pacific Alaska Freightways, Lynden and Carlisle.  The consolidators fill trucks with merchandize from several companies.  When the containers land at the Port of Anchorage the consolidators will bring the containers to their distribution centers.  At these centers the consolidators will fill trucks with merchandize to be delivered to specific customers.

In the case of the two major supermarket chains in Alaska, each company uses a different shipper.  Carrs-Safeway uses Horizon Lines and Fred Meyer uses TOTE.  Most other chain stores split their shipping between the two container lines.

Shipping food has increased over the years, according to Horizon Lines’ Davis, not just because of the increased population, but because of the larger chains entering the Alaskan market, such as Fred Meyer, Sam’s Club, COSTCO, Wal-Mart and Target.

“We consider ourselves the grocery and hardware shipping specialists,” Davis continues.  “We move dry goods, canned goods, paper and coffee, but also are equipped for chilled goods, like bananas, which must be kept at 58 degrees, and frozen goods, which we keep at minus 15 degrees. And, of course, some food must be kept warm so it doesn’t freeze; all are shipped in insulated containers designed for that purpose.”

Horizon’s predecessor, worldwide SeaLand Transportation, began calling at the Port of Anchorage after the 1964 Alaska Earthquake wiped out the docks in Whittier, Seward, Kodiak and other Alaskan coastal communities. The small dock at Anchorage had held, was still standing and still functional. Where it had not been before, Anchorage became and remains the hub for marine shipping in Alaska.

And now Horizon Lines serves Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico.

“One of our three D-7 class container vessels docks in Anchorage every Sunday and Tuesday, in Kodiak on Mondays and Wednesdays, Dutch Harbor on Fridays, and Tacoma, Wednesdays and Fridays,” Davis explains. “It takes all three vessels to make the rotation.”

In addition, with service from Anchorage, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor, Horizon Lines handles much of the transportation needs of Alaska’s seafood industry.  In the summer, salmon are harvested throughout the state.  Dutch Harbor is the hub of the Bristol Bay fishery where last year almost 30 million sockeye salmon were caught through mid-July. It was one of the top five years in recent decades.  In Kodiak, sockeye runs were down but pinks returned in high volumes.

The Port also serves the five major military installations in the state and is beginning to attract the cruise ship industry.

In answer to whether or not the Port was well-secured, Sheffield noted that Elmendorf Air Force Base was directly behind it and the United States Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security team protected the water side.  The Coast Guard occupies the first floor of the Port office building and port offices occupy the second floor. Since 911 additional security and several checkpoints have been added, Doyon, Limited, the Native regional corporation for Interior Alaska, holds the security contract.

Is the Port big enough to handle Alaska’s needs?

“Just barely,” Davis says. “We need space to park our trucks and containers. Between us (Horizon) and TOTE, we’ve just about consumed the entire port area. The expansion of the port will create another 135 acres which will be needed by both carriers by the time the port is completed.”

“The existing port is fifty-five years old and in need of continual repair,” Sheffield further explains. “We spend about five million a year just in keeping what we have safe, and in good shape.  We install sleeves on the deteriorated piles that hold them up.”

Sheffield takes out a lighted pointer and begins to explain the current port expansion project in detail on a wall map across the room.

“We have a cruise ship coming in here every other Monday starting in late May,” he comments.  “We never had that before; they always came into Seward or Whittier. We expect more to follow,” he says.  “On Sundays and Tuesdays, we have container ships out here,” he gestures, “and this whole area is full of waiting trucks.”

“We have ships from Korea and China bringing in pipe and steel for construction and oil patch work. We have cement ships from Korea. In the future, ships will be coming in from Asia to offload their cargo here. They will load it onto a ship for Tacoma, and six days later it’s in Chicago.   If the shipper takes his cargo to Los Angeles rather than Anchorage, it takes two to three weeks longer to get to Chicago. That’s because of backup in Los Angeles and the fact that we are especially efficient. We’ll be even more efficient with our two new barge docks, two more main berths, and planned remodeling of the existing facilities.

But let’s leave the port for a moment and follow the food for the next leg of its journey.  There are many “forks” in the road – one choice being rail.            

***

“The Alaska Railroad was established in 1915 when the United States government took it over from several bankrupt organizations which had been trying to reach the interior of Alaska with freight service for several years,” according to Steve Silverstein, the railroad’s current vice president for business development. 

The 21st century Alaska Railroad owns or leases about fifteen hundred railcars of various sorts and maintains and operates another five hundred for private customers, Silverstein says.  Another three thousand or so railcars come in from outside Alaska each year which the Alaska Railroad loads, unloads, inspects and maintains while they are here.

“Most of the foodstuffs we handle move between the Port of Anchorage and Fairbanks,” Silverstein explains.  “While some of that freight is destined to ultimately be delivered to small communities like Denali Park, Healy, Nenana or North Pole, we do not provide that service directly. I can’t tell you exactly what kind of food is in each of those trailers because they come to us already packed. The railroad takes the packed trailers to their destinations where trucking companies and third-party distribution companies pick up the freight to deliver it to grocery stores or food brokers. We do haul some foodstuff from Whittier to Anchorage and Fairbanks for a flat deck barge operator and trucking companies, but very little.”

“We do not provide refrigerated railcars, but we have railcars that can haul trailers which are equipped with refrigeration or “Keep from Freezing” units. Electrical outlets are available on the train for trailer customers to plug-in such equipment.  We provide northbound and southbound service for these trailers four days a week with a committed schedule and capacity for the customer.  Service on the other three days is also available, but with fewer guarantees,” Silverstein continues.

“Our trailer traffic has grown considerably both with the population growth and with our ability to serve the trucking customers technologically with more reliable scheduling and better electrical service for the trailers.”

The Alaska Railroad has been owned by the State of Alaska since 1985, but is unlike any other state agency, in that it is incorporated and run like a private business. Self-sustaining, it receives no operating funds from the state and its 670 workers are not state employees.         

“Revenue generated in 2009 came from freight 68%, passenger service 17% and Real Estate holdings, 15%. Real Estate is a major piece of our revenue stream in that it is high margin business for us and contributes significantly to our capital program,” Silverstein explains.

“The railroad both competes and cooperates with other modes of transportation, depending on the portion of the business,” according to Silverstein.  “We compete with steamships, flat deck barge operators and truckers for Interstate freight from the Lower 48 and Canada. The railroad, brings no food into the state, but once it is instate, plays a major role in distribution throughout the state.  Air freight and rail work off two separate business models are really aren’t competitors, at all.”

***

 

So, following the food, what happens once it is offloaded at the port or offloaded from the railroad or one of the multitude of trucks rolling along one of Alaska’s very few highways? If the destination is of a remote nature only accessible by air or if the food is particularly perishable and requires expedited transport, it  it might find itself being loaded into one of Everts Air Alaska’s mail and freight planes serving the interior of Alaska.

Cliff Everts was an Alaskan Bush pilot for 35 years, flying for Wein Air Alaska out of Fairbanks.  He owns Everts Air Fuel which supplies fuel oil to interior villages.  In 1993, his son Robert purchased Tatonduk Outfitters, Ltd., a small plane operation transporting passengers, freight and mail from Fairbanks to interior Alaskan locations. According to Director of Ground Operations, Susan (Everts) Hoshaw, the company was renamed to Everts Air Alaska and a sister company called Everts Air Cargo later formed. Everts Air Cargo, operates larger aircraft  and provides both scheduled and unscheduled service to destinations throughout Alaska.  Everts is one of the few, possibly only, remaining family-owned, large air cargo operations in Alaska.

The company has a fleet of eight DC-6s and two C-46 World War II Vintage aircraft which it is especially fond of.  The Curtis aircraft are still in service because they meet unique Alaskan runway conditions such as being able to land on short, gravel strips.  Everts also operates two Embraer 120s, which are the newest members to the fleet. Everts participates in the federally-subsidized bypass mail program, where mail, food stuffs, and other consumables, “bypass” the post office and are flown to small villages at reduced postal rates, saving money for both shipper and consumer. Orders come from businesses and organizations like Alaska Commercial Company, freight consolidators and non profits.

Everything is on a bit smaller scale than at the Port of Anchorage, but the same issues must be addressed as the food makes the last leg of its trip to a hungry man or woman in, let’s say, the Brooks Range.

“Alaskans are the biggest consumers of ice cream in the nation,” Susan says. “It’s one of the most difficult food stuffs to transport and we ship a lot of it. There are inherent challenges (depending on the season) in transporting, transferring and delivering frozen and fresh items to the villages.  We take many precautions in order to keep the ice cream frozen, the produce and eggs from freezing, and so forth. Special arrangements are often made with the shipper to ensure the ice cream or frozen food product is solid to begin with.  The foodstuff may then be wrappedwith an insulated pallet cover, and timed accordingly for delivery. Other air carriers use Unit Load Devices (ULDs), sometimes called igloos, which may be insulated and are able to carry multiple pallets at a time.

Ms. Hoshaw handed me a list of 148 Alaskan communities that the company can serve either through regularly scheduled flights, charters, and/or flag-stops.  A flag-stop is a reroute off of a scheduled destination used for volumes of cargo that constitute less than a full aircraft load.  A customer may also call in and request something like, “I see you are flying in this general direction, if you have room, could you stop here?”

Everts sponsors numerous community events and most recently assisted with the Kobuk 440 sled dog race in Kotzebue.  “This year, we were one of the sponsors of the Kobuk 440 and Spring Festival Sourdough Pancake Breakfast.  We contributed the transportation of hay, as well as, the groceries needed for the breakfast,” Hoshaw commented.  In the summertime, Everts flies fish from many communities to Anchorage or to other locations to be processed.  “Most of it arrives as either boxed fish or H and G (headed and gutted) in large fish totes.

Everts participates in another kind of back haul program, as well—bringing out recyclable items that have cluttered villages for years – old batteries, vehicles, other worn out machinery.  It’s a community service that Everts is pleased to be a part of.

As I leave Everts, I remember Bill Sheffield sitting in his office at the Port of Anchorage overlooking Knik Arm, watching the ships come in. Then I see a bearded sourdough of an undetermined age, in a far off community like, perhaps, Wiseman. The sourdough is standing beside a gravel airstrip, waving goodbye to an Everts Air Cargo plane with one hand and holding an ice cream bar made in Oregon in the other.                                                                               

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