An email from the State of Alaska ferry system, known as the Alaska Marine Highway, recently arrived for me, a reminder that reservations are open for the upcoming tourist season. The message transported me to the place I called home in my twenties after college. I worked in Alaska as a reporter, and in many ways, consider it the place where I grew up.
On a return visit a lifetime later, I rode the ferry Malaspina to Ketchikan with my son Ben, then 14. From the ferry terminal, Ben and I boarded a city bus that wound its way up and across a hillside residential area before we hopped off in the business district.
A cruise ship tied to the downtown dock waited for its passengers to return. Except for the international chain stores that opened just for the cruise ship trade, little had changed. Fishing and pleasure boats slipped in and out of Thomas Basin Harbor. At the Totem Heritage Center, visitors strolled among a fine collection of native baskets and 19th century totem poles retrieved from nearby native villages.
On historic Creek Street we watched a native artist carving yellow cedar into a mask. We meandered along the long wooden walkway supported by poles that stretches over the Ketchikan Creek. Night and day the creek rises and falls, rinsed with saltwater from the nearby Pacific. I pointed to the apartment where I once lived and nearby, Dolly’s House, one of the former brothels, now a museum.
Dolly Arthur lived out her life on Creek Street in the same house from 1919 until her death in 1975. According to June Allen, author of “Dolly’s House: Ketchikan’s Last Legal Madam,” Arthur called herself a “sporting woman” and considered cut above your common whore. Prostitutes plied their trade on Creek Street until the long arm of the law officially shut down the trade in 1954.
While Ketchikan gets 13 feet of rain a year, days and hours offer sunshine and spectacular views between storms. The long, narrow town stretches along the west side of the 1,145 square mile Revillagigedo Island and is now home to more than 13 thousand residents. Nearly700 miles due north of Seattle and 240 miles south of Juneau, Ketchikan is the first or last stop for many visitors to Southeast Alaska.
When I landed my first on the air job as a radio news reporter in Ketchikan, I arrived aboard an Alaska Airline jet. As the plane descended, I watched a brown bear wading in a rushing stream, batting its enormous paws at leaping salmon.
To reach town from the island airport, I crossed Tongass Narrows aboard a small ferry. Then and now, no bridge connects the airport with Ketchikan. Famously, objections over building one gave rise to the term “Bridge to Nowhere.”
At first I wondered why such a remote placed needed a reporter but I soon found ample stories to fill air time, from local politics to interviews with old-timers: the Norwegian Nels Nelson described the huge salmon runs of the 1920’s; a woman of a certain age who shared she and friends danced on the beach in the 1930’s on long summer nights.
Along the way I got to participate in making video documentary about Haida basket weavers Selina Peratrovich and her daughter Delores Churchill. Before I could videotape the 91-year-old Selina she would serve me fish soup and fried bread. She called me a Haida name that translates to Sweet Face.
On this trip, when Ben and I reached the studios of KRBD-FM, the public radio station where I once worked, we found an old staff photo on the bulletin board. I wore a plaid shirt and had long hair as did the other women and men in the photo.
“Mom! You guys were hippies,” said Ben.
“What?”“I am much too young to have been a hippie. That was 1981, not 1969.”
Ben rolled his eyes, unconvinced. After all, he had nailed the spirit of the motley radio station crew. We were all about being alternative.
Leaving Ketchikan, the ferry rolled in the enormous swells that rise and fall in Dixon Entrance, the strait that connects the Inside Passage with the wide open Pacific. I said one more goodbye a place that gave me a lifetime of memories and packed away a few new ones.