Thursday- September- Ketchikan, Alaska
We were up by 7 A.M. It was the last port on our cruise. We prepped for the day and had breakfast in the Horizon’s cafe. It was mobbed. It seems everyone wanted to go ashore early. The line to disembark was long as well. We waited our turn and soon were ashore. It was 51 degrees out, with a light rain falling. Ketchikan, the name even sounds Alaskan.
Once, the valley had been covered by a 3,000 ft. ice sheet. It had melted 2,000 years ago, carving out a scenic valley now covered by yellow cypress and sitka spruce. Most of modern Ketchikan sits on an island some seven miles long, by one half mile wide. The entire region of Alaska falls into the Tongas National Forest. The area had been a Summer fishing camp for the Tlingit native Alaskans. Five species of Salmon spawned in the creeks around the area. Later, after 1900, both gold and copper were discovered in the surrounding hills. The area grew to meet the demands of a large mining population. So too did the red light district. Creek Street is a section of wooden buildings, sitting over and along a fast rushing fishing creek. It became a row of bordellos, selling “negotiated affections” to the miners. The creek today is an attractive series of gift stores and artist’s boutiques.
The fishing industry thrived here, establishing a series of canneries to prepare and can the enormous Salmon catch taken in the Alaskan waters. By 1936, the city packed over 1.5 million cases of Salmon, utilizing portable workforces of Chinese laborers imported for the season from Vancouver and San Francisco. During World War II, the town became an important Coast Guard base, with over 750 officers and men stationed here. It is the southernmost and first of the Alaskan cities, visited by hundreds of thousand of tourists annually. We were now among them.
Four vessels were in port today. The hordes washed across the small town like a colorful and sneaker clad tsunami. We rode on the wave into town, washing up on a few gift stores and exploring them, admiring the Asian trinkets on display. There did appear to be more totems and carvings by native Alaskans here. The price of each "native artwork" was several times that of their Chinese and Indonesian replicas. We walked the colorful town slowly, drinking in the sights and sounds. We could hear the mighty roar of an appreciative audience back towards the port. A log stadium featured lumber jack shows, with sawing, tree climbing and axe throwing contests. The audience was appreciative of the woodsmen skills demonstrated.
Several streets in KetchiKan are called “Hill streets.” They are literally cantilevered off the hillside above us. The steep wooden stairways, to each group of houses, must be a great aerobic exercise for those who had to walk them daily. A light mist continued to fall. We walked along “Creek St.” admiring the quaint shops. The Salmon were running even now in the swift rushing creek below us. One gaudily clad and highly painted matron tried to entice us into her shop for a “five dollar tour. “ I guess they call it something else these days. Nearby, a sign advertised the establishment of “Dotties” and “Black Mary’s,” two noted hostesses of the gold rush era. After a bit , we found and stopped in the New York Hotel & cafe for coffee. We watched for a bit as the touristed stream flowed by, noting and enjoying the curious diversity of people.
At 12:30 P.M. we set off on our tour. We stopped first at the South East Alaska Discovery Center. A Ranger gave us a guided tour of the facility. First, she walked us through a replica of a temperate rain forest. The area around Ketchikan gets a lot of rain. In 1966 , 166 inches of rain fell here, drenching the valley. Western Hemlock, Sitka Spruce, Red & yellow Cedars grow here in abundance.Moose, bear and a variety of small animals range in the hills around us. Salmon spawn here in abundance.
Culturally, the Haida and Tlingitt Natives had settled here. The museum features exhibits of cedar shake hunting shacks, red cedar canoes, “bent“ wooden boxes and wooden halibut hooks used in fishing. The natives used spruce roots for ropes and fashioned all manner of cooking implements and tools from the abundant wood. Colorful costumes, and other native artifacts, give a hint of the color and diversity of these tribes.The museum is small but informative and worthy of a brief visit.
From the museum, we bussed out to the native Alaskan village of Saxman, on the end of the Ketchikan island. We got off the bus and walked through the complex of native Alaskan workshops. A huge shed is dedicated to carving giant totem poles. Native workers were even now using sharp edged adzes to carve the red cedar wood into tall shapes. Keith Jackson, is a local carver of note. He supervised the men who were carving. We got a lecture on the different types of totem poles. Made of red cedar, each pole stands about 24 feet feet high and has several animal figures carved on it, one on top of each other. An eagle, a raven, a fish, a bear and a whale are popular figures used in their story telling. Each pole depicts a story in wood. When the pole belongs to a chief, a small aperture is carved in the back of the pole near the top, to store the ashes of the chief after he expires.
A circle of these colorful poles stands in a small park, at the center of the complex. Another row of them leads down to the water. One “praise pole” has a small figure of Abe Lincoln at its top. It seems that the U.S.S Abraham Lincoln, an American 19th century frigate, had sailed these waters and rescued a number of stranded natives. They had carved the pole as a tribute. Another pole is a “shame pole.” Atop it, sits the figure of , William Seward, the Secretary of State under Lincoln who had negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. He had come here in the 1860’s and been given a “potlatch” or huge native fete. The local tradition calls for one who receives a potlatch to return the favor. Seward never did. The natives think he broke their custom and erected a shame pole to dishonor him.
The ceremonial hall of the complex is a highly painted one story building guarded by two large totems. We didn’t have access to the ceremony inside, but we could hear the low chanting of a native group engaged in a tribal ceremony. As a a people, they are steeped in tradition and mystery. It would be intriguing to spend more time with them. We had no more today.
The bus ferried us back to a small city park in Ketchikan. A swift running creek runs through the attractive green expanse. At its end, sits the Native Heritage and Totem Center. We collected a native guide and began our tour. First, we saw two wounded American eagles. Both had been found crippled in the wild and brought here to recover. They are large birds with a sharp beak and powerful talons. Their diet consists of fish and small animals. They eat about 2 lbs. of fish a day. Next, we saw a Peregrine falcon and a great horned owl. They too had been found wounded in the wild and brought here to recover. They could both swivel their heads like Linda Blair in the exorcist. It was the closest we were to come to wild animals in Alaska.(LFMM)
Next, we visited a fish hatchery. Small holding tanks held schools of the fat salmon. They grow thousands of the young salmon here and then release them into the surrounding creeks, to help nurture the fish population. Lastly, we walked through a “Totem restoration” center. Old poles, from the 1800’s, are kept here to save them from destruction. Those that could be repaired are exhibited. In front of the complex sits a totem pole called “fog woman.” It tells the story of the arrival of the first salmon to Alaska. Each of these stories are like bible parables, made up to explain complex ideas to simple native peoples or commemorate some pivotal event in their history.
The tour was done and we were ready to pack it in. We bussed back to the ship and said goodbye to Ketchikan. We boarded the Sapphire and made our way to our cabin. I wrote up my notes for the day. We began to pack our bags for the return trip home on Saturday. We had a glass of wine to celebrate our trip’s completion, then showered and dressed for the evening. We were invited to stop at the “Captain’s Cocktail Party” for all returning Princess Voyagers. Usually, you get a glass of cheap champagne and an intro to every crew member down to the galley cook. Not here. We sat in an elegant cocktail lounge and enjoyed whatever beverage we chose, with hors d’ouvres. We had joined a French Canadian couple from Montreal. We had a lively and pleasant chat about our respective Hockey teams and the city of Montreal, which we had visited two years ago and much enjoyed. The captain spoke but a brief few words, welcoming us back. One couple had cruised with princess on eighteen occasions.
Tonight was a “formal dinner.” The grand promenades were lined with tuxedo and evening gown clad passengers “walking the walk.” We were dining again with Seth and Madeline Champagne in the Savoy Dining room, on deck 5. A Mondavi reserve Cabernet led into clams casino, caesar salads, broiled lobster tails and Brandy alexander torte. It was an exquisite denouement to a gustatory adventure aboard The Sapphire Princess. Now, we had to pay the caloric tab. We walked back to our cabin read our books and slept sounded to the rocking of a great ship at see. During the night we crossed from Alaska time to Pacific Coast time, a one hour time shift.
During the night, the great ship motored through the Tongas Narrows, across the Revillagigedo Channel and the Dixon Straights entering Canadian waters in the Hecate straight.
Joseph Xavier Martin