Along with exceptional scenery, outdoor adventures, thrilling flight-seeing tours to nearby Misty Fjord, fabulous food, and welcoming locals, Ketchikan also offers picturesque Creek Street, the infamous Dolly’s House, in-town kayaking, a self-guided historical walking tour, a funicular to the Deer Mountain Hatchery and Eagle Center, Alaska’s most extensive collection of totem poles, the Southeast Alaskan Heritage Center, a small Iditarod Museum, and best of all, Ketchikan Kandies. This place is just plain fun.
Horse-drawn carriages show visitors around town.
Ketchikan’s harbor is particularly striking. The city is built on the slopes of a steep mountain and extends out over the waters on wooden pilings. Front Street’s boardwalk, where bright-red horse-drawn carriages wait expectantly for fares and gift shops roll out the red carpet to new arrivals, hints at the town’s enduring hospitality. The aroma of cedar and spruce drifts down the mountain, flavoring the air before mingling with the scent of a campfire emanating from the blacksmith’s tent near the Great Lumberjack Show. The heavenly potpourri arrives courtesy of the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rainforest in the world.
Harbor views from our cruise-ship berth
One could suspect the town was created Disney-style just for the sake of the 1 million cruise passengers who frequent it during the short summer season, but the buildings and town are authentic. Ketchikan began after Mike Martin, hoping to open a salmon cannery, bought 160 acres from Chief Kyan in 1885. Soon, canneries popped up all over town and the settlement was incorporated in 1900 with 800 residents. The construction "boom" and demand for the area’s premium lumber gave rise to an equally lucrative timber industry.
Ketchikan’s heritage, however, goes back thousands of years to the Tlinget, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes who made this region home. The culture and influence of these native tribes is honored and celebrated in many ways in Ketchikan, adding immeasurably to the town’s enduring appeal.
Appropriately, the town is named from a Tlingit phrase referenced both as
kitschk-hin, meaning creek of the "thundering wings of an eagle," or katch kanna, which roughly translates as "spread wings of a prostrate eagle." Drawing from either interpretation, one can expect that eagles live here. Indeed, just beyond town on the road to Saxman Village, we stopped to watch dozens of eagles hunting for fish along the shore. Back in town, the Deer Mountain Hatchery, an eagle center operated by native tribes, guarantees sightings of the great national symbol.
A fitting tribute to the fish from the Salmon Capital of the World
During our first Ketchikan visit, our family participated in a canoe trip across Ward Lake , followed by a rain-forest ecology hike and salmon bake. The kids loved the friendly competition generated when the guides informed us that on the return trip, we were racing the other canoes. Hoots, cheers, and laughter from each of the five 24-passenger vessels echoed across the mountains before planting the experience firmly in our memory banks. I’ll always remember the scent and feel of the thick, marshy layer that forms the rain-forest floor, the result of 18 feet of rain per year, and the unbelievable proportions of the mosquitoes.
The sight of this shore-side village suggests that you take up fishing, if you haven’t already.
Each time I visit Ketchikan, I include a stop at the Southeast Alaska Heritage Center, just a few blocks from Front Street. The small but beautifully outfitted center does a terrific job of presenting history, artifacts, and insights into the native tribes and cultures via dioramas, films, and exhibits. It was here I also learned about Alaska’s geological origins, "below the surface of the earth, 11 fragments of ocean floor and extinct continents collided to form the geologic foundation of Southeast Alaska. As they continue to grind into each other, volcanoes erupt along the deep faults, and mountains push further into the sky;" pretty exciting stuff to a geology buff. To see more of what the center offers, take the online virtual tour. If you want to see more, the Discovery Center totem park is another great place to see the local icons.
There is an assortment of totems to study and photograph in downtown Ketchikan.
For 5 years I had resisted attending the Great Lumberjack Show, sensing it was just a little too hokey and touristy, but after my nephews dragged me there on our recent visit, I was converted. Not only is the show amazing in the show of lumberjack athleticism and skill, but the Mistress of Ceremonies, Sourdough Jane, is an equally compelling entertainer who really gets the crowd going. (Note to the ladies: Forget Chippendales and film stars; these lumberjacks are not only built, but they can build fires!) Alrighty then, where was I…
Sourdough Jane keeps the fellers on their toes and the crowd on their feet.
Clowing around with a chainsaw at the Great Lumberjack Show
Rolling up his sleeves to get to work
Following the show, we boarded Dolly’s Trolley , which offers a tours to both Saxman and Totem Bight State Park, as well as city tours and admission to one of Ketchikan’s most popular attractions, Dolly’s House.
A shipmate is charmed by the lady of the house.
The trolley’s namesake refers to Ketchikan’s most celebrated citizen, Big Dolly Arthur, who came to the town in search of financial independence, which she aptly achieved by operating a house of ill-repute. According to stats from the era, local miners and fishermen returned 75% of their wages to industrious retail and service establishments such as Dolly’s. The savvy businesswoman did especially well during prohibition by offering alcohol on the side. The house is now a major sight on Creek Street, operating as a museum.
But before we engaged in the charms of Creek Street, we were off to Saxman Village, where the largest concentration of totem poles in the state can be found. Along the way, our informative guide shared history, legends, and facts about the area. After stopping to see a bald-eagle nesting area and searching for crabs and seaweed, we arrived at Saxman.
Young eagles in a nest. Their heads turn white at maturity.
Dolly’s mascot watches from a window.
Our first stop was at the shed, where a master carver was just wrapping up his work for the day. There is something strangely eerie, yet whimsical, about totem figures in their exaggerated but straightforward imagery. There is a skill to reading the figures and their meaning, so our guide offered a briefing of each of the major totems at Saxman. He explained why Abraham Lincoln appears to be so short atop his pole (the natives had never seen a full-length photo, and so assumed he was short), and why Seward’s pole is meant to humiliate, evidenced by the white face and shocked eyes. The story is that Mr. Seward made off with treasures offered him during a festival, but failed to "repay" the favor in the native tradition by hosting a Potlach in return. .
Master Carver wraps it up for the day.
Saxman boasts the largest grouping of totems in the state.
Back in town, we sauntered down sunny Creek Street, welcoming the kayakers returning from their outing under the famous bridge. We toured Dolly’s House, small as a doll house and twice as sweet, then stocked up on souvenirs at the inside passage’s best gift shops before stopping at Ketchikan Kandies to wrap up another glorious day.
Only the salmon should paddle up Creek Street.
Satisfied, we rejoined the ship and awaited sail-away on deck. My nephews were in heaven recounting the portside pleasures: the lumberjack show, totem poles, bordello tour, eagle sightings, cuddly dogs, and a sweet shop. They couldn’t imagine how it could get any better.
Just as our ship sailed out of the harbor, as if on cue, an eagle swooped down beside us and plucked an unsuspecting fish from the water. We watched as the fish struggled in the bird’s powerful talons, marveling as giant wings carried both bird and prey higher and higher toward the forests beyond.
Harbor seal greets visitors.
Grand memories are made of small moments.