Saturday, July 31

Ketchikan


Ketchikan is a quaint harbour town clinging to the shores of Tongass Narrows in the Southern Panhandle of Alaska. It was founded in 1885 as a cannery site and once titled itself the Canned Salmon Capital of the World. At least a third of local industry still depends on commercial fishing. However, cruise ship tourism has become the town’s largest earner in more recent times.


Ketchikan is also considered the rainiest locations in Alaska. In 1945 a staggering 202.55 inches of rain fell in a single year. That’s almost 17 feet of rain. An average year is far drier with only 13 feet of rain falling. We were lucky today. As we pulled in dockside day was breaking with largely blue sky and sunshine. The only indicator of the city's wet weather was a Liquid Sunshine gauge we found bolted to the side of the Tourism Centre. 13 feet of rain is a lot of water when you're standing next to it!


We spent an hour wandering the compact downtown zone. Compact is a comparative term as the city is rarely more than ten blocks wide but stretches miles along a narrow coastal shelf lying in the shadow of 3000 foot Deer Mountain. Perhaps the city’s most famous sight is Creek Street; a collection of old wooden dwellings built on piling over Ketchikan Creek. It was once the town’s red light district until prostitution was outlawed in 1954. At its peak, the boardwalk accommodated more than 30 brothels. The most renown was Dolly’s House. Today it houses a museum dedicated to the building’s former licentious owner.


We later walked along the creek, watching literally hundreds of enormous salmon make their way upstream to spawn. Delicious! The spawning salmon attract plenty of local wildlife, including bears. This was something we had to see for ourselves. Months ago I’d booked a floatplane tour to Traitor’s Cove, more than 25 kilometres north of Ketchikan. We chose a small family-run business called Seawind Aviation. Steve, our pilot and business owner, flew six of us up the coast in perfect conditions. The views of the town, our ship and the surrounding wilderness were breath-taking; as was the isolated glassy-smooth cove we eventually landed in.


A short bush walk took us to a wooden viewing platform built by the national park authorities on the bank of Margaret Creek. It’s situated above several fish ladders built to help salmon swim upstream. Within minutes of our arrival a juvenile black bear sauntered into view on the opposite bank. Shortly afterwards a mother bear and cub came into view.


It wasn’t long before we saw a bear catch a salmon in its mouth. It made the feat look effortless. The bear literally bent down at the mouth of the fish ladder and scooped up a tasty snack within seconds. It then made its way up to a bush to the side of our viewing platform where, hidden from view, it ate its catch. Its presence was distinguished only by the occasional rustle of the trees. We eventually saw two bears catch fish and a third struggle gallantly, but never quite make it.


The creek was also home to several bald eagles. We watched almost a dozen birds swooping over the creek and perching on branches all around us. It was incredible to see so many beautiful birds up close. Our guide later took us to the lower reaches of the stream where we could see the salmon actually spawning in the shallows. The entire morning was literally an experience out of the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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