Our Alaska Cruise

September 2006

The Cruise

Special Pages

Ketchikan, Alaska

N 55° 20' 59"
W 131° 41' 59"

Although you can't drive to Juneau in a car, it is attached to the mainland. Sitka and Ketchikan are both located on islands. Ketchikan is built on Revillagigedo Island.

The southernmost point of Alaska in the panhandle is at latitude 54° 40'N. Does that sound familiar? It should. In the 1840s the US and Britain were in dispute over the Oregon Territory, which included the western part of what is Canada today, from 49° (the current US-Canada border) up to the southern part of what was then Russian-American, or today's Alaska. It just so happened that we were also in dispute over Texas with the Mexican government, and partly to avoid two simultaneous wars, President Polk settled on the 49° northern border for the US, and left the rest of the disputed area uncontested to Britain. If the 54° 40'N line had been accepted, Alaska and the rest of the US would be physically joined together by what is today British Columbia.

Ketchikan is only 40 minutes of latitude (about 46 miles) north of the Canadian border, and so it is either the first or the last port call in Alaska for a cruise, depending on which direction the ship is heading when it stops.

Ketchikan is nearly 680 miles north of Seattle, and after our visit, we were going to be heading in that general direction.

The city is built along a little strip of land at sea level, wedged in between the mountains and the water. It covers about 3 square miles of land, has about 7,500 people living there, and there isn't a lot of room for growth. Even the airport is "out of town. " (See Sidebar 2.)

Annual rainfall averages 162 inches (13.5 feet!), and as if that were not enough, they also get 32 inches of snow (adding another 3 inches of liquid water)! That comes to 165 inches or 13.75 feet of liquid hitting the ground each year. No wonder it is so green!

I couldn't help but think of the craziest precipitation figures I had seen before: Crater Lake in Oregon. Crater Lake averages 67.8 inches of rain each year, but it gets an incredible 534.0 inches of snow. However, all that snow and rain added together only come to about 121 inches (10 feet) of liquid water. Ketchikan gets a lot more!

In 1886 a cannery was opened in Ketchikan, to help supply the miners in search of gold in Alaska, and the town was on its way. It got its post office in 1892, and that made it officially a town.

Ketchikan (KTN)

If you want to take a (non-sea) plane into Ketchikan, you will be landing on a runway that is located on Gravina Island, which lies across the Tongass Narrows from the city. Transportation from the airport to the city is via ferry boats ($5 per person). The two boats are each operated by a captain and a deckhand. You can ride the M.V. Oral Freeman, which is 116' 6" long, or the M.V. Bob Ellis, which is a bit shorter at an even 100 feet long. Boats leave Ketichikan on the the quarter hour, and the Gravina Island at the top and bottom of the hour. Happy sailing!

The runway is 7,500 feet long and is laid out at 88 feet above sea level, and in the month of September, 2006 the airport handled a total of 19,375 passengers, while the ferry transported 32,608 passengers.

Water ST. Tunnel

The Ketchikan Water St. Tunnel, sometimes called the "Downtown Tunnel", is billed as "the only tunnel that you can drive around, over and through".

We are looking along Front Street, past Dock Street, and the tunnel veers off to the left. The bypass for the tunnel is on Water Street that runs even farther to the left.

Since the tunnel is one-way, tourists have asked locals if they can get back if they go through the tunnel. It isn't quite as bad as asking what the elevation is when standing on the deck of a ship, but it's close.

The tunnel was built to help with the traffic problems this little town has. There is just not enough room between the mountains and the water to make a good road system and build all the houses and building and cruise ship docks. The hill jutting out into the water right in the middle of everything certainly didn't help. They built houses on top and stairways over but Harry Truman helped supply the money to cut the tunnel back in the 1950s.

Although we didn't make it over there, on the other side of the hill is the very scenic Newtown section of town. (Though not terribly original, originally the area was called New Town, which happily has been shortened to Newtown.) If you want to see what is on the other side, I found a site that has a wonderful 360° panoramic view of the dock and town at the other end of the tunnel.

Port Call: Ketchikan!

September 22, 2006

With each Alaskan Port Call, we spent less time than the previous one. In Juneau we were ashore for just over 7 hours. In Sitka, it was 4 hours and 40 minutes. In Ketchikan, we didn't stay for even 4 hours.

Of course the size of the towns had something to do with that I am sure, when the cruise planners set up the times available in each of the ports. Juneau was a city with a larger population and there was a lot to do there. Sitka had a smaller population and had fewer possible side attractions to visit. Ketchikan was even smaller, and so it made sense that we spent even less time there.

Ketchikan is called the "First Alaskan City," because it is the southernmost city in Alaska, and if you are coming up from the "lower 48" you will have to pass Ketchikan first. In our case it was the last Alaskan City, as we were leaving the beautiful state.

Our weather was wet. There was no fooling around with, maybe it will rain, or maybe it will hold off. It rained the whole time we were ashore. And I loved it!

The high temperature for the day was 54°F and the low was 50°F. There was a 9 mph wind, which made it feel a little cooler but it was very pleasant! It only rained just over 1 inch for Friday's entire 24 hours. So, during our less than 4 hours it probably only dropped less than 2 tenths of an inch: just a nice steady drizzle. (When we got back to Vancouver, Washington a couple of days later, it was 85°F, and when I saw the forecast for that temperature I was shocked. I was already acclimated to Alaska's nice cool September weather. Going back to reality was not altogether pleasant!)

I had a nice warm coat on, and a lot of the time when the ladies were inside shopping, I was outside enjoying the wonderful weather, with a big smile on my face. It felt so good to be cool in September. I normally have to wait until October to get close to temperatures that are this pleasant. I really had a good time in Ketchikan!

We dropped anchor and had the boats in the water by 6:32 a.m. which was the official time of sunrise. With the heavy cloud cover, however, it was still pretty dark out.

In Ketchikan they did have a deep water pier, to allow large cruise ships to pull up and tie up to the pier, but unfortunately we ended up odd man out, and had to use our launches instead.

It was a bit aggravating to see that we were here first and the Serenade of the Sea came in after we did, but she pulled right up to the pier while we sat out in the choppy Tongass Narrows.

It was apparently a dynamic process used to determine who would be at the pier, because the day before our ship had sent us the tentative plan for the day today, and had they had written that we would probably be tied at the pier; but it was not certain. Whatever factor that was used to make the decision (clearly it was not "first come first served") somehow left us using our launches rather than walking down the gangway to the pier.

But it turned out to be a good thing really, because the water was choppy and the ride in to shore (and back again) was fun. Ever since I discovered "Sea-Calm" (Meclizine HCl), I could truly enjoy bouncing ships and boats without getting ill.

One of our launches is in the distance as a larger tour boat appears to be pulling up to our ship. I am not sure if it is looking to pick up passengers for a bit of soggy whale watching, or if it is intending to run a load of passengers ashore to assist in expediting the process.

The pier in Ketchikan has two ships tied up at the moment, and a third (not us) will be added shortly. The weather is wet and the sky is very gray. We are in the Tongass Narrows, protected from the open sea, and still the water is less than calm. Visibility is very poor, and I think landing at the Ketchikan Airport (located in the opposite direction) would be tough on a day like this.

The buildings along Water Street lie behind the cluster of sea planes floating in the Tongass Narrows.

Beam me over Scotty! Here are Tammy and Jim posing with a flightless eagle that has escaped from a local cartoon.

We have made the boat ride safely and are now ashore in Ketchikan, Alaska. (I have a number of photos of our return trip in the launch later on, just in case you were looking foward to seeing what it was like on our ride over.) Tammy was protecting the camera, making sure that she didn't dazzle the lens with her flashing blue eyes.

So far we have been under the cover of a tent erected for those coming ashore from the launches. However, we are about to set out under the open sky. Dotti and Tammy have donned their rain parkas and are protected from melting in the rain. (Sugar is water soluble you understand, and they have to be careful!)

Since Jim is standing behind them, (his arm is visible) to the right, and I am holding the camera taking this photo, I can only guess that the ladies are posing for the Paparazzi trying to catch them on film.

Jim looks excited about another fun day of shopping with Tammy and Dotti. We are about ready to strike out in search of...you guessed it, jewelry stores! Hey, it never hurts to look, even if you can't buy...and if you drool over what you see, they have glass counter tops that clean up easily.

We crossed Front Street, and moved into striking distance of the shops along the waterfront. We are looking up Dock Street here, and I couldn't help but notice they had a cash machine at First Bank. I always thought it would be nice to have one of those, where you push a button and it prints up all the cash you need.

It has been exactly 3 minutes since we took our first picture on the pier after coming ashore. What I want to know is what took so long getting into the first jewelry store?

As the others were looking around Julies Fine Jewelry & Gifts shop, I stepped out to enjoy the weather and take a look around. The pavement was wet, and the sky was gray, but the cool temperature was very welcome to me.

For some reason the name Tetzel comes to mind. This store claims to sell "indulgences" for the negligent man who needs forgiveness for his errors. For a nominal fee, you too can be forgiven.

Standing on the corner of Main Street and Dock Street, and looking northeast up Dock. There is a Subway restaurant with its friendly menu for those who are watching their weight, and a little farther up, Chico's Mexican food restaurant where you can move your weight up in a hurry if you want. Fortunately, at 8:45 a.m., it was too early to be making those kinds of choices, and we would be back onboard ms Westerdam before we would eat lunch.

All the way at the end of the road is a Fish House, but you have to get past the Blue Diamond jewelry store to get there. All the cars have Alaska license plates, but we are getting used to that.

On the corner of Mission and Main Streets is a "Little Switzerland" store, reminiscent of the one we saw in Juneau, two days before.

As the enthusiasm bubbles off Jim I noticed the name of the chocolate store beyond him, and thought it was pretty creative for store located in Ketchikan: Ketchi Candies.

We are back on Front Street and looking at the Cruise ships. The drizzle continues to fall all around us.

Off in the distance, ms Westerdam sits at anchor and another launch is making its way ashore. In the foreground, umbrellas and raincoats highlight what the weather is today.

This is the Water Street Tunnel (see Sidebar). With the small amount of space geographically allotted to this town traffic is a perpetual problem. The roads get a lot of wear and tear on them, and road construction signs were easy to find.

The population of the city itself is listed as less than 8,000 people, and for the borough at around 15,000. Then, when you add in the passengers from 3 cruise ships each carrying several thousand people, they could almost instantly see their entire population double for a few hours, and then just as suddenly have it drop back to normal. So, it is no wonder that some of the sidewalks were a bit crowded, especially down along the water front.

It is also no surprise that there is a bit of a love-hate relationship with the tourists for the locals. One young lady who was running a register when we were checking out was very candid when we ask her if she were ready for the cruise season to be over.

"Oh, yes!" she said. "I am so glad this is the last of the ships this year!" She looked tired, not angry, but you know having your town invaded by strangers all during the summer months has to take a toll.

And she was working a job that depended upon tourists. What about those who worked in the fishing or timber industries? How did they feel about having their roads clogged and town covered with tourists like a wave washing over their sand castle? It would be really easy to get an attitude of "us against them.": locals against outsiders.

The upside was that the tourists got back on their boats and departed at the end of the day, leaving their money, and the locals' city behind. Every place has its problems, and some are not so temporary as tourists passing through for a day.

As in all areas of life, you either learn to cope, or you fix what bothers you. In this case, the cruise ports of call are all striving to draw in more tourists rather than less. While not all the residents are "onboard" with this position, most of them are, because it means a higher standard of living overall for the area.

These are normally visitors who are well behaved (often older) and who are happy to buy the souvenirs the locals offer to them. When they depart, they don't leave a lot of damage in their wake. The town is as it was before they arrived, but a bit richer for their having been there. Only the town can evaluate the transaction and decide if it goes in the plus or minus column when totaled up.

I for one am very grateful to the Alaskans of Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan who were so open with their towns—and no matter how they may have personally felt about tourists—they were nearly all friendly and courteous. We felt that they were generally happy to talk with us, and share their feelings about the local area, and to pass along history of their city.

I was standing about the same place as I was for the last picture, but this time I didn't use the zoom. The various elements of the scene have seemed to spread out, and have taken on their real relationship to each other.

Although it is not ms Westerdam, notice how the ship towers over the buildings along the waterfront. We sometimes forgot how big the ships were until we could compare them with something in our ordinary life. Then it all came into sharp focus: these vessels are huge!

Looking across the street we spied a very odd looking boat, or was it a bus? It looked like someone had crossed the two!

The Alaska Amphibious Tours company will drive you down to the harbor then right into it! This vehicle will drive on the road, and swim like a fish in the water. It is truly an amphibian, just like the name says.

"Wow! Look at that Tammy: more jewelry!"

"Cool! Let me see!"

In the background, yet another ship looms over the city, patiently waiting like an obedient pet, while a vehicle with the very Alaskan name of Sourdough Cab waits for its fare.

I have never seen a more beautiful sight! When Dotti smiles, the sun, even when it is out, seems to dim in comparison with that radiant face.

Many people who take cruises are retired, and we enjoyed very much sharing our cruise with so many people like those in the background here who have done so much to make life better for us all!

While the ladies were inside the jewelry store, I remained outside to enjoy the cool weather and watch the people going by. I found a jewelry store that was closed down and empty. When Dotti and Tammy came out, I told them that I finally found a jewelry store that I really liked. They smiled, but you could tell that they were not really amused.

Ketchikan Tours & Attractions! The signs across the building let you know that you can find information inside on: Flightseeing; Kayaking; Sightseeing; Sportfishing; Transportation; and Walking Tour Maps. As you can see, there are no crowds surrounding this building, even with 3 ships in port. The weather, and the short stay made many of these things impractical for most people.

The one thing I most learned about Alaska is that you can't even scratch the surface of the tourist stuff on one cruise, and getting beyond that to the real Alaska would take a lot more time. Once again I thought to myself, "We have to come back."

We've moved down about a block from where we were when I took the tunnel picture, and Jim is holding out his hands as if to say, "What can I do? They disappeared into another jewelry store?"

Just ahead, the ship grows larger, and Front Street curves into Mill Street. Standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by, is Diamonds International—with apologies to Dean Martin.

Across the street is the Alaska Steamship Co.: Steamers Restaurant. It also has a little mall inside with gifts and, you guessed it, Jewelry!

Meanwhile Diamonds International continues to sing its siren's song to all the ladies who are passing by.

Dotti has a magnet on our refrigerator that says, "Say the words I long to hear: ‘I'll buy it for you!’" I wonder why that comes to mind just now.

But surprise of surprises, the ladies are not looking at jewelry right now! They have found something far more attractive to look at, and much warmer and friendlier.

This dog's owner had come up with a mercenary scheme that appeared to be working very well. For a nominal fee (folding money only please, paid by sticking it underneath his collar) you can pet the pretty dog.

Okay, it's a husky, and it's cute, but it reminded me of an exotic dancer with all those dollar bills hanging off of it. Here's to the enterprising gentleman! He put a real smile on the girl's faces, and it was a lot cheaper that jewelry!

Dotti really liked the dog as you can tell, but the dog seems to be pretending to be bored.

Tammy takes her turn, but the dog is still just lying there. What do you suppose it it thinking?

You know what the guy behind the counter is thinking: will you get that dog out of here so I can sell some jewelry!

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