Saturday, July 6, 2013

North to Alaska! Part 3 - Ketchikan, and a Major Personal Milestone - June 25, 2013

Overcast skies and rain greeting our arrival in southeast Alaska

This is Part 3 of my series of trip reports about my recent trip to Alaska.  In this post, I will cover our visit to Ketchikan, our first port-of-call in Alaska.  If you haven't already done so, I suggest reading Parts 1 and 2 first.

Part 1 - Background Info
Part 2 - Seattle, Mt. Rainier, and Sailaway

If you would like to see my entire collection of photos of the Ketchikan area, you can see view them on Flickr here.

So why is landing in Ketchikan, Alaska a "major personal milestone"?  It's been a goal of mine for a long time to visit all 50 states - and when I set foot in Ketchikan a little before 9 A.M. on June 25th, I achieved my goal!  Sadly, the state of Alaska didn't share my enthusiasm, and there was no welcoming entourage with dockside band and party waiting for me.

Ketchikan Basics

Distance sailed from Seattle:  646 nautical miles/743 statue miles
Population:  8,050 - 5th largest city in Alaska
Time zone:  Alaska Daylight Time, 3 hours behind Central Time
Today's weather:  overcast, occasional drizzle/light rain, low-60s
Today's wildlife count:  10 - 3 slugs, 4 ducks, 3 bald eagles.  I'm not counting the estimated 10,000 gnats and mosquitoes we encountered while walking.

The Day in Review

We arrived to a cloudy, cool morning in the southeastern Alaska rain forest - typical weather for the area, and a welcome change from the 95 degrees we left behind in Dallas on Friday afternoon.  Our family part of 8 split up on different activities today.  My brother and I booked a hike through the Tongass National Forest, which I'll cover in my post.  My mom and dad, my wife Prita, and my nephew went to see the Saxman Native Village, which features a collection of totem poles and a native dance show.  My sister and her husband went the adventurous route and went ziplining (I will admit to being too much of a wuss to try that).

My tour was booked through Port Compass, a private tour company.  I highly recommend them if you are looking for an alternative to the tours sponsored by the cruise lines.  The prices sometimes work out cheaper, sometimes not, but you get a much more personalized experience on a privately run tour.  We had only 6 people total on our tour, so we were able to bug our guides with questions pretty much at will.

Anyway, we had a minor mishap to start off with, which was a misunderstanding of our meeting point.  Our tour voucher told us to meet at the "Ketchikan Visitor Bureau" building.  Sounds easy enough - until you consider that there are actually TWO "Ketchikan Visitor Bureau" buildings along the waterfront, one in front of Pier 3, and the other in front of Pier 2.  Remember that if you find yourself in Ketchikan from a cruise ship, and make sure you know which one you need to go to.  A call to the tour company cleared up the confusion, and our guides met us where we were standing.  We were on our way to our hiking site, on the Ward Lake Trail about 10 miles outside of town.  Thankfully, the drizzle had stopped by this point, leaving us with excellent hiking weather.  I'll let the pictures do the talking from here on.

The Forget-me-Not, the Alaska state flower
Skunk cabbage, a favorite bear food in the spring

A giant cedar tree

Don't stick your finger in these carnivorous plants!

A clearing in the forest

A relaxing stream
I was hoping to see some wildlife, but the pickings were rather slim on this day.  We did see some giant slugs, which fascinated the two kids in our group.

Our guide alerted us to a family of ducks, and I was able to snap a picture before they sped away.

We also saw evidence of bear activity on this skunk cabbage leaf, though the bears were nowhere to be found today.  Let's just say, while I enjoy the occasional bite from my cat, I don't think I'd want to be bitten by the bear that did this.

Our hike took about 2 hours, and then we turned around and headed back to town.  My wife and parents were scheduled to return to the ship about the same time we were, so the plan was to find Prita and then look around town for a bit.  Turns out, they were boarding the ship right in front of us, so after dropping some stuff off in the room, my wife, my brother, and I went out in search of lunch.

Ketchikan is famous for two things - crab and fish 'n chips.  We didn't really have time for a crab feast, so opted for fish 'n chips instead.  Our guides had suggested the "Burger Queen" restaurant (a cross between Burger King and Dairy Queen, perhaps?) as the place to go for fish 'n chips, but after walking over, we were informed there would be a one hour minimum wait for food.  BAH!!  So we resorted to Plan B.  I had read about this fish 'n chips shack in front of the docks that was pretty good.  We found it...

...and proceeded to enjoy a meal of clam chowder and fish 'n chips (or fried shrimp 'n chips in my case).  The food was pretty good, if a little expensive, though what do you expect in a cruise ship tourist trap.  Hercules would have approved, anyway.

After buying some Alaska-themed junk, we headed back to the ship.  Time for a quick picture on the waterfront first:

We started sailing north again a little before 4.  I was able to spot a few bald eagles with my binoculars; they were too far away to get good photos, but I was able to get this one.

We then enjoyed the coastal scenery for a few hours before heading to dinner to stuff ourselves.

Serving Suggestions

The problem with a cruise is that you only spend 6-12 hours in each port, so there's only so much you can figure out about the place.  However, if you decide to head to Ketchikan, I'd suggest the following:

- Bring bug spray if you're going hiking.  We may have mosquitoes in Texas, but if you go into the woods in a rainforest, you're going to get bitten by a variety of flies and gnats.  A lot.
- Dress warmly.  It may be summer, but it is Alaska.  Average weather on June 25th:  High 62, Low 49.
- If you can't afford a cruise, you can use the Alaska Marine Highway System!  You can board (both you and your vehicle) in Bellingham, Washington and sail to Ketchikan, among other places.  Fares are much lower than a cruise.
- If you aren't coming as part of a cruise, come on a day when the cruise ships aren't in town.  You avoid having to wait an hour for your food at the Burger Queen.

Up next in Part 4 - the highlight of our cruise, the Tracy Arm Fjord.

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