KETCHIKAN – We had only a morning in port at Alaska’s self-described “First City.” It isn’t called that because it’s largest; with just about 8,000 population in its city limits it is actually the fourth-largest city in Alaska, which says something about the emptiness of this huge state. Ketchikan gets the designation because it’s the first Alaska city you come to as you travel north from the Lower 48.
The name comes from the Tlingit kitcxan, meaning “where the eagle’s wings are.”
Ketchikan is as good an example as any of how the influx of cruise ships has transformed these small Alaskan towns from quiet backwaters defined by their sourdough heritage and native cultural roots to towns defined by the almost 1 million cruise-ship passengers that visit every May to September.
I stepped off the gangplank of Star Princess onto Front Street and joined the parade of thousands of others past endless souvenir shops selling doggie mittens made in China (for your sled-dog back home), along with items such as Husky Poop candy (do you really want to know what’s in it?), all the ulu blades you will never need, and so on. A popcorn emporium also carried those tourist mainstays, fudge and taffy (though I recoiled when I first read the sign as “fudge taffy”).
My Moon guidebook saved me the trouble of counting: The author found 63 jewelry shops in Ketchikan. They cater to cruise passengers from Saudi Arabia to Shanghai (and anywhere else rich people live) who apparently like to buy bling anywhere cruise ships tie up. One sign along Front Street that gave me pause: Caribbean Gems, of “Alaska and St. Maarten.” How’s that for local flavor?
One thing about Ketchikan, one of Alaska’s wettest towns, made me feel at home: the gray skies, heavy mist in the air, and gardens bursting with rhododendrons. This is the temperate rain forest, getting almost 13 feet of rain per year.
After spending time hooking up with onshore Internet to post some blog items – the ship’s system was down Wednesday – I didn’t have time for a planned foray to Totem Bight State Park to see the 15 totems. (You can get there by city bus for $2 round-trip, with hourly service, or book a Princess tour for $39.)
Instead, I wandered away from the worst of the tourist traps and found a less objectionable one: Ketchikan’s famed Creek Street, actually just a row of shops – formerly bordellos – scenically perched on stilts and a boardwalk above rushing Ketchikan Creek.
Among galleries and a few less tacky tourist shops was a place I’ll have lunch next visit: the tiny and aptly named Halibut Hole, where you can sit on a table hanging out over the burbling creek (fish ‘n chips, $10.99-$14.99).
Along the Creek Street boardwalk I found the Cape Fox Hill funicular, an elevator/tram that takes you to a hilltop with a view of the waterfront from the ritzy Cape Fox Lodge, which has a coffee shop. For $2, I hopped on and went up, pleased to find a path leading back down the hill called Married Man’s Trail. It got its name back in the day because it was a hidden back-door to the bordellos. Being a married man, but with strictly honorable intentions, I followed it. The dripping hemlock and magenta-blooming salmonberry lining the trail was balm for a tourism-frayed soul.
In line to reboard the ship, a family from Kansas chatted behind me.
“Can you imagine living in a place where it rains every day?” the mother asked, horror in her voice, rich with the flat vowels of the Corn Belt. “Or going out in a KAYAK in THAT?” nodding toward the drizzle. “I can’t imagine!”
I could. It sounded like home, and we were on our way back to Seattle.
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