Ketchikan has a number of interesting nicknames including "The First City of Alaska", "The Rain Capital of the U.S.", "The Salmon Capital of the World", and "Totem Town". Ketchikan is definitely the "First City" from a geographical point of view as it is the first major population center one reaches after crossing the unmarked ocean border between Canada's British Columbia and Alaska. "Rain Capital" is probably well deserved, as Ketchikan has an average annual precipitation of 162 inches, including 32 inches of snow. In 1949, Ketchikan boasted 203 inches of the wet stuff and the white stuff.
The 9,000 residents of Alaska's fourth largest city are happiest to boast about Ketchikan being the "Salmon Capital" - a reflection on its history and one of its current major industries. While there may be other cities that can boast of having many totem poles carved by Westcoast Indians, Ketchikan has at least 113 of them, scattered in various locations. Whichever nickname is most appropriate, there is no doubt in my mind that Ketchikan is a wonderful port city to visit, with interesting sights within easy walking distance of the cruise ship terminal, and a large array of out-of-town shore excursions to enjoy, including the incredible Misty Fjords.
Ketchikan will likely be your first port of call if you are doing a northbound cruise to Seward from Vancouver, but it will obviously be your last port of call if you are on the southbound cruise. If you are on the circle Inside Passage cruise out of Vancouver, you may see Ketchikan as the first stop on the way up, or as the last stop on the way back. Because of the many Alaska cruise itineraries each summer (almost 300 of them), the cruise lines and the port authorities must carefully juggle the arrival and departure of cruise ships, in order that a maximum of them can dock at the various cruise terminals, rather than having to anchor off shore, and using the irritating tender disembarkation process.
Ketchikan is actually on an island called "Revillagigedo" which the locals abbreviate as "Revilla" (pronounced "ruh-Vill-ah"), but it's such a large island you would never realize it was one. Like Juneau, Ketchikan has no road or rail connections with the mainland, so all supplies and people must come by air or by sea.
Ketchikanians love to make fun of their weather: Ketchikan visitor to small boy on the dock: "Has it been raining long?" Small boy: "I don't know, I'm only five years old". "If you can't see the top of Deer Mountain, it's raining, if you can see it, it's going to rain." "Ketchikan is 5 miles long, 7 blocks wide, and 5 inches deep". The fact is, however, that Ketchikan has a surprisingly gentle climate with average summer temperatures in the mid 50's. I've been there three times, and each time had a wonderful sunny day.
Ketchikan's name comes from a Tlingit phrase which, broadly translated, means "thundering wings of an eagle" or "eagle wing river". For those who climb to the top of the Ketchikan's 3,000 foot Deer Mountain (don't wait for me) you can see that Ketchikan's shape is one of an eagle in flight.
The Tlingits had fish camps on Ketchikan Creek long before the arrival of European explorers. American settlers opened a salmon cannery in 1886, and by 1936, Ketchikan was one of the largest exporters of salmon in the world, producing 1.5 million cases per year. Fishing is still important to Ketchikan, although there are now only a few canneries operating 4 to 5 months a year. A large number of residents still hold commercial fishing permits, and many argue that the vicinity of Ketchikan is still the best sport fishing location in Alaska. Like much of Alaska, Ketchikan has also had a history of gold and copper mining, but not to the extent of its sister ports of Juneau and Skagway to the north.
Although most Alaska ports boast of shore excursions where you can go and see bald eagles, the fact is you can see any number of bald eagles (although some have their hair combed over the top) as you arrive in Ketchikan. The eagles are smart enough to hang around one of the local canneries, looking for leftovers. The cruise dock is right downtown, but only has room for three ships. If you're the fourth ship in town, (as we were in June when we arrived on the Galaxy), then you need to go through the tedious tendering process. As our visit to Ketchikan was already scheduled for only a short time, it made it really difficult for those of us who wanted to tour the downtown, as well as go on an out-of-town shore excursion.
Ketchikan's long main street (Front Street) is partly built on pilings over the sea. The limited flat shoreline has made it necessary for residents to build on the hills above, and steep wooden stairways lead to the residential areas. You may want to start any tour of downtown with a visit to the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau Information Center at 131 Front Street, and take a photo of the amusing "liquid sunshine gauge" outside. For information on the Tongass National Forest and Misty Fjords, visit the southeast Alaska Visitor Center at 50 Main Street (parallel to Front Street). The center also has lots of interesting exhibits about Native American culture including salmon fishing, wood carving and food preparation. For more Native American exhibits, you might want to visit the Tongass Historic Museum and Public Library at 629 Dock Street.
A little bit outside of downtown is the Totem Heritage Center, housing one of the world's largest collection of 19th century totem poles, some up to 140 years old. Your cruise ship will likely offer a shore excursion to the Saxsman Native Village, about 2-1/2 miles south of Ketchikan, which also features a large collection of totem poles. In addition to the totem pole displays, there is also a production of Tlingit songs and dances by the Cape Fox Dancers, and you can watch master carvers and apprentices at work in the carving center. More totem poles can be seen at the Totem Bight State Historical Park, about 10 miles north of Ketchikan, as part of a shore excursion.
Hardly anyone visits Ketchikan without exploring the Creek Street Historic District, just a couple of blocks behind downtown. This infamous, former red-light district, "where fishermen and salmon went up stream to spawn", contains about 20 houses built on wood pilings over Ketchikan Creek. In its heyday in the 1920's and 1930's, loggers and fishermen came to visit the Creek Street bordellos (of which there were more than 30) and kept the "sporting women" (as they preferred to call themselves) in business.
The most famous of these proprietors was Big Dolly Arthur, the nom de plume of one Thelma Copeland. Dolly's former place of business is now a museum, and open for tours (I think the cost was $5.00 a person). There is nothing "tacky" about visiting Dolly's, and it is an interesting recreation of furniture and furnishings of the 20's and 30's.
One thing about Creek Street that doesn't seem to be really publicized is that it was only closed down for its original business as recently as 1953. For a theatrical version of Creek Street's good old days, visit the Frontier Saloon where you can see the musical comedy "The Fish Pirate's Daughter" (fish pirates were once a genuine menace to honest fishermen).
The Misty Fjords National Monument, about 22 air miles east of Ketchikan, was set aside in 1978 as a fully protected wilderness area, and contains 2.3 million acres. Misty Fjords is only part of the gigantic 17 million acre Tongass National Forest, the largest National Forest in the United States. It was described by naturalist John Muir in 1879 as "hopelessly, over abundantly beautiful for description".
While our wives helped the local economy with their shopping jaunt, my friend and I elected to do the float plane excursion to Misty Fjords offered by the Galaxy at a cost of $180.00 each for a tour that included about 1-1/4 hours of flight time. We were quite pleased to find that our float plane was a "Vistaliner", a plane with windows twice as large as most other sightseeing planes. We also had a sense of comfort from the fact that it had two engines, two pilots, and a set of earphones for each passenger so you could hear the pilot's commentary or music. Regrettably, no peanuts were offered on board. We enjoyed the take off past our cruise ship and past a flock of bald eagles who were still circling the cannery, and paying no attention to our nearby plane whatsoever.
The excitement of flying over the forests, rivers, lakes and fjords of Misty Fjords is indescribable. Perhaps the most memorable moment was when the plane swooped down low between the mountains of a fjord, and the music in our ears was from "Out of Africa" (remember when Robert Redford takes Meryl Streep on her first plane ride?). Another memorable moment was when one of the pilots announced that we should do up our seatbelts as we were about to land in a couple of minutes on Goat Lake. Both my buddy and I looked out the side of the plane and we saw the waters of the narrow fjord what seemed like miles below, and we both thought, with rolling eyes, that this would be an experience getting down to land. But then, our plane cut through a pass through one of the mountains to our side, and we landed within seconds on pristine Goat Lake. We didn't go ashore, only walked on the plane's pontoons, but it was beautiful, and we all got some fun photos.
The intrepid float planers return to nightlife on the Galaxy
OTHER SHORE EXCURSIONS
Celebrity's Galaxy offered a wide variety of other shore excursions departing from Ketchikan including tours to the totem places mentioned above, a boat cruise of about an hour and a half for $52.00, a high speed jet boat tour to the luxurious Salmon Falls Resort at a cost of $92.00 per adult, a slightly cheaper Misty Fjords flight on a regular float plane for $150.00 per person, mountain lake canoeing for $86.00, a 5-1/2 hour salmon fishing tour for $168.00, kayaking for $75.00, mountain biking in the Rain Forest for three hours for $75.00, a downtown tour plus a visit to a cannery for $57.00, and a hike and Zodiac cruise at Orca Beach for $82.00.
THINGS YOU DON'T REALLY NEED TO KNOW
Ketchikan's airport is on another island and may be the only airport in the world that has its control tower lower than the runway. Ketchikan's tides can vary more than 20 feet, and when you come back to your ship, you may find that your cabin is now on a different deck.
BEFORE YOU CRUISE
To obtain a free copy of the "Ketchikan Area Guide", phone 800-770-2200. For more information on Ketchikan, you could phone the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau at 800-770-3300, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I have mentioned before in other articles on Alaska ports that the best guide I know of for southeast Alaska ports is Julianne Chase's easy-to-carry guide "Inside Passage Walking Tours." The cover price is $14.95, but it sells in our SeaLetter Book Store for only $11.96.
I love Ketchikan. I hope you do too.
Originally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.
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