Today is our last day in Ketchikan, and what a lovely visit it has been. Our first introduction to this very southern part of Alaska was difficult to see as it was dark and positively pouring rain. We were bound for our Couchsurfing host’s home, and after squinting at the directions with our headlamps, we began the trudge up a hill that was much larger than either of us cared to climb at that hour with all our gear. Thankfully, our host (Seth) has a wonderful little condo style home and Thomas and I were afforded our very own bedroom and bathroom (a real treat when depending on free lodging). Seth is a flight paramedic and firefighter and perhaps the most energetic man I have ever met in my life. He’s originally from New York and came to Alaska about 20 years ago to fly bush planes. It has been fun to learn about his occupation and see the difference between emergency medical services here and back in Fairbanks.
On our first day, Seth drove us down the southern end of the island to the Tsimshian village of Saxman, and down to where the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” was to be built. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the BtN was an insanely expensive bridge project that would connect Gravina island to Revillagigedo Island, the island on which Ketchikan is located. The bridge would connect Ketchikan to its airport, which currently is only accessible by boat. In the case of Seth’s work, he explained that in order to take a critical patient to a plane to fly them to either Seattle or Anchorage (about equidistant from Ketchikan), the paramedic plane must first catch the ferry for the short ride across the channel. Kind of ridiculous, but is it ridiculous enough to warrant a multimillion dollar bridge? Some folks do live on Gravina island and would benefit by being about to access town more easily, and some would argue that by opening up Gravina (which is largely undeveloped) one would allow for cheaper future economic development. Probably true, but again, the initial capital costs of the bridge are outrageous.
|Totem Bight Park clan house and totem|
|The Creek Street entrance|
Ketchikan boasts the largest collection of standing totem poles in the world, and they really are a treat to see in person. Not only are they enormous (I knew they would be tall, but somehow I was still awed by their size) but their craftsmanship and simply beauty is really quite breathtaking. We visited Totem Bight Park and were able to walk inside a recreated clan house where the original native inhabitants of the area would have lived and shared meals as a group. It’s a little intimidating to imagine being one of only several hundred people surviving (a indeed thriving) on Alaska’s foreboding coasts. With the technologies they had and weather they had to deal with, it’s amazing the totems and other fine arts and crafts they were able to build.
Downtown Ketchikan is a really lovely place to walk around, and with the nearly 1 million visitors they receive in the summer from cruise ships (check out the Google maps image of Ketchikan and you’ll see four HUGE ships docked) they’ve done a really nice job as a community in making their businesses accessible and streets easy and fun to walk and navigate. I wish more Alaskan cities would make efforts to organize their down town areas in pedestrian friendly ways (Fairbanks, I’m looking at you). We walked all over the place all three days we were here, and particularly enjoyed the Creek Street area, which was originally the red light district back at the beginning of the 20th century. Ketchikan was a huge lumber town when Europeans and Americans began to settle the area, and with lots of single men around, certain businesses were bound to pop up. The Creek Street businesses have been restored to look like the period they came from, though most are now just gift shops or mini-museums. The street itself is actually a boardwalk that meanders next to a salmon creek, but the whole feel of the place really does harken back to more rough and tumble times. We found Ray Troll’s shop, though were disappointed to learn that it is closed on the days we’re in town. For those of you unfamiliar with Ray Troll, he is one of Alaska’s more famous artists and is particular well known for his fish and fishing themed art and clothing graphics. I absolutely adore him and was glad to see that many businesses in Ketchikan have employed his art to decorate their storefronts or merchandise.
Another unique feature about SE Alaska is the sheer volume and size of the forests. The trees here are huge, beautiful, and sometimes very old. They make up the Tongass National Forest, and many areas around Ketchikan allow for logging (either on private or otherwise owned land). Now, clear cutting may not be a particularly appealing way to clear trees, but it does have its uses in forestry management (for example, creating edge habitat). However, uses or not, clear cutting can create really unstable soils that in steep and rainy environments (like Ketchikan) can lead to severe soil erosion, land slides, and rock slides. I’ve noticed a number of clear cuts around town that are located on 60+ degree hills and teeter over vulnerable coastal roads, surely a long-term recipe for disaster. They say that Ketchikan is 30 miles long, 10 miles wide, and two inches deep, referring to the incredible shallow soils here in southeast Alaska. The trees root themselves to one another, and when a big one falls you can see just how shallow the entire system goes. Every tree cut weakens the entire system. With that in mind, you should know that I have no problem with responsible, sustainable resource development; after all, I’m from a fishing family and love to eat fresh fish. However, I firmly believe that all resource development should been thought of with long-term vision and attention toward what future generations will need. Another blogger I admire, Kate Harris, wrote on her blog, “I admire Thoreau’s system of accounting, which defines the cost of something as the “amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it.” And as a dear friend pointed out, this doesn’t simply mean the amount of your life, but life in general, and the planet on which all life depends.” I admire her gumption, and agree with her 100%.
Well, we’re about to board our 36 ferry ride to Juneau so I’ll leave you with those thoughts. Coming soon: some thoughts on the new year and my next steps in getting green and clean.
|You know you’re in a fishing town when you have to compete with boats for roadside parking.|