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Petersburg to Ketchikan, III

September 11, 2012

September 3 – 5

It is freely claimed by residents of other towns in southeast Alaska that Ketchikan has prostituted itself to tourism. But prostitution in Ketchikan has a long history. Faced with repeated economic crashes, the town needed a dependable, recurring source of income from a client base it could invite in and dismiss at will. By opening itself to cruise ships, Ketchikan is simply continuing to do what it does best.

The jump from Prince of Wales Island to Ketchikan almost beats another small low. Our ride across Clarence is smooth, but entering Tongass Narrows the sky lowers and the wind picks up to twenty knots on the nose with rain, which lightens only some as we approach the town.

Ketchikan is literally abuzz. We first pass a working dry dock with three ships sitting high, then fleets of float planes, many revving to take off, and as we round the final bend, a Princess Line Cruise ship passes heading north.

I call the harbor master for a slip, and am told there is plenty of room at City Floats.

“Which are where?” I ask.

“Just past the cruise ship,” he says.

“But I see three in a line. Which one?” I ask.

“Ah yes, I’d forgotten they’re all in. There’s a small opening between the first and second ship. In there is the harbor. It’s right downtown.”


And so it is. Except the downtown I explore that afternoon is not that of a working town, for the city has converted the entire district adjacent to the ship wharf into a tourist district. Scads of trinket shops, clothing stores, restaurants, bars, cafe’s fill several square blocks. Alaska’s version of the New Orleans’ French Quarter is here. Here you can have a drink at the Happy Grizzly, dine at Sockeye Sam’s, and then take in the Alaskan Logger’s show. But hurry, your ship leaves at sundown.

Even the historic district on Creek Street has been converted into a walk-through museum where I find that Dolly’s famous brothel is no longer hot pink; the house is yellow, but you still must pay before you enter.

In the window of Parnassus Books is a sign reading: “The closest bathroom is in the public library; the closest restaurant is four doors down; you can buy umbrellas at Wild Salmon store near the wharf.”

“People tend to think I’m a concierge because I run a bookstore,” says the owner when I ask. “So I try to help them out with the sign.”

“Has it always been like this?” I ask.

“At least since the 70s–they were running cruise ships here when I arrived. In Sitka they’ve voted down cruise ship piers many years running. But we’re more conservative here, more business oriented. Though we too have a public radio station.”

From her I learn that the town of 8,000 routinely doubles its size when the four cruise ships are in. “Nearly 900,000 visitors this year,” she says, “12,000 on our busiest day. Here for a few hours, and then, poof, gone.”

In the evening I watch the last cruise ship depart. When I turn, the district is shut and looks exactly like a ghost town.


“It’s a little like Las Vegas,” says the librarian who hands me a free pass for an hour’s worth of Internet connectivity. “Downtown is just for the tourists, but if you look at a city map, you’ll see a whole other section of town up north. This is where most of us live–we’ve got a big Safeway, a couple gas stations; the float planes fly from there; it’s where the banks are collected, and the restaurants we like. The historic district’s not really downtown any more: it’s all been given over to the cruise ships.”


Next day I visit the museum hoping to find some explanation of the transition form logging town to cruise ship hub.

“Nothing in there you won’t find in any small-town-Alaska museum,” say the docent at the door. “Some old chain saws, a few hard hats, mounted black and whites of a logging camp.” I hesitate. “Don’t want to pay the two bucks? OK, Go have a peak. But there’s really only one thing to see.”

He takes me into the back and up to a glass case filled with Tlingit artifacts, old fishing lures, wooden canoe paddles, woven hats. And then he points at two boxes, each of a size one might use to pack books. Each is painted with a black and red totem, now quite faded.

“Those are bent wood boxes,” he says, “made from thin sheets of wood pressed with steam into squares and then decorated. Used for storage and mostly by the men: boxes for men, baskets for women. They’re special because they’re the only two boxes we’ve found that predate the white invasion.

“Everything useful in Tlingit culture was made of wood, from houses to fishing hooks, and it was then usually carved or painted to honor the family, commemorate ancestors, etc. But when the Tlingits converted to Christianity, when they stopped putting ‘pagan’ designs on everything, the existing wooden artifacts that recorded these designs for posterity rotted away within a generation. Jump to this age when First Nation peoples are interested in their heritage, and suddenly they have a problem: there is no record of their artwork. Nothing. Until these boxes were found in the back of a restored chief’s house. Now all the Tlingit art you see for sale in those trinket shops downtown, the totem poles, the paintings, the necklaces…it’s all based on the artwork on these two boxes. It’s the most amazing story–how the Tlingits have literally reinvented their culture.”

“Kind of like Ketchikan reinventing itself from its past, don’t you think?” I say.

“No, that’s different. It’s not like that at all.


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