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Catching Ketchikan: ten things to see and do

Determined tourists can find a staggering menu of 250 different tours and activities to do, see, and play in Southeast Alaska’s Ketchikan. And with cruise ships bringing in 840,000 sea-dazed passengers to this tourist magnet each year, it’s just as well.

Cruise ships line up off Ketchikan

Cruise ships line up off Ketchikan

Ketchikan is one of the world’s best-organized tourist destinations because it has to be. On some days it’s not unusual for cruise ship passengers to approach the town’s population of 8,000 souls (and on peak days, outnumber them by 2,000!). Imagine five behemoth cruise ships simultaneously disgorging a total of 6,000 passengers onto the docks with nothing to do? This would not be a pretty sight.

But Ketchikan rises to this challenge daily, employing 1,150 locals to service these eager day-guests in this beautiful spot on the Southeast shore of Revillagigedo Island (try saying that quickly after a malty Alaskan Amber beer).

One simply has to see Ketchikan’s plethora of tourist attractions and activities—far more than can readily be ingested in a month—to believe them. The town’s finely honed tourist card offers Totem Pole Parks, forest walks, history walks, history museums, crab fishing tours, lumberjack shows, Humvee tours, art galleries, marine research and survival tours, gourmet dining, eagle watching, forest walks, kayaking, and much more.

Add to these gigs the island’s rich natural green overabundance of hemlock, spruce and cedar forests, dark blue sea teeming with salmon, massive hanging valleys, and moraines and scoured fjords, and you have something to offer all but the most burned out tourist.

In the past, Ketchikan’s livelihood has come from several natural sources—mining, fishing, fish canneries, and timber. Then as the town developed, other industries sprang up. It has become a transportation hub and a regional center of government and commerce. Fortunately, Ketchikan has long outlived its nickname as “The Wickedest City in Alaska”—for half a century prostitution was one of its most significant industries. But more about that later.

SE Alaska Discovery Center

SE Alaska Discovery Center

Today, Ketchikan mines tourist gold. In fact, as early as 1890, Martin and Clark’s General Store sold curios and Native handicrafts to the passengers and crews of the steamships packed with prospective gold miners and the landed class that stopped here. And the souvenir shops, once called curiosity stores, are still packed to the gunnels with a jaw-dropping array of artwork, carvings, totem poles, trinkets, beads, masks, T-shirts, picture books, jackets, sweaters, and so much more.

With the luxury of spending four days in K’town I had ample time to walk around and appreciate the locals in their own habitat, especially after the cruise passengers had disappeared back into the bowels of their enormous floating hotels. On one dark eerie August evening I walked almost the entire length of Main Street without seeing a single person—a street that was, only a few hours before, crammed so full of tourists that I was forced to walk along the side of the road. My only witnesses were a few pieces of paper (shopping receipts, no doubt) drifting lazily on the wind.

Ketchikan dispenses its tourist industry with the ease of a well-oiled machine, efficiently whisking and dispersing the daily bottleneck of thousands of tourists within an hour or so onto their busses (or for the well-heeled, leather seated Humvees), and hence to all points of the compass, leaving the streets only moderately packed with frenzied shoppers.

But, in Ketchikan, even independent travelers who would normally shun such mass touristic activities find themselves seduced by some of the unique tours dreamed up by creative local tour operators.

As a travel writer who has visited 45 countries, I’ve been on a few (hundred) tours in my time—I can say that the Ketchikan operators take them to a whole new level, offering exciting tours that permit no boredom. Many, in fact, proved to be refreshingly different enough for me to be pleasantly carried along by the whole experience.

Here, then, is my take on Ketchikan’s top twelve excursions and attractions.

Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour

Professional crab fishermen, several of them stars from the popular TV series Deadliest Catch, take you out in their 107 foot-long fishing boat, Aleutian Ballad, and show you the ropes of their rough and ready profession. These guys put on an entertaining show as they haul in huge wire netting crab pots packed with giant Alaskan King Crab weighing 1 pound and measuring 2 feet across, and Dungeness Crab the size of dinner plates, plus a few other surprises like menacing wolf eels and enormous purple octopus, while eagles wheel overhead and Steller Sea Lions, Sea Otters, Harbor Seals, and Walruses bark from the surface of the dark gray sea.

They talk about safety and the hard life of the commercial fisherman, and tell how the Aleutian Ballad and its crew survived being hit and turned on her side by a 60’ rogue wave in the Bering Sea. Visitors sit in plastic blue seats in a heated semicircular arena carved out in the middle of the ship, and get to hold the crabs (for photos, of course), and ask questions about commercial fishing. Captain Derrick Ray’s spiel is heartfelt, and these are real fishermen, resting up for the summer in Ketchikan before heading out again for months of sleep deprivation and the hard grind of hauling in 700 lb. crab pots.

An Alaskan Adventure: Stewardship and Survival

Another boat trip, this time for 3 hours in a 48-foot long aluminum catamaran complete with warm enclosed cabin, to explore the ecology of S.E. Alaska’s marine life and pick up a few survival skills that might just save your life one day.

The first stop, on a rocky island shoreline, is all about learning to survive long enough to reach help, or until help finds you. We search for edible marine plants like seaweed, and berries on nearby shrubs, and shellfish, and discuss which is the best bet for survival and what we should not eat.

A few hundred paces inside the dark canopy of mountain and western hemlock, pacific and Sitka spruce, yellow and red cedar, and red alder forest, we split up into groups and build small shelters out of driftwood and branches—anything to keep the wind and water out. Then we have a crash course in lighting fires using tinder and matches and warm up with some (surprisingly tasty) kelp and rice soup around a roaring fire.

Back on board, we haul small crab pots onto the deck and examine and measure the rockfish, octopus and other marine life like crabs and starfish, before sending them back into the depths. We’re especially looking out for Green Crab, an invasive species that could soon be threatening the area’s Dungeness crab population.

Rain Forest Island Adventure

Yet another aquatic tour in a large motorized inflatable Zodiac raft, over deep gray and green waters out to a remote island, past a gauntlet of eagle’s nests and heavily wooded and rocky coastline. Once there, we hike along a boardwalk through thick native stands of cedar, spruce and hemlock, stopping to see nature at work in this surreal Lord-of-the-Rings-like forest. We see ancient fallen logs that are now the base for other smaller trees, and massive crusts of thick moss and lichen that have accumulated around the roots of fallen trees. I’ve never seen so many shades of green.

Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show

Back on dry land, Ketchikan offers some great tourist shows and attractions. Ok-the Great Alaskan lumberjack Show show is touristy, but it’s also well worth watching. Two teams of “rugged woodsmen” from opposing lumber camps face off in a veritable Olympic games of chopping, sawing, chain sawing, climbing, logrolling, axe throwing, and other ways of attacking the native timber. And the crowd in the heated arena, whipped up to fever pitch by the MC, soaks it all up with good humor, like spectators at the ancient Olympic games.

The loggers pack a lot of laughs and energetic displays into this sixty-minute show, and at the end of it all there’s not a spectator who isn’t convinced that these guys aren’t lumberjack pros.

Potlatch Park

For the culturally inclined, this faithfully crafted Alaska native village and gift shop have proved very popular with tourists of all stripes, judging by the busloads that thronged the village when I visited. The impressive new cedar clan house, five family houses, children’s craft center, totem pole carving center, antique car museum and antique firearms museum offer something of interest to most visitors.

The village is a picturesque series of five weather-faded gray cedar tribal houses with mossy roofs, and numerous towering totem poles reaching as high as 30 feet, that represents a legend of the family or the clan’s culture. Superb large native carvings called “screens” adorn the ends of the tribal houses depicting eagles, ravens, bears, beavers, salmon, the sun, and other mythological figures of legend. And if you’re lucky, on a clear day you’re likely to see eagles soaring high overhead.

Totem Bight State Park

Adjacent to Potlatch Park, this State Park features a traditional style long house with many historic restored totem poles. As the native culture faded with the coming of the white man whole villages became deserted, leaving their clan totems to decay.

These poles were recovered and restored as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps project launched in 1938 with some being placed here as late as 1947. Today, an eclectic collection of 14 colorful poles stands beside a walkway, where you can read the stories behind each of them. Among the pole depictions are the Thunderbird and Whale, a Man Wearing a Bear Hat, a Wandering Raven, a Blackfish (Killer Whale) pole, a Sea Monster pole, and the Raven.

Southeast Alaska Discovery Center

This is one professionally laid out museum! Located one block up from the downtown cruise ship dock, you’ll find a comprehensive overview of S.E. Alaska and Ketchikan’s natural and cultural histories here. Run as one of the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers, this large center displays totem poles, the region’s ecosystems, Alaska’s rainforest and its natural resources.

Tongass Historical Museum

Located on the riverside adjacent to Creek Street, this museum fills in a lot of gaps about Ketchikan’s early residents and their lives. Learn about the Tlingit fishing camp, the hardscrabble gold and copper miners, the tough fishermen, the fish canneries, the timber loggers, tourism, the roaring twenties, World War II and the town in the post-war era.

This nicely laid out museum is packed with artifacts from all eras of Ketchikan’s history and displays some intriguing equipment and photographs. It’s easy enough to spend an hour here, browsing through the stories and artifacts.

Notorious Creek Street

Bawdy houses had sprung up all over Ketchikan, giving it a somewhat seedy tone, so the City Council issued a formal edict in 1903 that placed all brothels in the Creek Street area. Ramshackle houses on wooden pilings sprang up. Casually referred to as ‘sporting houses’ and identified on maps as F.B.s standing for female boarders, these houses could only house two girls, as the Territory of Alaska identified a ‘house of prostitution’ as one with more than two women engaged in that business.

This boardwalk, built over a swollen river, also served as a fisherman’s clearinghouse, news and job center, and place for socializing.

By 1915 there were 14 such houses, by 1920, 21, and in 1945, 33. The glow of the brothel porch lights lured the willing crews of the salmon and halibut fishing boats after long weeks at sea, like seductive sirens from Homer’s Odyssey. In 1954, the houses were closed due to a productive grand jury investigation into police graft and scandal. The sporadic outbreaks of drunken mayhem and the occasional corpse and hootch bottles floating downstream probably did not help Creek Street’s case.

Today the boardwalk is a series of tarted up buildings, painted in tasteful pastels, housing souvenir shops, gold shops, salmon shops (seriously), art and galleries (do visit Marvin Oliver’s Alaska Eagle Arts Gallery). Dolly’s House remains the only tribute to the working girls that plied their trade on Creek Street. It’s a light green restored brothel museum featuring most of the furniture and knick-knacks that would have been found in the original brothels. Dolly Arthur was quite a gal, but you’ll have to visit the museum to learn about her brazen life.

Historic Ketchikan Walking Tour

Pick up your Walking Tour Map from the Visitor’s Bureau on the waterfront promenade and take in the town’s most renowned historic spots in a 1.5 to 2.5 trek. Highlights include the Ketchikan Creek, Thomas Street, Stedman Street Bridge, Tongass Historical Museum, Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center, Totem Heritage Center, Creek Street, Eagle Park and more.

Alaska Hummer Adventures

The amiable AHA chauffeurs will pick you up at the dockside and escort you in an immaculate multi-colored fleet of Humvees around town or out of town. You can choose from an impressive selection of tours ranging from nature drives to Beaver Falls, Herring Cove or the Rainforest, to mountain hiking or just to visit some of Ketchikan’s standard tourist attractions like Saxman Native Village and Totem Park or the Fish Hatchery and Eagle Center.

They’ll even shadow you around town and collect your packages you’re your serious shopping expeditions!

Alaska Fish House Chef’s Table

For foodies, the popular Alaska Fish House features a private Chef’s Table for gourmet food lovers. This crash course on Pacific Northwest food features Gravlax Salmon, Fish House Fish Cakes, Miso marinated black cod, Cracked Crab, Poached Halibut, Alaskan King Salmon and Wild Bread Pudding. You’ll need a wheelchair to drag you out of this gourmet’s delight.


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