Obscured and Off-Kilter: My Time in Ketchikan, Alaska

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Ketchikan is a small, touristy town in southern Alaska. In the summer, it’s a bubbly hub for outdoors enthusiasts. There’s boating trips to catch salmon, hiking trips to peak at wildlife, and flights in rickety little planes to take it all in at once. I wasn’t there in the summer, but in May, when it rained every day and the sun set at 8. Southern Alaska is made up of hundreds of tightly huddled, mountainous islands, and Ketchikan is squished between the water and the hills. While the town has less than ten thousand people, it manages to stretch out over 34 miles of coastline. With the rain and the low density population, it’s impossible to get around without a car. I had a black rental that I’d often retreat to when I felt frightened or unwanted.

Ketchikan is accessible only by boat or plane. I arrived on a Saturday, flying in from Seattle on a plane that acted like an airbus, touching down temporarily at several coastal towns before continuing on to its final destination. The airport is on a different island than the rest of the town, so I took the 15 minute ferry that connected the two. My hotel was less than a half mile from the drop-off point, but I could not walk the distance. It was pouring rain and, as I later discovered,  there was no sidewalk to walk on. Luckily there was a hotel shuttle.

I checked in and was informed that there would be a high school prom happening in the hotel that night. I asked about a grocery store, and was informed that the only one in town was a block away, and that I should take the shuttle. I chose to walk. The fruit wasn’t as overpriced as I expected, but the pickings were slim. At least half the shelves were empty; I wasn’t sure if they were ever filled. I was dressed in full rain gear, and several other shoppers stared at me as I picked up groceries for the few days I’d be in town. Nobody else was wearing rain boots or holding an umbrella, even though it was still raining.

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The next day I woke up early with prom anthems still ringing in my ears. My hotel was a couple miles out of town, so at noon I drove downtown and had lunch at the only well-reviewed place in town, which served salmon tacos. Downtown Ketchikan is a cluster of houses sprouting off a mountain side, overflowing onto docks above the water. The houses are painted brightly to offset the gloom and constant rain. Although they are mostly hidden by fog, on clearer days snow-capped mountains frame the town in all inland directions. The town is mostly composed of small museums and tourist shops, where a passing visiter can buy a keychain or hunk of overpriced vaccuum-sealed salmon. I bought some and then later opened it up in my hotel room. It had a strange aftertaste of ammonia that left me nauseated.

Outside the town the Tongass Highway stretches out about 30 miles heading either North or South. In the offseason, this road is the only way to access wildlife sightseeing, if you aren’t willing to pay for a boat tour. These are the sights I saw that stayed with me.

The road hugs the mountain, so there is often a shear cliff face to drive alongside. The constant rain creates waterfalls that stream down the incline into the ditch next to the road. The larger waterfalls are too big to run off into the ground, so there are drain pipes that run beneath the road to let the waterfall drain into the ocean. These waterfalls are pretty and occasionally terrifying. I stopped my car beside one of the larger ones to watch it roar. It was unnerving to watch thousands of gallons of water pass by in such close proximity, and even though the rain had let up I was quickly drenched by mist coming off the falls. I only stopped for a minute. I was scared of the roaring water, but I was also uncomfortable with the idea that another traveler could find me there, alone and so close to a monster.

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Traveling alone on that road was strange. I would stop at sightseeing points but quickly leave if another car pulled up behind mine. Being 20 miles out from civilization alone made me jumpy and on edge. Once I stopped at a fishing dock with some boats and a restaurant. The restaurant was closed, so after taking a few pictures I headed back to my car. I passed a couple men on my way back who both smiled at me. A minute after I passed them, I twisted my ankle on the asphalt. I stumbled, but did not fall or shout. From behind me I heard “Careful!” I did not look back or stop walking. My stumble had been noiseless, and yet they had known I’d fallen.

To the north, the landscape looks much the same as the south, but there is one destination in particular to make it worth while. 26 miles north of downtown is the Knudson Cove Marina, which is famous for whale sightings. I saw no whales there, unfortunately, but after I returned and started googling I discovered that a whale had breached spectacularly just a day before my visit. Five feet from the dock, the whale had surfaced, opening a mouth wide enough to swallow a truck whole. While I missed this sight, I did see a few seals pop their heads above water.

Ketchikan is a strange place. The wildlife, when not veiled in fog and rain, was stunning. The prices for room and board were less impressive. From the men wearing Trump shirts at the taco stand to the woman that screamed at me while I was parked in front of her house, I felt generally unwelcome by the locals. I’m not sure if that’s a general feeling towards tourists, or if by traveling as a single woman I put a target on my back. In contrast, the hospital employees I met through my job were very nice to me. They also seemed to believe that they were living in paradise, and asked me if I’d be willing to live there. By the tone in their voice, they seemed to think the answer was obvious.

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