KETCHIKAN, Alaska — Every year, salmon return from the ocean to swim up Ketchikan Creek.
Over the centuries, the fish have been followed by hungry bears, Tlingit Indians, white fishermen and settlers, and now schools of tourists. Nearly a million each year come to sample Ketchikan’s many attractions and natural marvels, not the least of which are the colorful and oh-so-delicious salmon.
Alaska’s fifth-largest city owes its existence to salmon.
White fishermen began arriving in the late 19th century, and the first fish cannery was opened near the mouth of Ketchikan Creek in 1886. In 1900, the town became the first incorporated municipality in Alaska, and Ketchikan grew as more canneries, mines and lumber and pulp mills were established nearby.
Commercial fishing still plays a big role in the local economy. But tourism is the real king in Ketchikan.
The city is on Revillagigedo Island, which isn’t connected to the mainland, so almost everyone arrives by boat. It’s not unusual to see all four of the city’s huge cruise-ship berths occupied by titanic vessels that dwarf the downtown buildings.
The city is also served by the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, and even visitors who arrive by air must take a boat. The airport is on its own island with no bridge to Ketchikan, so another ferry shuttles arriving and departing airline passengers across the Tongass Narrows.
A wide variety of tours and excursions are available at or near the Visitor Information Center at the cruise-ship docks. But I enjoyed a do-it-yourself walking tour. A walking-tour brochure, available at the visitor center, lists historic sites and attractions downtown and in the adjacent historic Newtown neighborhood.
The Ketchikan region is home to the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles. Each of the giant pieces of art, carved with haunting forms of animals, mythological beings and people, tells a story, although some of those stories have been lost to history.
The poles weren’t designed to last forever; their Tlingit and Haida Indian creators originally intended them to be left to the elements, gradually and naturally decaying. But at the Totem Heritage Center, just a 10-minute walk from the docks, visitors can see many historic 19th century poles rescued from abandoned native village sites near Ketchikan with the permission of Indian elders.
Some of the stories told by the carvings can only be guessed at. But the old, severely weathered poles, some now mere fragments, are still beautiful examples of the craft.
Newer poles, hand-carved by Alaskan native artists, also can be seen just outside town at Saxman Totem Park, Totem Bight State Park and Potlatch Park.
More local history and art can be found at the small Tongass Historical Museum.
And the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, operated by the U.S. Forest Service, offers exhibits and interactive displays about the land, people, culture and animals of the region, including the five species of Pacific salmon found in the area.
Some local wag has described Ketchikan as being “10 miles long and three blocks wide,” which isn’t far from the truth. The narrow town clings to the steeply rising side of Deer Mountain. Many of the buildings and even roads are built on picturesque pilings along the coast and up the hillside.
One of the most popular Ketchikan destinations is wood-planked Creek Street: The pedestrian-only street and buildings stand on pilings over Ketchikan Creek.
Creek Street, once a notorious red-light district “where fish and fishermen came to spawn,” as signs still proclaim, is now a National Historic District.
The trade along the street is limited to fine, upstanding (and tourist-friendly) businesses, of course. But traces remain of Creek Street's questionable heyday during Prohibition, when illegal alcohol and legal prostitutes were readily available at several bawdy houses.
Among the street’s historic buildings is Star House, which was once a dance hall and the only registered brothel in Alaska. Now the structure houses a gift shop and a modern guest room.
Another former sporting house was home to famous madam Dolly Arthur. Today at Dolly’s House, appropriately costumed guides offer a bit of history and tours of the garishly decorated place, where Dolly once made a good living, beginning about 1920, selling illegal booze and herself.
The bordellos were closed under public pressure in the 1950s. But it’s said that Dolly was ready to retire anyway. She died in 1975 at age 87, one of the last direct links to Ketchikan’s boisterous past.
For magnificent views of the city and Tongass Narrows, visitors can ride a funicular tram up the steep slope behind Creek Street to Cape Fox Lodge, which offers fine dining along with the terrific scenery.
Several other good restaurants with great seafood can be found in Ketchikan, among them Alava’s Fish-n-Chowder, where a sign proclaims “We don’t serve breakfast … because we are out catching lunch.”
My favorite meals — salmon, of course — were at the New York Cafe in the Stedman-Thomas National Historic District near the mouth of Ketchikan Creek. A grilled wild-caught salmon fillet was superb, if not life-changing. But a salmon poke bowl, with cubes of the most flavorful raw salmon I can imagine, was something I’ll remember for a long, long time.
That dish, alone, would be enough to lure me back to Ketchikan Creek.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter