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  • Writer's pictureKarl Sander

The Voyage South - Part 5

Ketchikan calls itself Alaska’s First City – doubtless because it’s the first Alaskan city northbound travelers come to on the Inside Passage. But for us, it was our final stop in the Last Frontier.

Our arrival was, mercifully, the last early morning of our trip, with the eastern horizon just beginning to brighten as Malaspina pulled into the terminal. Once again, we parked the motorcycle (this time in a grocery store parking lot a few blocks from the ferry) and explored both ends of the road on Revillagigedo Island, mentally noting a few places to return to later in our stay. Thanks the Marine Highway System’s schedule, we’d have five days to spend here.

Arriving in Ketchikan (Karissa Sander photo)

Returning to town, we stopped for breakfast at The Landing across the street from the terminal, where the Best Western has a nice restaurant that dishes up generous breakfasts. I’d already eaten there on two other visits into town, and I was eager to return: I like the corned beef hash that much.

Still far too early to check-in, we found a spot called The Asylum (“we serve nuts,” the T-shirt I bought advertised) that was just opening. Soon enough, we were hanging out with a nurse just getting off her shift and a jovial bartender. Born of a Puerto Rican family in Queens, we weren’t quite sure how he’d made his way to Ketchikan, but his personality was perfect for the opening shift at a bar across the street from the cruise ship terminal. Upon finding out we were Seahawks fans, he was inclined to give us a hard time – but relented after hearing my “hot take” on Super Bowl XLIX (specifically that the debate about the decision to throw from the one yard line COMPLETELY misses the fact that Seattle’s top-ranked defense gave up a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter). He decided we were his kind of “good” sports fans after that.

Like Juneau, Ketchikan is a narrow strip of development nestled between steep terrain and the water, so it’s spread out more than its population size might suggest. So, while you generally know what you get with a Best Western (and while The Landing is good eating), I’d chosen a hotel closer to more things to do, see, and eat. The Gilmore, right in the heart of downtown, was built in the 1920s and is on the National Register of Historic Places. That means the rooms are on the small side, and there’s no elevator – at least, not that we ever found. But we don’t spend a whole lot of time in the room when we play tourist, the bed was comfortable, and the classical ambiance was neat.

But, as we found out (rather sternly), they don’t do early check-in, not even by a little bit. And despite what Google and the various internet booking sites said, they don’t actually have free parking at the hotel. There is free municipal parking – about two blocks away and straight uphill. I felt it had been somewhat disingenuous of the hotel to claim that parking as “theirs,” especially considering how much there was to schlep from the car.

It didn’t take long for us to discover the cruise lines’ usual rhythm in Ketchikan. Three or four huge liners would already be tied up across the street when we’d wake up and head out to eat, their passengers swarming the gift shops or shuttling to some scheduled event. By the mid-afternoon, the ships were gone again. Although we were pretty sure that life aboard the cruise ships must have been quite comfortable, we wondered how much we’d enjoy what seemed to be the pretty rigid nature of the passengers’ time ashore.

But, as an unexpected bonus, by our second day in town, almost all the servers we saw (who were either local residents or long-time seasonal employees) figured out that we weren’t cruise passengers. They started treating us almost like “honorary” locals, giving us warm welcomes back every time we revisited a place for a meal or drinks. We got friendly with the bartenders at Annabelle’s (where the food’s pretty terrific) and the Arctic Bar (where there isn’t food, but you can order it from next door, and if it’s slow, and if they like you, they’ll go grab it for you). We spent an inordinate amount of quarters on the Ms Pac-Man table at the Sourdough.

Ms. Pac-Man

There was more than that, of course. On our second day, the unusually clear weather held and we explored the Creek Street historic area just east of downtown only a few blocks from our hotel. Instead of an actual street, it’s a boardwalk mounted on stilts on the steep eastern shore of Ketchikan Creek. It’s lined with gift shops, what seemed to be a private residence, an Eagle’s club, and Dolly’s House – a museum commemorating the neighborhood’s roots as Ketchikan’s red light district.

Creek Street

Dolly's House

Another day, we made the short drive south to Saxman to visit the Native Village and the largest collection of standing Totem Poles in the world. Some were old poles relocated from abandoned Tlingit villages scattered throughout the region’s islands. Several were replicas built as a Civilian Conservation Corps project in the 1930s, which served not only to duplicate the poles but also to train a new generation of carvers. The park includes a nice gift shop and a carving shed where Native carvers work on commissioned projects with traditional tools and techniques (though they weren’t working when we visited).

The northwest coast style of art has always appealed to me, especially once I grew up and was compelled to leave the northwest. When I came back, despite my not having (to the best of my knowledge) a drop of Native blood, it reinforced a sense of place. And so we also headed ten miles north of town to Totem Bight State Historical Park along the shore, where 14 more poles face out into the Tongass Narrows. There’s also a replica clan house rich with the scent of red cedar. Up to 30-50 people lived in houses like the one at the park, which seems like it might have been a little cramped.

Totem Bight State Historical Park

Clan House at Totem Bight State Historical Park (Karissa Sander photo)

Clan House Interior, Totem Bight State Historical Park

Picking a favorite between the two is tough. Saxman is closer, offers guided tours, has more totems, and probably a better gift shop (the state park’s shop was closed when we were there but looked much smaller). Saxman has a clan house of its own, but it wasn’t open to walk through when we were there; it may have been only for events (though, now that I think about it, it would make a pretty neat venue). Totem Bight not only had its clan house open to walk through but is also situated right on the water. Its distance from town may make it a less common spot for busloads of cruise ship passengers, which makes its more scenic setting also a more peaceful one.

Tognass Straits at Totem Bight

Our stay in Ketchikan concluded with a late afternoon departure for a change. It was a rainy day as we checked out, did the last of our Last Frontier shopping (even though we’re not usually avid shoppers, Ketchikan’s downtown is certainly a good place for it), and had a final lunch at the Arctic Bar, this time choosing a place that was apparently very familiar with delivering to the joint. We got ourselves checked in at the ferry terminal and parked the car and motorcycle in our assigned lane before heading across the street to The Landing, where we stayed dry at Jeremiah’s.

The staff’s promised boarding time turned out to be somewhat optimistic, but that was our only issue with loading and getting settled aboard M/V Columbia, the same ferry that first brought me north three and a half years prior. Our stateroom for this trip was mere steps from the one I had for the northbound trip to Haines.

It was sad to see Columbia’s bar closed, but its dining room, complete with sit-down plated service, offered a nice place to enjoy the sights of the southern Inside Passage as the sun returned for our last leg. Two days later, in glorious sunshine, Columbia turned 180 degrees and backed into the terminal at Bellingham, and I was back in Washington for more than just a visit.

Very soon, we’d be on our way to our island – but not before breakfast in Fairhaven and a 10am showing of Solo: A Star Wars Story because, well, it was Star Wars and we’re us. But that’s an entirely different story.

Sunset from the Ketchikan Waterfront

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