Our early morning arrival catches this tiny town located along Alaska's Inside Passage still asleep. Rain falls gently as our giant ship slips into dock. Houses painted pretty pastels are stacked neatly against the hillside and mountains vanish into clouds.
Ketchikan is one of few spots of civilization along the vast and scenic Inside Passage. Our ship, the Fairsky, has sailed past innumerable tree-covered islands and mountainous shores to get here.The town is small. It is also friendly. Residents seem happy to share their spectacular scenery with passers-by.
The settlement began as a fishing village. Then mining and lumber became king. They waxed and then waned but fishing remained constant.
The population, on the other hand, has always been in a state of flux. People come and go according to the economy.
"I'd venture to guess that less than 50 percent of the people who live here were born here," says one resident.
Others head south for the winter to escape incessant rains and ever-present clouds, factors that contribute to the area's lush natural landscaping. "What we have today is just a sprinkle," says a book store clerk of the steady downpour. "We get real heavy rain and wind."
Ketchikan's history is a melange of the pioneer West and Native America. Totem poles scattered about the settlement are symbolic of its Indian heritage. Historic Creek Street is symbolic of its rowdy past. The street is the most visible remnant of the Ketchikan that was once entirely built on piles.
Creek Street is a boardwalk nestled against the mountain that hovers over Ketchikan Creek. Its quaint wooden buildings were once houses of ill repute. They are now shops and restaurants.
Dolly's House was the home of Ketchikan's most popular madam. The bright green home trimmed in red is now a museum with her dishes, furniture, needlework, clothes and cash box on display. The two-story house remains pretty much the way it was when Dolly opened for business in 1919.
A walking tour of Ketchikan takes you from the waterfront where the ship docks up the hill to Park Avenue, which follows Ketchikan Creek around a densely wooded mountain valley. Here you'll find wooden stairways leading to houses perched against hillsides. Clouds seem to be ever-present.
Ketchikan, in a word, is Alaska's equivalent of a New England fishing village.
The area offers a number of interesting things to do.
- If you have a hankering for fresh fish you can hire a boat and a guide and fish to your heart's content. The area is considered one of the best fishing grounds for salmon.
- If Indian lore is on your mind you'll want to pay a visit to the Totem Heritage Center where 33 original totem poles are on display. It is located in what I'll call "Upper Ketchikan." The totem poles were retrieved from nearby deserted Tlingit and Haida Indian villages.
Totem poles are carved to honor the dead, record history and document events. When a person of high position died, his body would be cremated and his ashes placed in a box that would be cremated and his ashes placed in a box that would be stored in a hole in the back of the pole.
Traditionally Indians did not repair the poles once they had been erected. They were allowed to deteriorate, fall in place and rot.
Poles on display at the Totem Heritage Center are the work of master carvers who learned their craft at an early age. Interpretive lectures are available in the summer.
--Saxman Village is a few miles outside town. A dozen or so colorfully painted totems greet you at the entrance. Saxman craftsmen whittle away at a totem pole while you watch and hand-made Indian items are for sale in the gift shop.
--Tongass Historical Museum features displays about Ketchikan's early days as a fishing center, gethering place for Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Indians, and mining town.
The museum is not far from the waterfront and shares space with the town library.
--Misty Fjords National Monument perhaps overshadows Ketchikan's quaint New England atmosphere and its Indian heritage. Misty Fjords encompasses a breathtaking wilderness-some of Alaska's most magnificent scenery. Flightseeing tours and cruises are available.
The word misty is particularly apropos. Low-lying clouds prevented us from taking a morning flightseeing tour. By early afternoon the clouds had broken up enough that pontoon planes by the dozen were taking off for the national monument.
Not being able to see Misty Fjords was the only disappointment of our stay in Ketchikan.