Ketchikan: Alaska's Southernmost City

Alaska

Ketchikan means "thundering wings of an eagle stream," an apt name for a town built around fabulous salmon-spawning streams. Ketchikan is Alaska's first (southernmost) city. Known for its rainfall, which averages 150 inches annually, and its king salmon run, said to be the largest in the world, the city is surrounded by Tongass National Forest, the largest in the U.S. These superlatives aside, Ketchikan is a fascinating town with much Tlingit and Haida Indian culture in evidence, most notably, the totem poles.

Most ferries stop in Ketchikan for only two hours. Cruise ships often stop for four hours.

There are two areas worthy of exploration. Either one can be explored in two hours. The ferry docks north of the older part of town are where most of the interesting sights are, convenient for a walking tour; or take a taxi to the Tongass Historical Museum, which houses a collection of native art and culture. The front is a good one for photos.

Ketchikan Walking Tour

Begin the walking trip by taking the bridge near the museum over Fish Creek stream and onto the boardwalk, which is Creek Street.

Follow along with a possible stop at Morning Raven Gallery, a shop with work by local artists, including some T-shirts with fanciful fish motifs.

Next stop, at No. 24, is Dolly's House, a step back in time to the 1920s, when Dolly entertained fishermen. There is a small entrance fee.

Fish Creek dead ends in Dock Street. Go left to Deermount Street, left on Deermount, up the steep hill to the entrance to Totem Heritage Center, small admission fee. This collection of 33 original totem poles is unsurpassed. The brief talk given by the guide is fascinating. The building is in the style of a Tlingit long house. The unique traditional designs on the T-shirts sold in the museum shop can be found nowhere else. Behind the Center is the Deer Mountain Fish Hatchery, which also makes an interesting stop. You can usually join a tour in progress.

Depending upon your time of departure, either retrace your steps and catch a taxi back to the ferry on Dock Street or, if you have a bit more time, take the trail on the creek at the fish hatchery to Park Avenue. Go left on Park. The walk goes by the river through an old part of town. On your left will be a fish ladder, an amazing sight when the fish are running (July through October). Park runs into Bawden Street. Go left to Dock Street and catch a taxi.

For those with extra time in Ketchikan, The 3.1 mile trail up the mountain, which begins near the city landfill and a mile from downtown, offers a panoramic view of Ketchikan and surrounding islands from the 3000-foot peak.

Totem Poles

Another interesting possibility for Ketchikan sightseeing is to take a taxi to Saxman Totem Park, six miles south of town. The Saxman poles have been assembled from all over Southeast Alaska, and some have been made by artisans working at the site.

Totem poles, carved from long-lasting red cedar, are up to 60 feet in height. The totem is the figure at the top. The signs and symbols on the pole pertain to the tribes and their history. The poles have profound social and religious significance, however they are not worshiped. Different artists within a tribe portray the traditional animals and symbols differently. There are some clues to identification. Certain forms were used by almost all of the artists. A bird will have claws, a beak, or wings. A raven's beak will be straight, long and narrow. Sea mammals or fish will have a fluted tail or fin. The beaver, with large incisor teeth, is usually seen holding a stick in its front paws. Bear or wolf will have a pointed nose, large teeth or claws. Frog and halibut are easily recognized. Although some designs are hard to identify, their resemblance to symbols carved on rock in Northern Peru is very noticeable. Poles were erected to celebrate births, tribal events and potlatches. Others were memorials to dead chiefs, erected by their successors, and some memorial totem poles contain the cremated remains of the person they memorialize. These would be held in a small box in a niche in the pole.

The poles were not meant to last forever. An average life-span would be 70 years. Poles commemorating potlatches bear a ring for each potlatch the chief has given. However, rings were never added to the poles; instead, a new pole with the additional ring would be erected. Color was used on the poles only to pick out the details. A copper-bearing clay made the highly prized bluish-green color. From ochre came browns, yellows and reds. White was made from clam shells and black from graphite or manganese.

A bonus highlight of a trip to Saxman is the opportunity to see the Cape Fox dancers perform. This internationally renowned troop of 60 dancers puts on an extraordinary performance, highly evocative of Tlingit culture. Close your eyes and you can almost smell the wood smoke in the longhouse and imagine the potlatch in progress. Find out before you go if the Cape Fox dancers will be performing by calling the sales desk at the Ingersoll Hotel, 225-2124. If the dancers are not going to perform, then I suggest taking the walking tour instead. If you have more time, Ketchikan would be a good place to get off the ferry for a day or two.

Accommodations

The newly renovated Gilmore Hotel, 326 Front Street, (800) 275-9423, is a charming and elegant (and expensive) place to stay, evocative of Ketchikan's picturesque past.

Local houses that offer reasonably priced B&B accommodations can be booked through Ketchikan Bed and Breakfast, P.O. Box 7735, Ketchikan, AK 99901, (907) 225-3860.

The Rainforest Inn, 2311 Hemlock Street, (907) 225-9500, offers hostel-style accommodations, both a large dormitory and private rooms that accommodate two to four people, 3/4 mile from the ferry terminal. It's a friendly place. Hostelers of all ages can also contact Ketchikan Youth Hostel, Box 8515-7D, Ketchikan, AK 99901, (907) 225-3319.

Food

Harbor Light Pizza, 2531 Tongass Avenue, serves great pizza. New Peking, 4 Creek Street, offers Chinese food in a wonderful setting overlooking Creek Street. Prices are moderate at both places.

June's Cafe (907) 225-4305, Stedman and Creek Street, makes chili that will warm you through and through. Gilmore Garden, 216 Front street, presents seafood and other good meals in an elegant setting.

First City Cookies, nirvana for the chocolate chip crowd, is at 217 Main Street.

Nightlife

If you're in town on Friday night, be sure to catch the performance of the Fish Pirate's Daughter melodrama, one of the best shows around and an all-Alaska performance.

Frontier Saloon features straight-on rock'n roll; Pioneer Bar and the Rainbird Bar, country music; Thunderbird, music and dancing. Gilmore Gardens is the place for a late night espresso and pastry.

Bed and Breakfast Inns