Only a Day In-.. Ketchikan

This month, I’ve been doing a great deal of research on Alaska and the cruise offerings currently available. It’s truly a fascinating destination, and my friend, writer Lynn Seldon, has written this wonderful story on Ketchikan- I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Thanks Lynn!

Alaska’s “First City” Always Has Something New to Pursue

By W. Lynn Seldon

Even those in Quite simply, we love calling on Ketchikan. There’s always something new-or time-tested-to pursue in this classic Alaskan port. Whether it’s simply a stroll along historic and bustling Creek Street, staring up at one of many totem poles, or booking an adventure out in the sprawling wilderness that serves as Ketchikan’s backyard playground, a day here, in the “Salmon Capital of the World” is most definitely a “catch” on any cruise line calendar.

With a history that dates back to the 1800s, the Southeast Alaska port is named for Ketchikan Creek, which flows right through town and parallels popular Creek Street. It actually sits on an island (Revillagigedo) and lies about 235 miles south of Alaska’s capital city, Juneau. Ketchikan is actually closer to Prince Rupert, Canada (just 90 miles away), earning its other nickname by being the “first city” encountered by voyagers heading north into Alaska.

As a relatively remote island, Ketchikan is still only reached by sea and air. Along with being a popular cruise ship port of call, the city is home to the headquarters for the Alaska Marine Highway System. Ketchikan International Airport is located across Tongass Narrows on Gravina Island-which is still only reached by ferry service!

With about 8,000 inhabitants, historic Ketchikan is Alaska’s sixth most populated city. However, the city’s land mass of about four square miles makes it the state’s most densely populated-especially on days when multiple cruise ships are in town. But with so much rugged land surrounding Ketchikan, it’s easy to understand why the state is known as the The Last Frontier.

First-time and veteran visitors alike will never lack for something to see and do in Ketchikan, including several new possibilities for the 2012 cruise-ship season. That “newness” starts as soon as cruise ship passengers arrive at the busy dock.

The Ports and Harbors department started renovation on Ketchikan’s oldest and most central cruise-ship pier, Berth Two (right in the heart of downtown), as soon as the 2011 cruise ship season ended. The three-year project’s first phase included replacement of half of the wooden dock and pilings with more durable concrete and steel. Taking place from October to April so scheduled port calls aren’t interrupted, additional phases of the projects will complete upgrades to the dock, replace the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau’s information and tour center, and improve the flow of vehicle and passenger traffic.

Other upgrades of note will also be quickly apparent upon disembarkation. The Ketchikan Historic Commission has installed 15 signs on some of the most historically significant buildings. The signage project spotlights famous locales such as Dolly’s House and the New York Hotel, as well as recognizing some lesser known gems like the former location of the Ketchikan Shingle Mill.

A second signage project resulted in five storyboards that feature the historic and present-day relationship between Ketchikan and salmon. Signs highlight the earliest commercial canning operations, the location of the largest charter fleet in Southeast Alaska, Ketchikan Creek, and more. Signs can already be seen at Mountain Point boat harbor, on Stedman Street near Trident Seafoods, at Thomas Basin Marina, and at Knudson Cove Marina. All of this is in addition to the stunning array of varied public art that already graces the dock areas and promenades.

Any stroll around town eventually leads to Ketchikan Creek and the famed Creek Street above-water boardwalk on pilings. Along with some of the city’s best shopping, highlights here have to include varied dining options, picturesque Stedman Bridge, Dolly’s House (one of many historic buildings that once housed prostitutes, bootleggers, and fishermen), plus lots of people-, kayaker-, and salmon-watching possibilities. The Married Man’s Trail leads off Creek Street to Park Avenue by way of a boardwalk and staircase.

Strolling along Front Street and other adjacent avenues is another popular choice, thanks to a variety of shopping options, art galleries, further historic buildings (more per capital than anywhere else in Alaska), and local candies and other treats. Native master carvers and artisans welcome curious visitors to their studios and shops-no purchase required. The city’s official “Walking Tour” map is well worth requesting once in port.

Nearby, on Deermont Street, Ketchikan’s Totem Heritage Center remains a must-see. Established back in 1976 to preserve endangered 19th century totem poles that were retrieved from uninhabited Tlingit and Haida villages, the original poles are displayed with other totems and Native Alaskan artifacts. In addition to serving as a museum, the center also offers traditional arts & crafts, Native Arts classes, and anything that adds to the center’s mission of preserving the area’s cultural heritage.

Those in search of even more totem poles and their unique history should head to Totem Bight State Historical Park, located about 10 miles outside of town. Originally a Civilian Conservation Corps project of the 1930s, the park is stunningly situated on Tongass Narrows and features 14 totem poles, interpretive signs, a replica of a clan (community) house, and a bookstore. Then there’s historic Saxman Village just two miles south of Ketchikan, which also features many restored totem poles. Even a short walk through town will reveal more totems on public and private lands. All of this adds up to the largest collection of standing Northwest totem poles in the world.

And don’t miss the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center on Main Street. The welcoming lobby features authentic totem poles, lots of natural wood, scenes of Alaska, an information desk, and shop. There are many interpretive exhibits about the history, ecology, and people of the vast area.

Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery & Eagle Center is well worth a visit. Guided and narrated tours lead visitors through the fascinating hatchery operations as well as the eagle compound-Alaska has the largest population of Bald Eagles in the world.

Several popular shore excursions booked through most visiting cruise ships simply stay in town to explore many of these possibilities, as well as amphibious tours on “duck” vehicles; The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show; guided hikes; kayaking; and more. Further afield, a quick look at Holland America’s long list of possibilities includes shore excursions with enticing names like “An Alaskan Fish Camp;” “Backcountry Jeep & Canoe Safari;” “Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour;” and “Misty Fjords Boat & Floatplane Adventure” (many popular Misty Fjords tours are offered by visiting ships).

Often called the “Yosemite of the North,” Misty Fjords National Monument remains a hotspot for visiting cruise passengers. Encompassing more than two million acres and reached only by boat or floatplane, this nearly roadless area is highlighted by long saltwater fjords shadowed by towering cliffs and mountains, Native rock art pictographs and abundant wildlife that might include eagles, sea lions, whales, brown and black bear, mountain goats, and more. The wide variety of tour options include boat and floatplane rides, sea kayaking, and wilderness dining.

Two new shore excursions introduced in the 2011 season have proven quite popular and will again be offered by many cruise lines this year. One, the “Alaska Lodge Adventure & Seafeast,” begins immediately at the cruise-ship dock, where participants board a motor coach and enjoy a narrated tour of Ketchikan en route to Clover Pass Resort-one of the oldest operating fishing resorts in the state. Here guests board a 29-foot vessel for a water-based adventure through bays and inlets while a narrator offers insights on the land, the air, and the sea. Eagles, blacktail deer, porpoise, and seals may be spotted, and whales are often sighted along the route from May through September.

The tour makes its way by the Back Island Naval Facility and into the heart of Grant Island State Marine Park at Silverking Lodge- which has plenty of attractions of its own, including a trail to the largest known red cedar in the Tongass National Forest. Lunch includes a delectable seafood boil, where corn, potatoes, onions, garlic, sausage, clams, shrimp, musssels, and Dungeness crab are all boiled together and served piping hot. The tour winds down with another scenic boat ride back to Clover Pass and a quick bus trip to the ship.

On the unique “Alaska Wilderness Survival” excursion, participants head out into the wild aboard a research vessel in pursuit of the invasive green crab during a hands-on tour of Alaskan waters and wilderness. Visitors learn basic survival skills inspired by the area’s Native culture and use them in a relaxed and engaging atmosphere.

Participants spend part of the tour on a catamaran jetboat learning about one of the most recent threats to the local ecosystem: the nefarious green crab. This invasive species, which decimated Maine’s soft-shell clam population, is slowly making its way to Ketchikan; now, the more research done on green crabs, the better they will be able to be intercepted. Tour guests, while pulling crab pots, look for evidence of the green crab and record the findings-which will later be reported to the University of Alaska. Once back home, it’s easy to track the research project online.

Another part of the tour is spent at a remote island, where a wilderness guide leads the small group through an old-growth forest and reveals a few tricks of the survivalist’s trade-like how to build a shelter, how to identify wild edibles, and how to gather tinder and make a fire. Participants help prepare food that emulates the wild harvest. While eating by the campfire, guests are regaled with tales of Alaska legends and lore. Rain poncho, binoculars, snack, and beverages are provided.

Given all of this, it’s easy to see why we love catching Ketchikan on the itinerary when it’s time for another cruise to the The Last Frontier.

About Lynn Seldon: Lynn Seldon has spent more than 20 years covering all aspects of travel through writing and photography. He was named 2006 Travel Writer of the Year by the Southeast Tourism Society.