A Christian Welcome
It's five in the morning and the day has already awakened a long time ago, if, in the middle of the northern summer, it has slept at all. The thick fog did not delay the Alaska Marine Highway System ship on which, since the previous morning, we had been navigating the labyrinth of islands, islets and canals that separated Sitka of Ketchikan.
The captain's punctuality betrays us. We are forced to hurriedly close our backpacks and leave the already desolate passenger ferry in an emergency, without even being able to contemplate the front of the assorted houses in front and the vast leafy forest of acacia and spruce trees that surrounded it.
In spite of the hour, Christy and Joseph arrive on time. The couple who took the time to welcome us in the city welcome us as we leave the port and take us to Christy's parents' house. A small room had been reserved for us in the basement of the traditional wooden house that his father had built, for the most part, with the sweat of his work.
Christy, Joseph the Father and Christ Our Lord
Until you retired, you were a lumberjack in the forests that fill the surrounding map. Among other accidents, it took with trees on top. Broke his back and a leg. He survived, however, the hardships of the profession and, at that time, enjoyed a deserved and dignified retreat in which, in order not to abandon wood altogether, he entertained himself by making guitars.
We would get to know him and his children better at a dinner table that began with a prayer shared by everyone, hand in hand.
We soon realized that Christy and Joseph were a missionary couple. Who had recently traveled through Mozambique, South Africa, India and other countries, in a mix of volunteering and discovering the world. The providential welcome they had given us was yet another of their benevolent projects.
Until the meal, we settle in and listen to the instructions that the hosts give us. Then they go to your life. We, had a whole pseudo-Ketchikan discovery plan to put into practice.
From Mera Floresta to Alaska's Inaugural City
We were 1100 km north of Seattle. The bulk of this vastness integrates the Canadian province of British Columbia and isolates the Alaska, the 49th state of USA, from the so-called Lower 48. Isolation was also something Ketchikan was used to.
The fifth largest city in the Alaska it even has almost 14.000 permanent inhabitants, many more from May to August, when it is flooded with migrants and immigrants eager to occupy one of the countless jobs that tourism generates. Still, the next city worthy of the name, Juneau, the capital of Alaska, is almost 400 km away.
Until the XNUMXth century, the place was nothing more than a camp that the native Tlingit used to catch the abundant fish there. Over the years, this abundance of wood attracted settlers and they bought land from the natives.
Another title: The Salmon Capital of the World
In 1886, he opened the first salmon canning factory, near the mouth of the Ketchikan stream. By 1936, six others had opened and earned him the title of Canned Salmon Capital of the World.
Today, in addition to salmon, huge trout nurseries of various species support the economy, located halfway up the mountain of Deer, with a privileged view over the city and the vast North Pacific channel in which it was installed.
Ketchikan was also famous as the First City, for being the first to appear on the south-north route of the Alaskan Marine Highway. But it could also be called Thin City. In the good fashion of the long Alaskan panhandle, the coastal space occupied by the city on the remote island of Revillagigedo is so slender that its airport had to be built on an offshore island.
As early as the XNUMXth century, gold and copper were discovered in the vicinity. But, after salmon, it was logging that occupied most residents, employed by the giant pulp producer Ketchikan Pulp and by the Louisiana Pacific sawmill.
And Tourism enters the Scene
This was until around 1970, when the government's new civic ecological awareness temporarily halted the company's production and left hundreds of workers unemployed.
As happened to some of the companions to the north, in the 90's, Ketchikan conquered the new status of cruise capital. It let tourism take a hit and started to receive more than ten boats a day and almost a million passengers during the three and a half summer months.
The change divided the population. Some liked the abundance of jobs – albeit seasonal ones – and the hefty salaries. Others decried the commercial den into which downtown had degenerated, where many of the stores belong to the powerful cruise lines and only open in the summer.
Cruise Companies vs Tlingit Culture
As soon as the Estio gives way to winter, these companies are dedicated only and only to stops in the Caribbean. Their local establishments are no longer used and have to be protected from successive rains, snows and gales.
They are sealed with sturdy plywood boards that school children and teens paint to soften the ghostly look that the drop would otherwise look like.
Ketchikan's modernization and internationalization has taken away much of the Tlingit soul, even as the hardy Tlingits struggled to preserve the legacy of their culture. Ketchikan has, for example, the world's largest collection of totems.
That afternoon, we ran into several of them in Saxman's Totem Park, an area with less than five hundred residents, also surrounded by the immensity of Tongass fir trees.
From there, we return to the city center and enjoy a treatment of the trunks not so creative or spiritual, but equally emblematic, of the region.
The Cultural Heritage of Alaskan Lumberjacks
Until 1970, hundreds of woodcutters gave their lives to the surrounding forest. The arduous and risky activity has earned an unsuspected reputation among the local community. In such a way that different villages began to organize competitions involving the various arts of the craft.
With Canada on the side, these disputes became international. More recently, tourism has swept many of the Alaskan Skillet Cape towns and villages.
Christy and Joseph tell us that as soon as visitors from the south of the United States set foot on the ground, they renew a list of harsh and even somewhat insulting questions for the residents. “Where can we find the igloos and Eskimos”, “I can pay with US dollars” etc., etc.
Scenes from the Famous Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
At the same time, in Ketchikan, everything serves to entertain the uninformed and well-heeled outsiders who land there in the summer and deprive them of the maximum amount of dollars. The clashes of woodcutters were no exception.
When we enter the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, the stands are already packed. A raucous presenter introduces the competing teams: a selection of USA against another Canadian. It introduces successive tests with easy jokes that generate (un)communal laughs.
Representatives are dressed in formal denim pants that are held up by suspenders over short-sleeved shirts. For more than an hour, they face cutting stumps with an axe. They saw logs on the ground. And others, raised vertically, at a good height, and which are fastened with harnesses.
They still fight over floating and rolling logs and so on. In the end, of course, the team of USA.
The audience rejoices again. Dispute photographs with the woodcutters in which they pose as the heroes of the saw and the ax that the American crowd, always eager for heroes, wants to see. There, right next door, the show is continuous.
Creek Street: The Historic Artery of Ketchikan
Perched on wooden walkways that run along the Ketchikan River, colorful Creek Street is made up of large colorful stilts nestled in the foothills of Tongass Forest. In the days of the Alaskan gold rush, this street was home to the city's crowded Red District.
With over thirty brothels, it was said to be the only place in the Alaska where both fish and fishermen went upriver to spawn. As then, with the month of June, the salmon reach the riverbed.
Exhausted by the already long marine course, at the end of its life cycle, they try, against time and current, to climb it.
A group of kids parked on the field bridge that crosses the river fish for them.
Leaning over a yellow-green window in one of the picturesque houses, a dog with half its face white and the other black, watches them, intrigued. It barks every time the unfortunate fish writhe out of the water.
Today, the old brothels are all spruced up souvenir shops. They open and close as cruises dock and set sail. They sell at exorbitant prices and advertise nationalist messages like “nothing made in China here. All 100% natural and Made in Alaska."
The two or three prostitutes outside bars are just extras. They wear red lace. They adapt poses and gestures of the oldest profession. But they are only paid to talk and photograph themselves with outsiders.
The Alaskan Rain Capital. At least that's how it's known
Another title on Ketchikan's list of “capitals” is the Alaskan Rain Capital. As we are told, in no other city in the state is rainfall as regular and persistent.
Even so, as happened to us in most of our tour of the Great North, the days follow each other hot and with clear skies. In such a way that, with the exception of post-sunset, we keep to our short sleeves.
Back home, Christy and Joseph congratulate themselves on the meteorological luck they guarantee that we have brought to the city. “This started even when you landed and has been going on. Surely you don't want to stay a while longer?”.
We take advantage of both the calm and the resilience of sunlight. With your company, we will explore the outskirts and much more genuine areas of the village. They take us to an old sawmill installed on stilts, now abandoned to the tides and the elements.
In the vicinity, a black bear hunts salmon, bothered by its two restless cubs, which only do not frighten their prey because the fish are at the dying end of their lives.
new day without end
We return to the city after eleven at night. The sun was falling over the horizon. The moon insinuated itself in the sky and on the tide more ebb than we had ever seen. We stop by the sea on a peninsula on the Saxman extension.
A bunch of kids, with no time to go home, scour the rocky coastline in search of adventure. We don't take long to share your fortune. There, right in front of us, a group of humpback whales coexist and feed gracefully.
A new boreal twilight that makes their shiny skins shine sets in to last. Three days had passed. The next morning we said goodbye to Christy and Joseph.
We left that southern border of the Alaska and flew to Anchorage, its largest city and most famous gateway.
More information about Ketchikan on the website Visit Ketchikan