A Day in Alaska’s First City
Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Seabourn’s Seabourn Sojourn quietly maneuvered past the Dixon Entrance in the wee hours of the morning, trading the coastal waters of British Columbia for Alaska as we crossed the Canada-US border just north of Prince Rupert. By the time I had awoken just after six in the morning, Seabourn Sojourn was already in the Tongass Narrows on the approach to Ketchikan, Alaska.
This is my 10th visit to Ketchikan, and I never tire of stopping here. With a population of roughly 13,500, the self-proclaimed “Salmon Capital of the World” is also known as Alaska’s First City thanks to the fact that, geographically speaking, it was the first place in the State to receive mail and supplies coming from the south. Its name is derived from a native Tlingit word, the exact meaning of which is debated to this day.
Like many places in Southeast Alaska, Ketchikan has reinvented itself several times over. Besides acting as a major outpost for goods and trade coming and going to places further afar, Ketchikan was once a saltery, then a major cannery town. In its heyday, over two million cases of salmon were packed here each year.
Today, the big business in Ketchikan is tourism; specifically, cruise ship passengers arriving on ships of all sizes. The local Ketchikan Daily News – a 14 page newspaper available next to the piers for $1 – shows in its printed cruise schedule that between our call and Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas, 2,550 guests are descending upon Ketchikan today. That’s nothing compared with tomorrow. On Thursday, June 29, four ships (Ruby Princess, Eurodam, Star Princess, and Nieuw Amsterdam) will bring 9.882 guests to Ketchikan. That doesn’t count the crew that will disembark for a few hours, either.
Arrival into port on Seabourn is as painless as you might expect. No sooner had we tied up than the ship was cleared for guests to disembark at their leisure. Unlike a large cruise ship, there are no lines and no waiting here. Complimentary bottled water is yours for the taking as you exit the ship. And your included Seabourn jacket is there to keep you warm in any weather condition.
Today we lucked out, with a pleasant day that was mainly overcast with a few brilliant sunny breaks. This is pretty darn good for Ketchikan, which gets about 150 inches (3,810mm) of rainfall annually. To put that in perspective, Seattle gets just 38 inches (965.2mm) of rain per year.
Seabourn offers a total of 14 shore excursions here in Ketchikan, from the affordable and fun Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show ($39 per person) to the six-hour Hunting for Halibut fishing excursion that will run you $359 per person. Generally speaking, excursions in Alaska are expensive, and you should be prepared to spend a bit of money on them, particularly with the big bucket-list items like flightseeing tours.
Personally, I’d recommend the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show or a city tour coupled with a visit to Saxman Village or Totem Bight State Park for the first-time visitor looking to get a taste of the city’s Tlingit history and frontier ways of life. The other thing I’d recommend: walk. Ketchikan is a superbly walkable city with plenty of great, locally-owned shops, bars and restaurants, and a stroll around the city shouldn’t be missed.
That’s what I did today. I no longer feel compelled to do far-flung excursions here, since I enjoy the city so much.
To start, I paid a visit to my favourite local bookshop, Parnassus Books. You can find them at the corner of Totem Way and Steadman Street, in a little rose-coloured building next to the Chief Johnson Totem Pole replica. I’ve been going to Parnassus for a decade now on my visits, and I love the shop’s selection of local interest books, both new and out-of-print.
Strolling along, I stopped in at the New York Café (inside the New York Hotel) just down the street for a pint of local beer. This is one of the city’s nicer watering holes and still retains it’s 1950’s-era charm.