North to Alaska, part two: Initial impressions and Ketchikan life

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Above:  View down Cholmondeley Arm, on Prince of Wales Island in 2011.

I’m not going to lie, I went into my Alaska experience not really knowing what I was getting into.  What I knew about Southeast Alaska was gleaned from an unlikely mix of tourist materials, stories from loggers and ecologists who lived there in the 1980s, and a few books I’d read.  A few years earlier I’d traveled to Homer for a fire assignment, and before that I’d been to Anchorage, so I thought Southeast would be similar, maybe a bit like Seattle in terms of climate if not amenities.  To say I was unprepared would be a mild understatement.  But despite my initial shock at some parts of the experience, I have to say that I fell in love with aspects of living in Southeast.  There was a uniqueness to the place that adhered itself to my soul in ways that are difficult to describe.  Its stormy seas, wind-swept beaches and crags, and the dreary monochrome greens and greys that made up the color palette on most days lent itself to a greater appreciation of the subtle beauty of the rugged and lonely coastline.  And when the sun came out on a summer day… well, it’s enough to say that few places are better to spend a warm afternoon watching the ocean fall and rise against the mountains.

But back to my initial impressions, and a few good stories that could only be from Southeast.  My first inkling that it wasn’t going to be exactly how I had imagined came when I pulled into the coastal town of Prince Rupert, BC, and explored it a little bit while waiting for the ferry to Ketchikan.  When I arrived, it was cold, windy, and raining hard.  The town was smaller than I had thought it would be, and grungier as well.  For some reason my cell phone, which had worked through all my travels prior to Prince Rupert, couldn’t make a call, even though it showed service.  All in all, it wasn’t what I had envisioned, and I wondered what Ketchikan would have in store.

The next day found me on the ferry, in the sunshine no less, and after some initial interest as we left Prince Rupert, I have to admit I settled into my seat and napped for a good part of the 4 hour trip.  As we got closer to our destination the weather began to turn, and by the time we neared Ketchikan it was rainy and windy.  As we passed Mountain Point on the south end of Revilla Island, I thought I saw a killer whale for a brief moment, and I was excited at the prospect of seeing more, although as luck would have it I’d rarely see them that summer.  As the ferry rounded the northern end of Pennock Island, I saw the town clinging to the shoreline, dingy houses and storefronts painted in once-bright colors, rusting boats and assorted equipment seemingly abandoned on the beaches, and of course the seagulls riding the wind currents lightly through the rain.  Here’s where I’ll be spending the next two years of my life, I remember thinking, and what a crappy-looking place to do it in.

I’ll freely admit that for the first few weeks I was in a sort of culture shock, trying my best to absorb all the differences.  The whole town had a very transient feel to it, in part because I arrived at the end of March, just as the seasonal types were beginning to trickle in, but before the town was bustling at full summer capacity.  All of the year-round businesses were open, but many of the restaurants and coffee shops were operating under abbreviated winter hours.  The tourist shops downtown were still closed, the roadways mostly empty of cruise company buses, and the weather hadn’t quite turned from the stormy spring pattern to the relative calm of summer.

I was completely unprepared for the wind and rain, and I shudder to think how I would have reacted had I arrived in the fall, when the storms are at their worst.  I had thought to myself that it couldn’t be any worse than Seattle, and I had always liked the rain when it fell in Montana.  Well, rain is a whole different thing when it’s being blown at you by a forty-mile-per-hour wind for hours at a time, days on end, and is tinged with the salty taste of the sea.  And surprising to me was that even when it wasn’t raining, it was more often than not windy, cloudy and overcast.  For whatever reason I hadn’t expected weeks or even a month to go by without seeing the sun break through the clouds.  On the sunny days the wind would often howl down the Inside Passage, bitter with the chill gathered as it passed over the glaciers and mountains to the north.   Even John Muir, typically a romantic writer when describing the wonders of the natural world, was unable to put a completely positive spin on the weather that is typical of Southeast during his travels there in the late 1800s.

After a while I began to settle in, and by the end of my first summer in Ketchikan I had witnessed quite a few things that were nothing short of great story material.  Some were quite mundane, like the difficulties in finding fresh produce, or paying twice as much for a bag of potato chips as I would have in the lower 48, while others were a bit more unique.

To start with some of the “normal” oddities, I was astounded to find that even in 2010 it was difficult to find a variety of produce at the local grocery stores, and if you did it was going to be expensive.  I’d heard the stories of the rarity of fresh fruit from folks who had lived there in the 1980s, but I’d expected that things had changed a bit in the 30 years since then.  You could almost always find the basics – Gala apples, oranges, bananas, and various greens, but the quality was a letdown.  When the stores did order in fresh fruits and veggies, it was a race to not only get them before they sold out, but to get them before they went bad.  Most items came up from Seattle and parts south via barges towed by tugboats up the Inside Passage, and most perishable items were perilously close to their expiration dates by the time they were offloaded and made it to the store.  It sounds strange to say, but it was a rare treat, even in winter, to get ice cream that hadn’t partially melted on the journey north, and been refrozen.

The stores themselves were worthy of a few stories.  There were three main grocery stores in town, plus the Walmart that also had a grocery section.  The largest store was the Carr’s Safeway located right on the waterfront in the center of town, and it shared a building with what passed for a mall, the McDonald’s, and the best liquor store in town.  Being as it was on the water, the parking lot was always filled with seagulls and ravens scavenging whatever they could from the backs of trucks.  More than once I saw a raven hop into the back of a pickup and come out with something pulled from a McDonald’s wrapper or plastic grocery bag.  When it was windy and rainy, there was nothing to buffer the force of the wind as it blew down the Narrows.  I remember vividly, if not fondly, a few occasions where the wind would blow raindrops in through the open door of my truck, and they would hit the door and window on the opposite side as I put my groceries into the backseat.

The other grocery stores had their own unique stories as well.  Tatsuda’s IGA had black bear cub walk into the store and make himself at home in the produce section in the fall of 2011.  He walked right in through the automatic doors and past the cashier at the register without anyone noticing.  The third store had a unique name, Alaskan and Proud, shortened to “A&P,” and you could buy locally smoked salmon and fresh oysters from Prince of Wales there.  It also had an aisle devoted to Kirkland brand items, which I can only assume came from a Costco somewhere around Seattle.

Yet another thing that came as a logistical surprise was how most people got their water.  Unless you were right in town, chances are that your water came from a rainwater catchment system.  Outside of city limits just about everyone had a large water tank fed by rainwater from the roof of the house or garage.  If it didn’t rain for a few weeks in the summer, there were water trucks that would fill up in town and run water out to you for a price.  And speaking of water, even if you were on city system, you would get a quarterly notice that the water supply did not meet federal drinking water standards, and while drinking it probably wouldn’t give you cancer, they had to send out a memo anyway.

There were other things of course that were different about the town and day-to-day life in Southeast.  The primary source of heat was oil furnaces and boilers, so trucks with leaky tanks filled with heating oil were constantly running around supplying homeowners and businesses. Every time it rained after a dry spell the roads were covered in a rainbow sheen until the rainwater washed the oil into the sea.  Nobody had air conditioning in their homes, because it rarely got above 65 degrees even in the hottest few weeks of summer.  Electricity came from hydroelectric plants and giant diesel generators, and was very expensive compared to lower 48 costs.  The roar of de Havilland Beavers and Otters filled every waking moment of the day during the summer, as the waterfront was their runway, and the Narrows their flight path in and out of town for tourist flights and mail runs alike. The throb of marine diesels reverberated through the air as cruise ships, ferries, fishing boats, and private yachts made their way through the Narrows during the summer.

But despite all the unique parts of living in Ketchikan, my best stories came from my time spent out and about in the forests and islands of Southeast on the job.  More on those in the next installment.

Until next time…

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About Justin Vernon

Fire and Aviation Specialist (aka jack of all trades) for the US Forest Service, based in Boise, Idaho. I'm also an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest. All opinions voiced are mine alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.
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