"Cedar Community House at Saxman Totem Village" and "The George Inlet Salmon Cannery." Photo credit Bill Rockwell.
There’s a running joke about the weather in Ketchikan, Alaska’s fifth largest city, that says anytime it goes three days without rain, the city is experiencing a drought.
My fellow passengers and myself onboard Holland America Line’s ms. Oosterdam got even more tongue-in-cheek humor about the city’s climate during our shipboard preview when our travel advisor quipped that Ketchikan has about three dry days a year and it’d already had two of them.
Hyperbole aside, average annual rainfall comes in at a whopping 152 inches, which falls on average 228 days a year, more than enough to qualify Ketchikan as a temperate rain forest town. The classification requires a minimum of 70 inches of precipitation annually. By comparison, Ketchikan set a personal record with a soul-drenching 202 inches in 1949.
Fearing the worse, we arrived in port not with raindrops falling on our heads but with the sun glimmering through a pale blue, nearly cloudless, sky. Raincoats be damned seemed to be the common consensus as the throng of passengers disembarked our ship, ready to explore this charming town of slightly more than 8,000 residents.
Located on Revillagigedo Island, the 11th largest in the U. S., Ketchikan was incorporated in 1900, but its roots go back centuries to the time when native tribes used the site as a summer fishing camp.
Scanning a helpful brochure the evening before our port of call, I read that the town’s name is derived from the Tlingit word Kitschk-Hin, which supposedly can be translated into English as "spread wings of a prostate eagle." I understand that there are other, less esoteric translations, but I never did find out why contemporary Tlingits who speak the mother tongue can’t settle the matter.
Located in the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest, the biggest in the U. S., the lumber industry got an early foothold, with three sawmills operating in town by 1902. At the moment fishing (Ketchikan likes to bill itself as the "Salmon Capital of the World") and tourism top the economic chart.
Unimaginable for a city its size, more than a million visitors stop by each year, the majority by cruise ship, and pump a total of about $117 million into the local economy.
Several years ago, Ketchikan was cited as one of America’s Top 100 Arts Communities, and I would have liked to explore some of the local art galleries and work by Native artists. Instead, I opted for a guided bus tour that headed first to Saxman Totem Village, then off to the old George Inlet Cannery.
Named for Samuel Saxman, a Presbyterian minister lost at sea while on an Alaskan mission, Saxman Totem Park just southeast of town, claims to have the world’s largest collection of totem poles. The oldest on the property dates back 118 years and goes by the name Chief Ebbits pole, distinctive for its upside down figure, which represents someone who owed an unpaid debt to the chief.
To color the poles, the natives used oil-based paint made by having the women chew salmon eggs, spit them into a bowl, then mix them with iron oxide for red, copper for green and charcoal for black, said our guide.
Made of red cedar, the poles are usually inserted six to eight feet in the ground, but at the village they’re raised to protect them from rotting. To delight the tourist crowd, carvers still work in the village giving authentic demonstrations of their craft.
"Apprentices earn $500 to $1,000 a linear foot, and master carvers can get up to $3,000 a linear foot for their work," explained our guide
In 1896, Alaska had 20 salmon canneries, most of which were located within 75 miles of Ketchikan. One of them, the George Inlet Cannery offers tours of its original buildings and an up close look at its 1920s canning line.
The trip back to town was by boat, which gave me a chance to sit back and soak in some final spectacular Alaskan scenery and take a final breath of some very fresh Alaskan air.
Dave Zuchowski is a travel writer for CNHI News Service. Contact him at email@example.com.
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If You’re Going
For more information on Ketchikan, phone 800-770-3300 or visit website visit-ketchikan.com. For more information on the Holland America Line, phone 877-932-4259 or www.hollandamerica.com.