Ketchikan: A Wild Frontier with Deep History and Versatile Culture

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Perched on the southwestern slopes of the Tongass National Forest, the country’s largest national forest at 16.7 million acres, Ketchikan is a city of contrasts, which, at a more attentive glance, fuse together to create one of the most unique destinations in the United States. The southernmost town in the US northernmost state, Ketchikan could easily be mistaken for a Scandinavian fishing village – the same quaint, tranquil environ on the edge between the mountains and the water, the same bright facades of the same sturdy abodes above the languid streams. These similarities, of course, are no coincidence. They stem from both the human and natural forces that have molded the region throughout centuries of formation and exploration.


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In the onset of the 20th century,

when Alaska’s first city was also its biggest, many of Ketchikan’s residents shared Nordic ancestry, which fit with the three local native groups’ fishing-centered lifestyle. Back then, according to an article by John Edward Meals, people here still waged a battle to shield their enclave from the elements around it, or rather, cobble a civilized life amid the wilderness of the Alaskan frontier. In the late 1920s, on the precipice of the Great Depression, they had attained prosperity. Their fishing port had risen to a bustling business center on the heights of the salmon industry.

Ketchikan totem poles

Explore the Wilds

Today, Ketchikan continues to uphold its sobriquet as the “Salmon Capital of the World,” but its economy has swelled to include auspicious tourism. Blanketing forested slopes on the Revillagigedo Island, the city sits amid stunning wilderness, tamed enough to afford arresting escapades. Misty Fiords National Monument reveals some of the most spectacular natural vistas the area has to offer. Composed of steep sea cliffs, glacial lakes and majestic fjords and dramatic waterfalls, the monument draws a jaw-dropping juxtaposition between the sea and the mountain peaks, inviting boat as well as plane tours. Several trails snake around the Tongass National Forest and lead to simple but comfortable camping grounds and huts, which allow immersive forays into the area. Another way to explore the region – home to harbor seals, bald eagles, sea lions, river otters, black bears, moose, wolves and mountain goats among other critters – is kayaking through the many protected coves and inlets.

Traversing the coastline and gliding onto the water, nonetheless, calls for some serious travel gear, not least a sturdy and reliable backpack. The SWISSGEAR 1900 Travel Pack possesses all the features to withstand the harshness of the Alaskan wilderness. A travel pack, it boasts a large main compartment that unfolds like a suitcase with two packing halves – one with tie-down straps for clothes and another with mesh divider for smaller necessities. With a slew of side pockets and comfortable shoulder straps, the Getaway Big Backpack is an adventure-ready, accident-proof ruck, whose ergonomic silhouette and highly-protective characteristics lend security and simplicity to any trip.

Exploring Ketchikan is one thing but getting there is another. Situated on a small strip of the US, sandwiched between Canada and the Pacific Ocean, Ketchikan is not an easy place to reach. A long car drive or a flight from the rest of the US, many visitors enjoy a cruise up the coast to the city. But no matter the mode of transportation, SWISSGEAR 6532 Rolling Duffle flaunts enough space for weeks’ worth of clothes. Gliding on two inline wheels, it is the perfect facilitator to a Ketchikan getaway.

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Ketchikan River

Land of Totems

The centuries-old saga of Ketchikan’s secluded forests and icy sea transpires in the Tongass Historical Museum, which also chronicles the salmon and mining industries that transformed the natural world around. There is much to see outside as inside the museum, however. In July and August, an observation deck overlooking Ketchikan Creek provides unobstructed views of an astounding natural spectacle – salmons’ leap over the nearby falls. The museum’s grounds also accommodate an impressive “Raven Stealing the Sun” totem, which is a single piece in the city’s enormous collection of Native American totems.

Expressions of the cosmic beliefs of several Native cultures that call Ketchikan home, some two dozen of totems bead the Saxman Native Village Totem Park. Most are replicas, scavenged and restored from abandoned villages. A standout in the park’s assortment is a duplicate of the famed Lincoln Pole, carved in 1883 to the likeness of the president. Alaska Natives guide visitors through two-hour tours, which often include traditional drum-and-dance performances and a Tlingit language lesson.

Totems also guard the entrance to the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, which harbors a recreated rainforest. Alaska Native traditions and Inside Passage’s ecosystems make up several displays, while live-video screens relay salmon’s hectic quests up the streams. The early stages of the fish’s extraordinary life can be observed at the Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center, which raises some 350,000 king salmon, coho salmon, rainbow trout and steelhead before releasing them in the canals.


Fire Pit

Simple Yet Grand

Sustained by fishing throughout its history, Ketchikan encourages tourists to partake in what is an old-time custom here. Besides, no visit to the city will be complete without a fishing excursion. Many mom-and-pop companies here offer fishing charters, tailored to various interests, goals and durations. Avid fishermen and laymen, alike, can sample the catch at the Alaska Fish House, which offers gourmet seafood dishes (the smoked salmon chowder is a local favorite) conveniently close to both the city’s main street and its docks.

Life in Ketchikan, which shapes the mores of some 10,000 residents, is simple yet grand in both small and profound ways. Here, on the edge of the North American continent, the days pulsate with their own rhythm of the past as well as the present. Precious cultures and habitats peacefully coexist in Ketchikan, preserving each other through the centuries. It is a picturesque enclave, diverse in a special, enthralling way that is hard to come across in today’s fast-paced, megapolis-centered world.

Ketchikan Town