Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 5: The Eagles and Salmon of Ketchikan

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

With all the cool things we had planned for Ketchikan, the one I initially thought would be the most boring actually turned out to be one of the most fascinating.

The Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center is just a short walk from the center of town. All one needs to do to find the place is to follow Ketchikan Creek. This was the same creek that mesmerized me on my first day in town as I stood in awe at the sight of hundreds of salmon choking the waters as they fought their way upstream.

The salmon enter the creek from Tongass Narrows, swim past the old red light district, round a bend in the river, and then come across a gate of wooden poles stretched across the river a short distance later. The fish thrash around furiously looking for a narrow opening to squeeze through, but the poles are packed tightly and there is only one route they can take; a narrow channel which shoots off from the main river and disappears into the Hatchery Center.

The human entrance is around the corner and costs just $5 to get in. The first section, however, doesn’t focus on Alaska’s most famous fish, but rather on one of the predators which eats them. The Deer Mountain Eagle Center is home to two bald eagles which had been injured and rehabilitated back to health, but are unable to survive reintroduction into the wild.

The center has built a nice little natural habitat for the eagles to enjoy. A small, Zen-like creek runs through the middle and is populated by a couple of unlucky salmon biding their time.

The eagles sit just a few feet away from the paying customers. Although I had already seen many bald eagles during my first few days in Alaska, this was my first opportunity to see them up close. And oh man are they spectacular! I never realized just how big these creatures truly are or how magnificent. What really blew me away was their piercing eyes. No photograph or nature documentary can even come close to the feeling which came over me when one of the eagles cocked his head and looked me straight in the eye. I was hit with an empowering oneness with nature that exuded strength, intelligence, and soul. Were I a field mouse, I simply would have frozen in place and been consumed on the spot.

An Alaskan native tour guide joined us in the Eagle Center and then walked us through a door to the hatchery center just outside.

Depending upon your perspective, the hatchery is either a gory spectacle of death, or a glorious example of rebirth.

In the space of just a few hundred square feet, one can witness the entire life cycle of the salmon. After swimming into the hatchery, the salmon are kept in concrete holding tanks until their roe can be removed. This was the job of the fellow in the photo above. Armed with nothing more than a knife, we watched him expertly dispatch about a salmon a minute, shear off its head, slice its belly open, and pull out the roe. It is an unceremonious end to the long upstream journey the poor critter had to endure to get here.

The roe are incubated and then place in increasingly larger holding tanks as the eggs hatch and the fish grow. If you look closely, you can see thousands of tiny salmon swimming in poetic circles around and around and around. When the fish get large enough, the hatchery releases more than 135 million of them back into the river every May where they will then make their way out to sea. In five years or so they will return, thrashing and jumping their way up river until they complete the circle, finally make it back to the hatchery where they were born and the trusty knife of the fellow above.

Those who aren’t so lucky are plucked from the ocean much earlier and served up with a slice of lemon and a bit of rice pilaf.

Yesterday: Rope Courses and Zip Lines in Ketchikan
Tomorrow: The Tasty Food of Ketchikan