Ketchikan

We awoke to see sunrise colours through our curtains and when we looked out the window we found we were close to our destination for today at Ketchikan, a town of about 9000 on a peninsula on an island in south-east Alaska with no bridges to the mainland or other islands. There is an airport on the other side of the channel so even those who fly in actually arrive by ferry. 

We had some momentary confusion about time. Overnight we had changed time zone from US Pacific to Alaska, both on daylight saving but with Alaska an hour behind. Some of our devices had picked up the time change from the cell phone network but others had not. We switched on the television to be sure we had the correct ship time to be on time for our planned excursion.

There were many messages in email and Facebook. The most significant were those from Jane and Hannah informing us that Vince, Majella’s father, had been taken to hospital with an infection a day or more ago and was not doing well. Majella responded to her messages and, although it was after midnight in Australia, we soon had responses. Jane had gone to the coast to support Majella’s parents and siblings and was still awake; Hannah was awake because Claire had somehow decided it was necessary to be up and about after midnight. The news about Vince was very distressing, particularly as we had been offline for the past 2 days and had been unaware of what had been happening for the family. We arranged to call later when people in Australia might be expected to be awake. That would not be until early afternoon for us and there was nothing to be done but hope and pray until then while we went about our planned day with heavy hearts.

We ate a quick breakfast in the Lido and then picked up our gear and headed ashore to catch our excursion to Totem Bight. We were early so had a short wait on the bus before Andrea, our driver and guide, took us away. She told us she had worked as a school bus driver in Nevada and took summer work in Alaska driving this tour. She was lively and informative throughout the tour with plenty of local information and a trove of stories about the totems that we saw.

Our tour began with a drive around town. Much of the commentary related to variants of Creek Street which was notorious as the place where ‘men and salmon went to spawn’ but there was also information about local industry and how it had changed over the years. Most recently mining and forestry had been supplanted by tourism. As we drove around town we noted that Westerdam was not the only ship in town for the day. Later in the day, as we pulled away from the pier there were 3 other ships tied up there.

The main feature of our tour was the Totem Bight State Historical Park which is on the shoreline some way north of the town. It was established early last century to preserve some of the culture of the local indigenous peoples. When the missionaries first arrived in the previous century they assumed that the wooden totems carved from tall western cedar trees had religious significance. It was only later that it became known that they were not idols but records of legendary history. The carvings typically last about 80 years before the timber rots and it is necessary to carve then again. Thus all the totems and the clan house in the park are ‘reproductions’ but they are authentic in their form and content. Originally the paints used to colour parts of the totems required grinding minerals to fine powder and mixing with spittle and other material to make paint. Nowadays they tend to visit the hardware store to procure the nearest matching colour and are more liberal in its application.

We enjoyed the short walk through luxuriant green rainforest to the clan house and totems. Some of the stories of the totems that Andrea shared were gory but she assured us that the local tribes ran checks on guides to ensure that the stories were told accurately and  in culturally appropriate ways. The tour gave us some appreciation of the lifestyle of the tribes who inhabited the region for a century or two before the Europeans arrived.

Back in town we wandered the streets and did some window shopping. At Creek Street we walked along the boardwalks suspended over the creek and spent some time watching salmon in the water below. There were a few that appeared to be trying to go upstream but we did not see any jump. We did see some lying dead on the bottom and one or two battered fish struggling as they were swept downstream. We don’t know whether their condition was a result of collision with rocks when jumping or encounters with the large sea gulls floating on the stream with the apparent intention of feeding on salmon.

We paused for coffee at a store that sold acceptable espresso and then walked on to Dwyers’ restaurant for lunch. Majella had noted it soon after we disembarked this morning. It was just across the road from the pier and advertised the giant Alaskan king crab legs she had been so impressed by in Seattle on Saturday. Majella had king crab leg for lunch. She was impressed with its sweetness and I think it rated well with the langoustine she had in Applecross last year. I had a Cobb salad which was huge but lots of lettuce should be good for me.

Back on the ship we used Skype to make a call to Australia and Majella was able to speak briefly with her father. He was pleased to hear from her and insistent that she enjoy her holiday.

After the ship had left Ketchikan we wandered up to the Explorers Lounge to hear a presentation about salmon. Not long into that I had a call from Jane who informed us that Majella’s father was not doing well. We went back to our room and used what time we had with connectivity to communicate with family.

As the ship moved up the coast connectivity became more fragile and less frequent. We gave up hope of making another call and resigned ourselves to hearing no more news until next morning. Soon after 5:00 we went to the Ocean Bar where the pianist was playing. We listened to him for almost an hour and then went up to the Lido for dinner. From there we went back to the Ocean Bar. Majella listened to the last of the pianist with a Baileys and watched the sunset through a window while I spent time on the promenade trying to photograph it.

Shortly before 8:00 Majella ducked down to add some pieces to the jigsaw puzzle she has been working on. At 8:00 we met in the main stage area for a musical performance before moving on to the Lincoln Centre Stage where the quintet we saw last night were performing selections by female composers. That was a pleasant finale to a very difficult day.

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