June 28 – Ketchikan, Alaska

I was again up early … by 5:00 AM … and went in search of some morning coffee on the 9th deck dining room.  Outside, our ship was nearing Ketchikan and many fishing, tugs and other commercial boats were already busily underway along the Tongass Narrows between Revillagigedo Island, on which Ketchikan is situated and Gravina Island.

We passed several float plane marinas

and Vigor Corporation,

the largest shipbuilding and ship repair facility

along Alaska’s panhandle;  employing some 500 workers and constructing most of the marine ferries used along the state’s Marine Highway.

As the ship pulled alongside its assigned pier

there was an excellent view of the dockside retail establishments

most peddling jewelry, furs, T-shirts and almost any type of tourist souvenir you can imagine.

Ketchikan is the southeastern most city in Alaska. With a population at of  8,050, it is the fifth-most populous city in the state, and tenth-most populous community encompassing suburbs both north and south of the city along the 32-mile Tongass Highway, plus small rural settlements accessible mostly by water, registered a population of 13,477 in that same census.

Ketchikan, located on Revillagigedo Island, is named after Ketchikan Creek, which flows through the town, emptying into the Tongass Narrows,  a short distance southeast of its downtown.

Ketchikan Creek served as a summer fish camp for Tlingit Natives for untold years before the town was established by Mike Martin in 1885.  For most of the latter half of the 20th century, a large portion of Ketchikan's economy and life centered on the Ketchikan Pulp Company. The mill closed in 1997 in the wake of the passage of the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990, which reduced timber harvest targets in the national forest

Ketchikan's modern economy is based upon government services, tourism and commercial fishing. And Civic boosters have dubbed the community the “Salmon” Capital of the World.

Ketchikan has the world's largest collection of standing totem poles, found throughout the city

By this time, we knew we were going to need our rain gear.

We got our first glimpse of the city’s famous … or infamous … Creek Street.

Three other large cruise ships followed us into Ketchikan over the next couple of hours.

Barding our bus for the Totem Bight Historic Park, passing an eagle carving

done by one of the master carvers who create totem poles.

Located in the Tongass National Forest, at 16.7 million acres, the largest temperate rain forest in the world and the second largest rain forest after the Amazon, the Totem Bight Historical State Park. 

With the growth of non-Native settlements in Southeast Alaska in the early 1900's, and the decline of a barter economy, Natives moved to communities where work was available.  The villages and totem poles they left behind were soon overgrown by forests and eroded by weather. In 1938 the U.S. Forest Services began a program aimed at salvaging and reconstructing these large cedar monuments.  By using Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) funds to hire skilled carvers from among the older Natives, two things took place: young artisans learned the art of carving totem poles, and totems which had been left to rot in the woods were either repaired or duplicated.

Alaskan architect Linn Forrest supervised construction of the model Native village for this site, then called Mud Bight. The fragments of old poles were laid beside freshly cut cedar logs, and every attempt was made to copy them traditionally.  Tools for carving were hand-made, modeled on the older tools used before coming of Europeans.  Samples of Native paints were created from natural substances such as clam shells, lichen, graphite, copper pebbles, and salmon eggs; natural colors were then duplicated with modern paints.

 By the time World War II slowed down the CCC project, the community house and 15 poles were in place.  The name of the site was then changed to Totem Bight (presently 33 acres in size).  At statehood, in 1959, title to the land passed from the federal government to the State of Alaska, and the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.  At that time it came under the management of the State's Department of Natural Resources for continuing historic preservation treatment by the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

The moss covered rope and post attest to the dampness of the air.

Moreover young trees growing up from the fallen stumps of decaying trees which have fallen attest to the near continuous damp air … which receives up to 13 feet of rain a year.

Under a canopy of hemlock, Sitka spruce red cedar, it is the home of one of the world’s largest stands of totems and an authentic Native clan house.  Totem poles and even the clan houses are typically made from red cedar for its grain strength, resistance to bugs and rot.

To appreciate Totem Bight, it was first important to understand Totem Poles.  Totem tell stories through the figures and crests on the pole.  Totem figures usually depict humans, animals or invented combinations.  Ears on the side of the head tell you it is a human figure; animal ears are on top.

Some definitions:

  • Potlaches – repay debits honor relatives or celebrate an important life transition such as birth death, marriage or house building.  The last for days and include featuring, speeches, singing and dancing.
  • Tlingit and Haida – people are divided into two moieties, Raven and Eagle … and in some places, Raven and Wolf.  Marrying within one’s moiety is strictly forbidden.  A child’s moiety comes from his mother.
  • Moieties – consist of clans.  Clans are divided into houses, and all have crests symbols. These crests are placed on the clan house, totem poles, boats and ceremonial regalia.

The colors, while presently obtained from paint stores, were originally made by the master crafts persons.

  • Red – from Rust
  • Black – from Charcoal
  • Blue – from Copper sulfide

When there is a bare area on the pole it is intentional and meant to place additional emphasis on the carved images.

The following are some of the animals typically found carved on totem poles, although not all of these attributes can be found on every use of these figures.

Eagle – one of two main Haida and Tlingit crests.  Characteristics include:

  • Curved down beak, shorter than that of the Raven.
  • Tongue.
  • Prominent U-form ears.
  • U-form feathers.

Raven – thought to have super natural powers and be the creator of the world.  It is one of the two main Tlingit and Haida crests.  Characteristics include:

  • Long straight beak having a blunt or short turned-down tip.
  • Ears visible.
  • Tongue visible.

Mystical Thunderbird – the most powerful of the spirits.  Only the most prestigious of chiefs have Thunderbird crests.  Characteristics include:

  • Outstretched wings.
  • Upper beak sharply curved.
  • Curved appendages on the top of the head.

Frog – it is said that the curved tops on house poles prevent them from falling over.  Characteristics include:

  • Wide mouth.
  • Thick lips.
  • Toed feet in flexed position.
  • No teeth' ears or tail.

Bear – because of its power and human-like qualities, a killer bear was taken to the chief’s house and treated as a high-ranking quest.  Characteristics include:

  • Large flaring nostrils.
  • Wide mouth with large canine teeth.
  • Claw-like paws.
  • Short or no tail.
  • Protruding tongue.
  • Prominent ears

Beaver – an important crest of the Haida is the subject of many legends.  Characteristics include:

  • Open mouth.
  • Large incisor teeth.
  • Stick held in mouth of forepaws.
  • Cross-hatched pattern on the tail

Blackfish or Killer Whale – Haida believed killer whales were drowned persons returning to visit.  Characteristics include:

  • Round head with a snout filled with large teeth.
  • Blow hole often carved as a small human-like face.
  • Prominent dorsal fin and pectoral fins.
  • Round eyes.

Watchman – standing watch atop a totem pole the watchman warns the owner of an approaching enemy.  Characteristics include:

  • Human figure.
  • Ears on side of head.
  • And often has concentric rings signaling the number of potlaches the owner has given.


While we cannot remember the details of the stories … which are read from the top of the totem down … about each of the totems we saw today, we did rediscover that the accumulated wisdom of mankind has frequently been captured on tourist-trap T-shirts.

Back to Ketchikan’s historic totems

At over 80 feet, one of the world’s tallest totems

several totems, which are undergoing repair work,

and clan house.


The shoreline of the park has its own beauty.

We also discovered why some eagles become “bald”.

Returning to the ship, we caught sight of several interesting through the rain-mottled windows of our bus.

Floating shack, lived in by loggers who lived on the water with the log “rafts” they were shepherding down the Inland Passage to paper mills in Ketchikan

An Alaska Airlines 737 taking off from Ketchikan International Airport across the Narrows on Gravina Island

An ethereal cross whose mysterious appearance was caused by the rain.

Large, upscale

and more modest homes (the latter akin to some of those shown on “Buying Alaska”)

After arriving back at our ship’s pier, we took a short ¼ mile stroll to the Creek Street National Historic District, where salmon runs

attracted Alaska Natives for centuries and which after the arrival of the “white man” eventually became the city’s red-light district … and today, modest tourist-oriented retail shops.  However, it is the historically titillating tales of the Creek Street buildings that attract the tourists; including

June’s Cafe

Preacher’s House

20 Creek Street

Ketchikan’s Shingle Mill

and last, but not least, Dolly’s House and Museum

Dedicated to Ketchikan’s most successful madam

Heading back toward the ship …

Before reboarding the MS Eurodam, we visited “The Rock”, a sculpture sited beside the Visitor’s Center on cruise ship pier 1. 

It depicts a Tlingit woman sitting with her drum singing her song of Ketchikan.  She tells a story of the five sculptures which surround her on “the Rock”.  She sings of how the “loggers” came and harvested the trees, the “miners” mined gold, the “fishermen” dared the sea for the salmon and the halibut, and the “pilots” who braved the sky carrying people out beyond the reach of any ship or road.  The “pioneer woman” arrives on her own, looking out over the horizon of opportunity that awaits her in this new land. 

Atop The Rock stands Chief Johnson

who, in the early days of Ketchikan, would be waiting on the dock to greet travelers arriving on the ships sailing from San Francisco and Seattle.  He offered them trinkets for sale and in this way began cultural exchanges that continue to day.  He stands as a visionary as he now welcomes the world.

With the tides, which have a 20-foot range, having changed since our ship’s arrival in port earlier this morning, we were held up before reboarding until the gangplanks could be repositioned to eliminate a steep climb, especially as they were wet form the rain.

Finally, back aboard we watched the traffic on the Tongass Narrows between our ship and Gravina Island.

Tonight was the second “Gala Night” of the week, so, instead of jeans, we donned our “Thursday best” … a dress for Debbie and jacket and tie for me … for dinner.

We are presently steaming south toward Victoria in British Columbia where we will dock briefly late tomorrow afternoon.


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