Float planes have a distinct sound to them. As they fly over you with their two wing lights flashing and the odd elongated shapes dangling underneath the belly of the plane, you know what it is from miles away. Lots of memories start coming back to me as Anna and I paddle toward Ketchikan, Alaska. We have crossed the border a couple days back and now little white dots that sit on the hillside form into houses. I hear and see float planes flying in all directions and more people are on the shores.
When I was 4 my family moved from Washington State to a logging camp on Long Island in Alaska- a float plane ride away from Ketchikan. My dad was an equipment operator that built roads so logging trucks could take massive trees out to the water.
You might not think I should remember much the two years I lived there being so young, but that was a life changing experience that formed me into who I am today. The logging camp was a temporary establishment with bunkhouses for the workers to stay in, trailer houses were barged in for loggers who had families, and a four room school house was erected for the 35 kids who lived there. There was also a tiny general store that my brother and I would run down to and buy little foam airplanes to play with for 10 cents.
As a kid, hearing the noise of a float plane after weeks of bad weather was exciting because it meant we were getting food and mail. See before the days of online shopping and Prime 2 day shipping we had the Sears catalog and my mother had to mail in a grocery list to the store in Ketchikan to get food mailed back to us. It wasn’t an inconvenience, it was a way of life. Living there was a kid’s dream. We had the woods to play in, beaches to roam for treasures and my parents would never have to worry about us getting lost or snatched up by strangers. My brother and I would carve out underground forts out of massive old growth stumps and dig roads into the hills for our Hot Wheel cars and planes. Everything was new and exciting.
Paddling up through Tongass Narrows toward Ketchikan we start passing large tour boats going in the opposite direction and small fishing boats packed with people with poles in hand ready to experience what it is like to catch a salmon.
The Ketchikan my family knew with rowdy bars filled with crazy wild young men, logging hardhats and chainsaws has given way to souvenir shops, restaurants and loads of people wearing Arcteryx and Rab taking pictures of anything and everything. Tour bus after tour bus line the streets taking the twelve thousand people that flush out of four gigantic cruise ships each day to destinations of fun. Ketchikan had to change, the mill closed some time back and logging slowed. Not much was offered for an isolated community with no road access other than fishing and a little tourism. It was a little sad to come back after all those years to a totally different place, but I understand that time changes most places.
We slide past cruise ship after cruise ship and find our way to the Ketchikan Yacht Club that allow us to store our boats on their dock and use their facilities for a couple days. We found a nice little place to stay at Inn at Creekstreet that was just up from our boats. It’s funny how much Anna and I have been enjoying our time at the town stop-overs. We didn’t expect to, but the people we meet have all been so wonderful and we’ve come to understand quite a bit more about the culture and history of these areas. And Anna loves having real espresso to drink.
Most of the cruise ship tourists here stay in the area that has been built up for them full of jewelry shops and stuffed animals. If you get off the beaten path and wander around you find really nice local art shops and some museums worth going to. One I would highly recommend is the Totem Heritage Center. They have many original totem poles on display and tell the stories of the people who live in this area. It is incredible how a beautiful the carvings are, they even have one that still has some original color around the eyes from the 1800s. If you didn’t know, all the coloring comes from a person that has to chew up salmon eggs and then mix with minerals they had locally. Why did they chew up the eggs instead of smashing them, well human saliva has a binding agent that would allow the paint to stick to the carved cedar surfaces of the totem poles. You just couldn’t go to Home Depot and grab some Bear paint, everything took time and patience.
The natives would erect totem poles for a couple different reasons, one was to honor the dead another was when they had a potlacht (a big party). Most of all the original poles from years back have fallen over and rotted back into the ground which is their custom to let them go.
Ketchikan has been a treat to re-visit. Even though the cruise ships have taken over, this quirky small town has a place in my heart and I would highly recommend it for a couple of days. Take some time and venture out to Misty Fjords National Monument. Or just enjoy the fresh seafood that comes straight off the boats. You can’t go wrong.