Thursday, August 13, 2015

Ketchikan - Land of the Totems

Rain fell in buckets the first time I landed in Ketchikan.  Travel guides celebrated the rugged mountainous beauty of Alaska’s self-proclaimed “Salmon Capital of the World” but all I saw was rain.  It rained again my second time there and some people I talked with were convinced it was from the same storm I had experienced six months earlier.  Five years passed before I returned to Ketchikan and this time the rain was so heavy I was convinced that Harbor Seals were pairing off in twos and purchasing boat building material from a local lumber yard. There is a very good reason that Ketchikan is also considered the rainiest city in Alaska – most likely because it is.

You can't get much further south in Alaska than Ketchikan and still be in Alaska

Judging by the number of fishing vessels racing around in the channel between Ketchikan and Gravina Island it’s probably safe to say that Alaska’s “First City” deserves its proclamation as the Salmon Capital.  Having once visited Naknek on the Alaska Peninsula near King Salmon on Bristol Bay, I think that Naknek probably produces more salmon than Ketchikan and probably more rightly deserves the moniker of Salmon Capital.  It’s all about marketing.

Alaska's First City is also its rainiest city

A curious and by now totally foreign golden oval shined brightly in the sky over the Norwegian Sun as we made our way through the Inside Passage toward Ketchikan.  We were about even with Thorne Bay when the clouds parted revealing a brilliant blue sky and even more brilliant sunshine.  Guests on Deck 11 hurriedly lined up in sun tanning chaise lounges and started soaking up the first sun rays we had enjoyed in six days.  I had read somewhere that the sun is obscured in Ketchikan an average of 300 days each year.  If you are here on one of those 65 other days you are “one lucky son-of-a-bitch” as a drunken Indian once said to me while we waited in the Ketchikan airport for Alaska Airlines to fix our broken plane.

Today we were two of the lucky ones the Indian talked about ten years earlier. Ketchikan sits at the edge of the gigantic Tongass National Forest, an area of more than 17 million acres and by far the largest National Forest in the United States. Set aside by the US Congress, the purpose of Tongass is to ensure a supply of wood products for the future, to provide for recreational opportunities for humans and most importantly to provide for the protection of water quality for all of those salmon.

Being a natural resource and existing on Federal land, the Tongass National Forest is also subject to the vagaries of political thought and the greed of politicians who possess those thoughts.  Some years ago former U.S. Senator and later Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski was a strong and vocal proponent of extensive clear cutting of the forests of the Tongass.  His well-rehearsed lines pulled at our heart strings as he told about economic hardships experienced by his loyal constituents and how only widespread logging would save their future.  After all these were American trees and Americans had the right to make a living cutting down these American trees. 

At 17 million acres Tongass is the largest National Forest in the United States

There were just two things that Senator Murkowski failed to mention during his soliloquy.  First and foremost the bulk of those American trees were being cut down and shipped to Japan where they were milled and sold back to America as finished products.  The Senator also failed to mention that he sat on the Board of Directors of the largest bank in Southeast Alaska. It was the very same bank that handled the bulk of the proceeds from the sale of all those American logs to Japan.

Murkowski made out like a bandit on these tree-cutting deals.  Japanese corporations made out like thieves on the deals and American’s who needed the lumber products for building material paid higher prices for American wood products that had been re-imported from Japan.  Today Frank Murkowski’s equally corrupt daughter Lisa is one of the two Senators from Alaska.  She is one of the strongest proponents of taking the National Forest system out of Federal control and turning it over to the States.  Lisa and others of her ilk claim that allowing the States to manage these forests is better for the forests than to let the Feds retain control.  Past experience with other natural resources suggests only that the States can sell off land more quickly than the Feds because they have fewer regulatory impediments.  

Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska are famous for their ceremonial use of totem poles, structures made of logs and festooned with symbols of various animals that tell stories.  Many totems from around the Southeast are preserved and interpreted at Totem Bight State Historical Park north of Ketchikan.  We had rented a car for a brief foray to the park to study the totems but until it arrived we explored the tourist area near the cruise terminal.

Ketchikan’s waterfront is cluttered with an endless string of tourist shops each selling “authentic” Alaskan goods for authentic tourists to carry to their authentic homes.  One of the largest, the Tongass Trading Company, carried a t-shirt for a particular brand of Alaskan beer that I enjoyed.  Piled beneath a huge sign proclaiming the “Made in Alaska” authenticity of the shirts, I pulled one out to examine it.  On each shirt was a large blue sticker with the words “Made with 100% American cotton” emblazoned across the shoulder.  “American” was written in all capitals, I’m certain to get the point across that here in even the rainiest salmon capital in the world even the shirts were patriotic.  These 100 percent cotton signs were there on these authentic made in Alaska t shirts despite the very real fact that cotton does not grow in Alaska and especially in the rainforest part of Alaska. 

Ketchikan's waterfront is Mecca for cruisers searching for "authentic" Alaskan goods, especially, it turns out, those that are made in Haiti

Not satisfied with the description I looked at the label inside the neck of the shirt where the truth was revealed.  There on each “Authentic” Alaska t-shirt made with “100 percent American cotton” was a smaller label that read in French “Fabrique en Haiti avec polyester.”  Here in reality, cruise ship tourists at the southernmost tip of the Land of the Midnight Sun were gobbling up authentic Alaskan shirts made in Haiti from polyester.

Our rental car arrived on time at a predetermined downtown location and we quickly set out for Totem Bight State Historical Park. Each totem tells a story using animals that were important to the Tlingit.  Eagles and ravens, probably the two most important animals in their culture, soar through the skies.  Whales, otters and dolphins occupy the ocean while bear, deer and wolves live in the forests. Each animal had a special meaning. For instance the Raven is a symbol of the creator. Eagles signify peace and friendship.  Killer Whales are a symbol of strength.  Sea turtles symbolize mother earth.  Wolves with their power can help people who are ill. Otters are a symbol of laughter, salmon represent persistence and owls represent the souls of the departed. 

Totem Bight State Historical Park is only 8 miles from downtown Ketchikan

A Tlingit story tells a tale about someone or something that has happened and its carved in a long washed up on a beach.  There are thirteen different stories preserved and interpreted on the thirteen different totems at the state park.  The Pole on the Point totem depicts a shaman wearing a headdress of bear claws and a fringed leather apron.  A carved club in his hand symbolizes one of his spirit powers.  A halibut and two river otters below the otters are spirit aides and the animals together depict a sense of adventure.

The Sea Monster Pole includes a village watchman standing ground at the top of the pole. Below him are two eagles and beneath them are faces painted to represent the mountains and clouds that are habitat for the eagle.  Below this is a mythical sea monster whose face is in the process of devouring a human at the base of the pole.  Still another pole, the Raven at the Head of Nass Pole, incorporates a Raven (symbol of the creator) and a smaller human representing ancestors of the Raven Clan who benefitted by the Raven’s theft of daylight.  This is perhaps an early reference to Ketchikan seeing the sun only 65 days a year!

Also present was a Clan House that could have housed 30 to 50 people.  Inside the cavernous room was a central fireplace surrounded by a platform.  Traditionally Clan Houses served as living space for two or three families of a certain lineage (either Raven Clan or Eagle Clan).  Inside the carvings symbolize the exploits of others who lived in the Clan House.  Designs on the front of the house symbolized great wealth.  Perhaps, then, this Clan House was the home of a chief of the local Tlingit population at some time in the past.

Entrance to a Clan House where two or maybe three families lived.  This one has symbols indicative of wealth so maybe a chief and his family lived here

Studying totems long enough you slowly begin to understand how to interpret some of what is being described.  However I firmly believe that a huge hit of peyote would help even more.

Ketchikan’s annual Blueberry Festival was winding down one block off Main Street when we returned from Totem Bight.  We wanted to participate but little remained of the festivities other than small crowds walking away from the area, many of them with a dark blue stain on their lips.  Near the festival area we encountered the Sitka Fur Gallery and next to it the Sitka Fur Gallery Outlet.  Each was stacked with the fur and hides of enough animals to make old Parker Hide and Fur in Rice Lake, Wisconsin look like an amateur operation.  Anyone who belongs to PETA would have a field day becoming enraged at the Sitka Fur Gallery and its outlet.  One item was a coat of sea otter fur that was marked down 70 percent from its original $3,695 to “only” $1,099. Curiously, for whatever reason, the “native made” sea otter coat had been dyed a deep crimson red.  It was almost the color of the Northern Cardinals at your feeder in winter.  Having worked with sea otters for several years while living in California I don’t recall any of them being crimson red.  Maybe there was some peyote involved in manufacturing this coat.

An attempt to get a beer at Annabelle’s restaurant downtown became a disaster when we waited at a table for 28 minutes and received no service.  Frustrated we walked north through the tunnel to the Asylum Bar that we had seen from the road on our return to Ketchikan.  A sign proclaiming “Cheapest Beer in Town” drew us to the Asylum.  It was a classic local’s bar with loud music blaring, baseball on the television, the stench of cigarette smoke everywhere, and drunks lining the bar.  It resembled any of a hundred beer joints in the north woods of Wisconsin that I may have entered at one time in the past.

The Asylum Bar has more character per square inch than any of the tourist traps near the cruise terminal. They also have huge quantities of Alaska Amber on tap.  Uncredited image downloaded from the Internet

Our bar maid, a native of San Diego who followed a now-former boyfriend north to Ketchikan, was visibly and verbally annoyed that she had to work on the day of the annual Blueberry Festival.

“There is only one festival that I like in this god damned town,” she started, “and it’s the Blueberry Festival.  It’s usually so cloudy and depressing around this fucking town that you never see the sun. Then when it’s finally a sunny day and it’s on the day of my most favorite festival, I’m stuck in this rat hole pouring pints of beer for a bunch of drunks!”

To say she was non-plussed by the situation was an understatement.

I asked about the bar hours. “We close at 2:00 a.m. every day rain or shine and it’s usually raining.  We open at 8:00 a.m. every day except Christmas and then we sleep in and open at 9.”

Alaskan Amber beer is the finest tasting beer I've had anywhere in the world. I'm not sure what "Alt Style" means but I'm a strong proponent of it

We drank a pitcher of Alaska Amber beer and then had two more pints.  The price we paid was one-third what it would have been on the ship and half what was offered at Annabelle’s where we received no service.  We stayed as long as we dared and then scurried back to the ship to prepare for our 8:00 p.m. departure.  There was not a single cloud in the sky anywhere around the rainiest city in Alaska as we left the pier and made our way south.  We certainly were two of those lucky people the drunken Indian in the airport prophesized about ten years earlier.  

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