Adventure Cruising Alaskan Small Towns
by Lee Foster
With so many cruise ships and marine ferries plying Alaska waters each summer, the bewildered consumer wonders: what ship should be chosen? One answer is to look for a ship that might take you to some off-the-beaten-path locations.
Usual cruise ship and marine ferry destinations in Alaska include Juneau, Glacier Bay, Sitka, and Skagway.
Besides these ports, some smaller cruise ships and ferries call at or explore Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Tracy Arms, and Haines. Here are portraits of four lesser-known ports and destinations in Alaska.
Prince Rupert ranks as one of the most isolated towns in an Alaska cruise itinerary. Located at the northern edge of British Columbia, the town subsists on fishing, forest products, and on its position as a Pacific railhead where grain and coal can be loaded onto freighters and sent to markets in the Orient.
For travelers, Prince Rupert is an important connecting point, a southern stop for the Alaska Ferries, the northern end of the British Columbia ferries, and western seaside terminus of the railroad or auto road.
At local seafood restaurants, such as Breakers Pub, sample fresh Dungeness crab and salmon, while gazing down at the substantial Prince Rupert fishing fleet. Besides salmon and halibut, another major fishery is herring, harvested for its roe, which is highly prized by the Japanese. The Japanese also purchase a special local commodity, pine mushrooms, which are sold to dealers for upwards of $20 per pound. Prince Rupert celebrates each June with a Seafest, honoring its sea heritage.
A steep tram outside town takes you to a mountain top, affording an elaborate vista of the ocean, islands, and lush spruce forests. A mile of boardwalks at tram-top allows hiking across muskeg soil, soft organic soil in which you would otherwise sink. The boardwalk hike takes you through a fecund landscape with subtle shades of green, ranging from ferns to hemlock leaf, sprinkled with red berries and wildflowers.
Downtown Prince Rupert boasts the Museum of Northern British Columbia, a major interpretive center. Here you can see barbed harpoon points carbon dated back to 3000-1500 B.C., indicating the long time that man has enjoyed life along this hospitable coast. Displays inform the visitor about important Indian crafts, especially basketry, and explain key Indian rituals, such as ceremonial potlatches, where gifts were given that established status. Jade jewelry, an important contemporary Indian craft, can be seen at the gift shop.
At the Carving Shed, adjacent to the Museum, new totem poles are fashioned by Indian artists. These totems are noteworthy for their faithful dedication to the traditional three colors that Indians used to ornament selected eye and mouth features of figures on their cedar log totems. Mixing salmon egg oil with ground minerals, they concocted red pigment from iron oxide, blue from copper ore, and black from graphite.
A short ride from town brings you to the North Pacific Cannery Village, a major historic center recalling the salmon canning culture. The cannery has acquired Heritage Site status, a Canadian political designation opening up the prospects of further funding for restoration. Here you can see salmon fishing boats, the full paraphernalia of salmon fishing, exhibits on the ocean environment, the company store from the 1940s, and representative houses of company employees.
Ketchikan puts you in the heart of one of the choicest fishing grounds in Alaska. Boats with seine nets, gill nets, and troll lines ply the waters for salmon, halibut, and cod.
Sport fishermen take trophy salmon and halibut, freeze them, and ship them home. Local canneries, such as Silver Lining, smoke and can high-quality salmon in summer. Along Ketchikan Creek in the City Park you can watch the upstream migration struggle of salmon. Fish in the stream are in all stages of their final days. As you watch, some of the more deteriorated salmon finish their spawning cycle. They expend their last ounce of energy fighting the creek current before they die and float out to sea. The five species of salmon (sockeye, king/chinook, pink, silver/coho, and dog/chum) spawn cyclically during summer. During peak season it is not too unusual to see a wildlife removal company on patrol, as the abundance of fish and food attracts bears and other potential dangers to humans. Tourists should be wary but not overly concerned as these professionals are proactive and well trained.
Also at the park, the Deer Mountain Fish Hatchery, managed by the state of Alaska, raises prized king salmon. The hatchery releases one-year-old fingerlings into the stream and thence the ocean.
The park also offers the first of three prominent totem pole experiences in Ketchikan, a major totem pole destination in Alaska.
Since the Alaskan Indians had no written language, totem poles were story sequences serving many purposes. Totems might honor a dead person, celebrate a gift-giving ceremony (a potlatch), announce the clan identification of the household, memorialize events or legends, or even ridicule people.
The Heritage Center in the park preserves 33 poles that would have otherwise deteriorated as Indians gradually abandoned three villages within 50 miles of Ketchikan, choosing to live in the town. Totem poles, even though carved from decay-resistant cedar, last only a century in the rain forest environment of Southeast Alaska. These poles, salvaged in the early 1970s, include samples from the three Indian groups of the region (Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimian).
Besides the Heritage Center, you can see poles at Saxman Native Village, 2.5 miles from town, and at Totem Bight, 10 miles away.
The poles at Saxman, named after an Indian school teacher of the 1890s, are controlled and managed by Tlingit Indians. A dozen poles include the amusing ridicule pole, known as the Seward Pole. The pole commemorates a visit to Alaska by William Seward, who was instrumental in purchasing Alaska from the Russians in 1867. When Seward arrived to inspect Alaska, the Indians offered him ample gifts, as was their custom, but he was not aware of the reciprocation that gifts implied. He was parsimonious in his response, a matter that his effigy on the pole suggests.
Totem Bight consists of an Indian clanhouse and a collection of poles, carved by Indians in the CCC period of the 1930s, recreating earlier poles. (A “bight” is a curve in the shoreline.) The clanhouse recreates a typical woodboard structure that Indians lived in during winter along this Alaskan coast. Totems here interpret several Indian legends and stories, sometimes in a manner different from a pole telling the same story at Saxman.
The ride out to Totem Bight takes you past a large Louisiana Pacific pulp mill, one of the substantial processors of wood harvested in the Tongass National Forest, a huge chunk of Southeast Alaska real estate. Whether the Tongass Forest is properly managed or not is an issue of intensive and divisive debate.
Ketchikan is a pleasant small town to explore on foot. The Ketchikan Museum-Library includes elaborate displays on the historic Indian cultures, complete with their food supplies, which were abundant, and their ceremonial life, which was extensive. The local Indians dried seaweed for use as a trade item with inland Indians. Local minerals, mining history from the 1897 gold strikes, Indian spruce and cedar baskets, and a seashell-coral collection are a few of the eclectic exhibits.
The celebrated historic part of the town is the 17-house cluster along Creek Street, where famous madams, such as Dolly Arthur, maintained brothels in their homes. This practice was sanctioned by Alaska territorial law. Dolly’s is now a museum to the pre-statehood era. As part of its bid for statehood (successful in 1959), Alaska felt it was prudent that Ketchikan conform to outside notions of propriety. Dolly’s place, far more than just a brothel, was both a salon and a saloon. Dolly’s offered socializing for uprooted men, suffering from boomtown loneliness. Men gathered at Dolly’s to indulge in conversation and their beverage of choice, whether Prohibition was in force or not.
Tracy Arms is an off-the-beaten-track inlet that takes you close to the Sawyer Glacier. This 25-mile inlet is a narrow U-shaped fjord with deep glacial cuts, meaning the ship is in 2,000 feet of water, though it may be only a hundred yards from shore. Mountains along the water’s edge show pronounced glacial polish and scraping.
Wildlife flourishes in Tracy Arms. Mountain goats on the ridges, black bears gorging on salmon, killer whales, and many sea birds are common sights.
At the end of Tracy Arms the ship hovers close to Sawyer Glacier, called a tidewater glacier because it approaches the ocean. The Sawyer Glacier is a visible tongue of the large Stikine Ice Field. Immense chunks of bluish ice break off the glacier, a crashing process called “calving.” The chunks then float down the inlet toward the ocean. Immediately at the foot of the glacier, as the breaking chunks stir up the bottom, small birds called kittiwakes gather in huge numbers. Kittiwakes feed on crustaceans thrust up by the churning water.
At Haines you can raft the Tsircu and Chilkat Rivers through the Chilkat Eagle Preserve. By late summer one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the world can be found here, feeding on salmon that struggle across the shallow gravel bars of these braided glacial deltas. (Another major concentration of eagles is at Brackendale in British Columbia.) The 1-1/2 hour raft trip along four miles of the Tsircu River and two miles of the Chilkat River may include sightings of bears or wolves, who also appreciate easy salmon dinners. A special upwelling of the Chilkat River in winter, due to the deep glacial pools, prevents the river from freezing. The winter water flow further concentrates bald eagles at their food supply of salmon carcasses. The bald eagle, our national symbol, nests in the alder trees along the river and gorges itself on carrion fish.
In Haines you can also see the Chilkat Dancers, a Native Alaskan demonstration of Tlingit Indian legend dances. At the Indian Arts Center, carvers fashion new totem poles.
Haines is also the primary home of noted artist, Tresham Gregg, who perpetuates Tlingit Indian designs in several media. Among art galleries in Haines, the Northern Lights shows an especially wide selection of crafts.
Haines is accessible by cruise ship and Alaska state ferry or by small plane on a half-hour flight from Juneau. A road from the interior reaches Haines, but the route is circuitous. Though Skagway is only 13 air miles from Haines, the road winds for 359 miles before joining the two communities.
Southeast Alaska: If You Go
For tourism information on Alaska, see http://travelalaska.com.
For Prince Rupert, see http://visitprincerupert.com.