I’d always wanted to visit Alaska and it hasn’t disappointed. It feels like nowhere else in the United States. There’s so much space. 740,000 people populate an area over twice the size of France. But there are no skyscrapers – in fact many buildings look like they’re straight out of westerns.
And you’re never far from wilderness. Massive mountains and forests line steep valleys and shimmering fjords. It’s green and unspoiled with walks, trails and tours where you’re pretty much guaranteed to see soaring eagles, leaping orcas or encounter bears. And the air is so clear and fresh, you can feel your lungs being gently scoured clean.
I’ve come to Ketchikan, a small town only accessible by air, or by boat travelling along the Inside Passage waterway. It’s on an island with just 15 miles of road in each direction and there’s definitely an island vibe. People seem chatty, the pace of life appears slower. But Ketchikan is also a major cruise ship destination that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually and up to six cruise ships each day.
It’s not somewhere you come to if you want to top up your tan. Locals celebrate the annual rainfall of 155 inches. There’s even a rain gauge in the town centre. Island singer Shauna Lee explained. ”Living here is not for the feint of heart. There’s a limit to how much you can stand.” But she added that locals who leave usually return within a year. “I’ve been to so many leaving parties and twelve months later they’re back,” she says.
It’s obviously a warm close-knit community. I think it’s different because it is so isolated. You can’t drive across the state of Alaska because the landscape is too extreme and roads haven’t been built. They just come to a dead end.
Arriving in Ketchikan City is unusual. The airport is only a mile out of town but it’s on the other side of the waterway. So you have to catch a ferry! It’s probably the most expensive sea crossing I’ve experienced, at $6 for a 2 minute ride. Another claim to fame, my cabbie proudly told me, is that Ketchikan is the ‘Salmon Capital of the World.’ Fishing brings visitors and Michael Briggs of Alaska Sport Fishing Expeditions looks after the salmon hunters.
Michael told me, “You could take a toothpick and drag it through the water and catch fish just feet from the dock. It’s abundant.” His company is used to helping ‘rookies’ and he’ll guide customers through all they need to know, from boat operation to the best bait. You might have seen TV’s Deadliest Catch. You can board one of the vessels and talk to the fisherman featured on the show.
As well as singing, Shauna Lee (who used to be in the UK band Curiosity Killed the Cat) also works for AlaskaCrabtour.com. It’s an authentic boat trip with fishermen who tell moving tales of their experiences out on the savage Bering Sea. “I’ve seen some of these tough guys cry when they share stories of how they almost killed their friends,” Shauna says. The excursion will offer passengers an insight into the challenges of commercial crab fishing. “We bring 700lb crab pots over the side and you can hold some of the catch’’ she says, adding, “but we don’t let visitors touch the king crabs. They get a little crazy.” Shauna says the 107ft crab boat is built to be stable so passengers won’t get seasick. “It’s like riding in a Cadillac,” she offered.
Now you’d expect seafood to be fresh here and I accepted an offer from Ketchican’s favourite seafood restaurateur, Chuck Slagle, to see how good it actually is. I geared up in a sou’wester and leggings to beat the spray and mist as we bounced through the water in a steel skiff boat. My backside jumped off the seat and landed with a thud quite a few times! You can rent these boats and larger vessels from Chuck if you want to go out fishing alone or you can arrange a trip with him through ExclusiveAlaksa.com. The views of the steep mountains, shrouded in low cloud was breath-taking.
We were headed off to intercept a fishing boat and collect a large king salmon. The huge fish was tossed into our small boat and landed with a loud thud, with Chuck’s cry of, “Holy smoly that’s a big one,” shattering the silence of the wilderness. Back at Chuck’s restaurant, the stylish Alaska Fish House right on the waterfront, I had the best fish and chips I’d ever eaten. Honestly! It’s a lovely place to eat with a view right over the waterway and rows of wooden benches and tables leading to a wood-burning stove. I was so grateful for that extra warmth after being out on the water.
Chuck is passionate about Alaskan food, as most locals are, and if you go out fishing on one of his boats his team will cook and serve your catch. I’d never heard of a chip shop offering that service. “It’s important because it ties people to the ocean. It connects people with the food,” he told me as we tucked in to the delicious catch.
Salmon and fish canning is big business here. There are shops stacked with hundreds of tins of it that people post home as a present. It is worth trying. I was told that they’re fine for five years. It’s not like the tinned fish we have in Britain. It’s much nicer – more like the vacuum packed cooked salmon steaks you buy in supermarkets. Its colour is more rich, vibrant and red too. That’s because it’s illegal to farm salmon in Alaska. They only catch wild fish.
One final fishy fact – if you want to see bears, the best time to visit Ketchican, is late August. That’s when the salmon run in the creeks and it brings out the bears. And here’s a fun food idea. Ride the 211-foot funicular railway cut into the cliff face, to access the Cape Fox Restaurant. It’s $2 per person but I got it for free after eating a stack of pancakes. Your fee is waived if you eat there. I went for breakfast and the views are excellent.
After fortifying myself, it was time to discover Ketchican’s history and culture. I recommend staying overnight in Ketchikan because you’ll see a different side to the city. During the day, the cruise ship port is busy. Each year 466 cruise ships decant around 1 million people alongside the quay, between the months of May and September. When I first arrived I couldn’t see beyond the tourist souvenir shops selling mass-produced junk you’d find the world over. But when the last boat departs, there’s an instant change of pace.
37-year resident, artist Ray Troll, says locals love Ketchikan’s dual personality. “The ships bring an international flavour,” he says. “You can be sitting in a bar next to a Frenchman and an Israeli, but at night and in the winter, we get our town back”. Ray’s T-shirts are worn by visitors and locals. He designed the best selling Ketchikan souvenir in 1987 – a shirt featuring a salmon with the caption, “Spawn ‘Til You Die.”
Native American culture plays a prominent role in Ketchikan. You can see tribal art on sale and you can learn more about it when you tour the totem poles at the fascinating Totem Heritage Center. Anita Maxwell showed me around the 34 complete and partial carvings on display. There are also canoes, masks and axes to help you understand more about Native American culture. It’s a five-minute walk from town and just $5 admission.
Ketchikan has a seedier history too. All those men together in a logging town wanted the company of women. And they could have it – at a price. Creek Street was once a very busy brothel area. Ironically, today the view provides the perfect Ketchikan postcard image. Red, cream and blue timbered buildings line the wooded riverside. You access these shops on a long, wooden boardwalk – a jetty built on stilts because of the lack of space in the mountainous terrain. The interior of one of the former ‘bawdy houses’, Dolly’s, has been preserved, says guide Renee. “It was the old red light district and there was one girl to every 100 men,” she says. Dolly found it lucrative. She was worth $250,000 when she died in 1975.
If you love Edwardian decoration and antiques, Dolly’s House is worth the $5 admission. You can also see the trapdoors where they used to bootleg the whisky during prohibition. It’s all family-friendly. Renee promised there was nothing inside that you wouldn’t want a child to see!
Ketchican’s forestry workers provided the income for Creek Street’s women until 1954. Today, their wood chopping skills form a fantastic family show. Being men, they found a way to make their work competitive and lumberjack competitions started. Throughout the summer season, visitors sit in the covered and heated grandstand area to watch the hour-long Alaskan Lumberjack Show.
During the packed performance men throw axes, roll logs or speed climb. The rate at which they haul themselves up a 60-foot pole is incredible. Then they descend by kicking out their feet and baling to the bottom. Many of the performers are studying forestry and this is a big sport with national championships in Wisconsin. Six foot four tall Boon Sheer told me that his frame gives him additional strength. And he needs to be fit for up to five shows a day, each with thirteen events, some chainsaw carving and even songs. His dad was a champion and Boon started at four years of age.
The MC, ‘Short Stack’ Sally, whips the audience into a frenzy. The two teams – the USA and Canada – slog it out in the arena. Naturally I had to support our Commonwealth cousins. Everyone was cheering or booing. It was quite infectious, just like a British panto.
If you want to sample Alaska, Ketchikan makes a great destination. The town is small, friendly and walkable. There are a variety of activities to keep most people occupied – whether wildlife watching, fishing, or zip-lining through the forest. And the town has enough galleries, museums and places to eat to rely on when it rains, as it will. The downside is the salmon you buy from your local supermarket will never quite taste as good in comparison.
Whilst there is a tourism season, Ketchikan’s museums, hotels and some restaurants are open all year round. You reach the town on a daily 2-hour flight from Seattle, costing from £110.
I found Finnair offering the 9-hour London to Seattle flight from £540 nonstop in early May 2017. Food in Alaska is around 15% more than you’d expect to pay in many other US cities.