Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ketchikan -- Salmon Capital of the World

Well when you expect the worst, you can often be pleasantly surprised and today Ketchikan surprised me. We awoke to a day that was bright and while not sunny we decided to leave our umbrellas on the ship. At the tourist bureau, right in front of the dock, we picked up a walking tour map and set off to see what Ketchikan had to offer its visitors. We have been here before so we knew to head off for the area called Creek Street, which runs by the Ketchikan Creek. This area was the "red light" area from 1903 for half a century, but now is home to galleries, delightful shops and a museum or two, in reconstructed or refurbished buildings on stilts which line the boardwalk by the side of the creek.

But let me tell you a little about the town of Ketchikan. Situated in the temperate rain forest, on an island , it is quite hilly, except for a long flat area along the shore of the Tongass Narrows, and is sandwiched between the water and the surrounding mountains. Many houses are linked by long wooden staircases, which often actually are named as if they are streets. Nicknamed the "first city", it is often the first port the northbound ships visit in Alaska. Today there were four cruise ships in the harbour, with two at the dock and at anchor offshore and delivering their passengers to the shore by "tender".

Originally a Tlingit summer camp, the first white settlers were Russians here for the fur trade. Later mining and salmon fishing were the big industries but as mining faded forestry arose and then finally tourism became a huge part of the town's economy. The ever present jewellery stores which cater to the cruise ship passengers abound but amongst these are galleries and stores which display beautiful native artwork along with carved ivory and whalebone figures.

As we wandered along the boardwalk lining the Ketchikan Creek, the weak sun began to shine. A favourite spot there is the small museum called Dolly's house, originally the home and workplace of one of the town�s famous prostitutes. Outside women dressed in period costume invite you to enter and tour the tiny house. We passed on by since we have been before and there was a crowd. The stores along the creek are very interesting and different from the downtown area. I talked to a native woman in an Alaskan artisan gallery where I bought some small gifts. She told me that she had been the artist in residence aboard the Zaandam one summer, demonstrating basket weaving and said it was a wonderful experience.

We stopped for quite a while to watch the creek which has a series of small rapids. We watched two very large salmon making their way up the creek, pausing to rest in the pool below the rapids and then finally making it over. Did I get this on film? I did not, of course. Well it was a little far away, but I was too busy watching and forgot to turn on my camera. However a man in a red kayak came paddling along so I took several shots of him. At the end of the boardwalk there is a tiny funicular leading to a lodge at the top, however we opted to walk the winding trail through the trees which leads to the same lodge at the top. The trail is named the Married Man�s Trail, a secret escape route from the Creek Street bordello area. At there top there is a beautiful view of the town below and the Tongass Narrows.

Descending again we visited the Tongass Historical Museum which has a small display of old photos of the town, mining paraphernalia and some very old native tools and implements from the area.

Around the town are situated half a dozen totem poles; these are modern examples of the poles which once proliferated in the area, poles which are common in the Pacific Northwest native culture from Washington state and north.

So what exactly are totem poles? They represent the history of the people who had no written history. They are typically carved in western red cedar, which decomposes from the inside to the outside and they slowly rot due to the damp climate, lasting about 60 to 70 years. They are carved lying horizontally and are raised with great ceremony, usually at a potlatch feast which is characterized by the host giving away many of his possessions. In the native culture the pole was raised and allowed to rot into the underground. The carvings on the pole were for different reasons, some to depict legends or story poles, some to honour a deceased person, called mortuary poles and some just honouring some momentous event.

The golden age of totem poles was in the latter half of the 19th century, around 1860, mainly due to the increased wealth of the native bands due to the fur trade and the iron tools acquired from the white man and the newly available artificial pigments for painting.

Missionaries discouraged totem poles due to thinking they were worshipped, which of course they were not. Consequently few poles were carved between 1880 and 1970. In 1960 a local project was undertaken to collect the remaining poles from the abandoned villages, but sadly only 44 were found, with only 33 being salvageable. The Totem Heritage Centre was founded in 1976 to house these poles and the modern carving tradition was resurrected. Inside the centre stand five magnificent poles, more than 100 years old, badly weathered with little colour remaining. In another room are displayed bits and pieces of poles along with photos of how they appeared in their original sites. The centre also provides courses in other native art forms and they are helping to keep alive these artistic traditions.

We slowly made our way back to the ship and by this time the day had become a perfect sunny spring day. I wished that we had taken some sort of boat tour, since I saw people getting onto a boat to head out who knows where. However there wasn't enough time left so we retreated to the deck and enjoyed sitting and watching life in Ketchikan go by from the ship.

Today, our last day at sea before reaching Vancouver, I'm sitting by the window in the library and I have seen several humpback whales. Usually you see the spouting first followed by the large body rounding out of the water, then more spouting and finally the tail fluke disappearing under the water.

Later I'll post about cruising in general and life aboard this huge vessel.


Lee said...

Again a wonderful tale, jmb. I fell in love with "Men In Trees" the television show, mainly for the life and scenery depicted in it of as small town in Alaska. Your telling of your trip is so interesting.

It's sad about the totem poles. Let's hope the practice and tradition remains.

Eurodog said...

Lovely post again.

lady macleod said...

Lovely post. I especially liked the story of the Married Man's secret trail.

Liz said...

That's really interesting about totem poles, and fancy seeing whales, just like that! Amazing experiences.

I like the idea of the Married Man's Trail!

Janice Thomson said...

Such interesting info about totem poles. We have 2 here in Courtenay by the Kwakiutl. The colors are beautiful as are the carvings themselves. Looking forward to more JMB.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I'd love to visit "Dolly's House" - that is the sort of museum I enjoy. They are selling ivory firgures there? Isn't that outlawed? Fascinating history of totem poles, jmb. And seeing whales! What a wonderful experience that must be.

Donnetta Lee said...

Sounds like you are having an absolutely wonderful time. You tell the story so well. We can all enjoy it!

Food is my Love Language said...

Thanks for your description of Ketchikan. My daughter is visiting there now, and your explaination of Creek Street and Married Man's Trail added a fun history to the photos she's posted.