Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 2: Quaint 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.

I had never realized just how easy it is to get to Alaska. I had always envisioned it as a far off, exotic location that required challenging logistics and quite a bit of travel time. The reality is that I caught a 6:15 a.m. flight out of Los Angeles, changed planes in Seattle, and arrived in Ketchikan, Alaska by 11:15 a.m. On any other Saturday, I’d just be getting out of bed at that time!

And yet, by 11:45, after getting my baggage and walking down a ramp to the ferry which would take us across the water to Ketchikan (the airport is on an island) I had already seen my very first bald eagle, riding the ocean breezes in elegant, lazy circles high above a deep forest of bright green spruce.

Day One of our Land Cruise started where many cruise ships also begin their journeys. Ketchikan is actually west of Canada, along a narrow strip of Alaska known as the Inside Passage. The city was established in 1900 and served as an important trading post and steamship dock for many years and by 1923 it had grown large enough to warrant the first paved road in all of Alaska. Today the population stands at 13,700 and the economy, once focused primarily on spruce mills and the maritime industry, has now redirected its efforts to tourism–an industry that brings in an estimated $74 million annually.

The ride from the airport to the center of town takes only half an hour, but requires a short ferry ride just outside the terminal–something one normally doesn’t encounter while flying, yet something so very quintessential Alaskan.

Ketchikan is pushed up tight against a steep roll of spruce covered mountains, occupying the narrow, flat area between the foothills and the frigid waters of the Tongass Narrows. The town was pretty much what I expected from Alaska; a smattering of 1-2 story buildings that were wild-west in style as though horses had only recently been tied up in front of each. The very strange disconnect, however, were the gargantuan cruise ships tied up at dock, towering over these 100-year-old Lilliputian structures.

Ketchikan is small and entirely walkable; renting a car is simply unnecessary. I spent my first afternoon before my friends arrived, wandering the streets and poking my head into various shops and restaurants. It was a quite, mellow town steeped in history and embraced by an atmosphere of bygone era. The wooden structures, sea breeze, and taste of Alaska in the air swept me deep into vacation mode, mentally distancing myself from the 21st century and all the stress and trapping therein.

There was one, disconcerting exception, however. In the last couple of years, a disturbing trend has been upsetting the balance of this Alaskan nirvana. Punctuating the lineup of wooden buildings and quaint interiors are a handful of jewelry shops which have sprouted up to cater to cruise ship passengers. The new owners open their doors when the first ships of the season arrive, then close everything up when winter approaches and disappear to warmer climes. As you can see from the photo above, the shops are garish, glitzy and entirely out of place in homey old Ketchikan. And who, by the way, travels all the way to Alaska to buy Tanzanite?!? Ugh!

Certainly the most picturesque part of Ketchikan, the polar opposite of tacky jewelry shops, is Creek Street. Creek Street was home to the historic red light district up until 1953 when prostitution was finally made illegal. For whatever reason, the bordellos occupied the best real estate in town, perched beautifully above Ketchikan Creek. The early 20th century buildings are brightly colored and connected by gangplanks. Today, they house mostly tourist shops, a few restaurants, and a great bookstore, Parnassus Books.

Although one can tour some of the bordellos and poke around for souvenirs in the gift shops, my favorite activity on Creek Street was peering over the gangplanks and gawking at the thousands of salmon working their way upstream to spawn. I’ve never seen a body of water so densely populated by such big fish in my life. I literally could have reached in and pulled them out by hand-something not recommended, however. The salmon were only a quarter-mile from an upstream hatchery (to be visited in a later post) where they would spawn and die. Their body’s were battered and bruised from the long journey back to the place of their birth and made for horrible eating. No one fished these particular salmon. Ever.

Just above the river and behind the old red light district sits Cape Fox Lodge, our temporary home in Ketchikan. The best way to reach the lodge is via the bright red funicular which climbs the steep hill at the end of Creek Street. Even if you’re just visiting, the funicular is worth a quick ride to check out the view at the top. For those actually staying here, the view becomes even prettier out of your bedroom window.

Half of the rooms look out towards Deer Mountain while the other half, the better half, look out over the Tongas Narrows (above) and the town itself. It was very exciting my very first morning in Alaska to pull open the curtains and watch the whole state unfold in front of me, or so it seemed.

The Cape Fox Lodge is undoubtedly the finest place to stay in Ketchikan. The prices were a little expensive at $190 a night, but the rooms were clean, with great views, and a wonderful, woody ambience that so perfectly spoke to the Alaskan sensibility and way of life. It was a lodge in every sense of the word, from wooden ceiling beams to roaring fireplaces, and local carvings. It was a great way to start off our trip and a place I hope to return one day.

Yesterday: Alaska without the Cruise Ship
Tomorrow: Things to do on the Water in Ketchikan