Ketchikan is a small fishing town (pop. 8,142) clinging to the western edge of Revillagigedo Island. It’s known as Alaska’s “first city” because it’s the southernmost port of call for ferries, cruise ships, and explorers heading up the Gastineau Channel.
Ketchikan is located in the Tongass National Forest, which is the largest national forest in the United States at 17 million acres. It’s also the Earth’s largest remaining temperate rainforest.
It feels like you’re experiencing a hundred different shades of green as you pass the Sitka Spruces that line the shores. They cover every island in the Tongass Narrows, every inch of every mountain that dominates the skyline behind Ketchikan.
As you sit at the pier in Ketchikan, Alaska, aboard your Norwegian Cruise, there’s a very noticeable installation located adjacent to the second berth, directly across from the splashy sign hung over the spot where Front and Mission Streets intersect. The sign proclaims that Ketchikan is “The Salmon Capital of the World”, but the device mounted to the side of the Ketchikan Visitor’s Bureau building indicates Ketchikan is famous for something besides salmon: its annual rainfall.
The city of Ketchikan gets about 150 inches of rain each year, and in recent years it has been flirting with the 200 inch mark. To put that in perspective, Vancouver’s average annual rainfall is but 43.98 inches, and Seattle gets even less, at 38 inches.
Seattle’s rainforest climate is well-documented, and Vancouver’s wintery rainfall earns it the nickname “Wetcouver” despite the fact that Ketchikan gets three times the rainfall of Vancouver on an average year.
Luckily one of the closest excursions can be enjoyed despite any rain: a trip across the street to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. At under $40 per person, it’s very affordable and very family-friendly. It also happens to be very fun; rather than descending into corniness (which, okay, it flirts with on occasion), it’s actually a very interesting spectacle and gives some insight into the raw skills required by the men that actually had to clear forests in Alaska.
Although it takes place in an outdoor amphitheater, you’ll sit under a covered roof partition that’s equipped with overhead heaters that really do their job: after about five minutes there, you’ll be peeling off the coat despite any rain that falls, off and on, on the undeterred performers.
During the competition, both sides of the audience are pitted against each other. One side cheers for the Canadian team (Go Canada!) while the other cheers for the American side.
The Tlingits are one of the indigenous tribes that first settled Southeast Alaska, originally as a summer fishing camp. Saxman Village is located three miles south of Ketchikan and is home to more than 800 Tlingit people.
A few residents are members of the Haida tribe. In the whole of Southeastern Alaska, Ketchikan and the surrounding area has the highest percentage of Native residents. When you first arrive you’ll learn a few Tlingit phrases before watching a 15-minute documentary on the history of the people and the area.
Then you’ll be welcomed into the Beaver Clan tribal house for a performance of a few of their traditional dances. A favorite is the dance that sends fishermen off in their canoes, wishing them safe passage and a successful catch. Men, women, and children (and often the audience) participate in the dances.
Just outside the clan house is a totem park. Ketchikan as a whole is heralded as the best location in Alaska to see totem poles. There are a surprising number scattered casually around town beside streetlights, stop signs, and other nonchalant accessories of daily life. Eighty varieties of totems are found in the three block area of downtown Ketchikan.
Totem poles are an art form specific to tribes in the United States’ Pacific Northwest. They are used to preserve historical records, portray cultural stories, and identify clans. Totem carvers are trained in local mythology, in an intense way similar to a shaman’s training in healing rituals. Carvers are required to pass extensive oral exams before they’re allowed to start carving.
Totems are often misunderstood as religious symbols, which they are not. The geometric patterns, animals, and people do have both literal and metaphorical meanings; so think of them as visual aids to thousands of years of rich oral history.
This is just a taste of what awaits you on a Norwegian cruise to Alaska!