Alaska’s first city was Ketchikan. Located on the southernmost tip of Alaska’s panhandle is a sleepy little town with a very
dramatic title. Like most villages along the Inside Passage, Ketchikan is squeezed between mountain and sea and makes it hard to imagine how it got its Tlingit name which means “Thundering Wings of an Eagle.” However, if you are adventurous enough to climb to the top of these impassable mountains you will quickly see that the town, which was once a Tlingit summer fishing camp, sprawls out in the shape of an Eagle in fight.
Ketchikan is also without road or rail connections to the rest of North America, so everything must come in by air or sea. Yet, the town is Alaska’s gateway to the south. So, although it may be quaint, scenic and rustic it can become quite busy as an industrial hub.
It was in fact the plethora of natural resources that shaped Ketchikan’s industries. It’s seemingly endless supply of salmon and timber became its two leading exports and there are many attractions today that highlight each. Coined the “Canned Salmon Capital of the World,” a stop at Salmon Etc. is a must; even if it is just to try a free sample. Although I don’t believe anyone could walk out empty handed.
Only a few steps from port, you can grab a seat at the best show in town, The Great Alaskan Lumberjack show! Here they bring to life Alaska’s timber history through a good ole fashioned logging competition among burly lumberjacks. They play out the ongoing feud between the incoming Americans and the established Canadian logging companies as the crowd is split in half and fights for their side to win the day! The show is very entertaining and surprisingly quite informative. They do a great job explaining each event and its purpose within the industry while the show itself is action packed and the loggers are good for a laugh!
Leaving the loggers behind, it’s time to explore part of Ketchikan’s Tlingit past at the Saxman Native Village. Ketchikan is home to the largest collection of totem poles in the world, including some of the oldest ones still in existence. The purpose of the Totems was to show wealth and identification. Each totem pole represented the clan of both the husband and wife. Totems are read from the top downward, and once erected, the totems were never disturbed. On the top is the tribe of the husband and the bottom is the wife’s. The middle is filled with heroics of ancestors, and they would have used either tribe depending on whichever was better known through native myths.
There were six types of totems carved by the Alaskan natives. Those include the House Pole, used to support the ceiling of the home; a Memorial Pole, used as a tombstone; a Mortuary Pole, which held ashes of the deceased; a Ridicule Pole, which was a plain pole with one top figure of the person to scorn; a Potlatch Pole, which was a symbol of celebration and status; and finally, a Heraldic Pole, which lined the door opening into the home. In addition, there are six characters that reappear among these totems which are the Eagle, Raven, Frog, Beaver, Bear and Wolf. To view the best totems and gain the most knowledge you should visit one of the beautiful parks like Saxman, but you can see many them scattered all throughout town.
But, no trip to Ketchikan is complete without a stroll down the notorious Creek Street! Channeling odes to its fishing village past,
Creek Street is a boardwalk mounted on stilts that runs past shops and houses along Ketchikan creek. Today it is tranquil, strolling along the rushing creek wandering from shop to shop picking up souvenirs and salmon, but this community has a history too. You may find yourself at Dolly’s House, a former “house of ill repute” that takes you back to the Creek’s days as a red-light district where the “ladies of negotiable affection” entertained the miners, fishermen, hand loggers and other frisky frontiersmen. And if you are lucky, there may still be a lady of the night waiting to lure you inside!