Thursday, July 7, 2022

Ketchikan catch-up: eagles, waterfalls and a smuggling bordello


Ketchikan's Creek Street is as bustling now, differently than in the 1930s when booze and brothels
were the order of the day.  Now, it's tourism, and the street is lined with shops, galleries and cafes.


 Totem poles in Ketchikan tell sacred stories.


YOU MAY think you know Ketchikan, if you've been in and out on a cruise ship to take a half-day tour.

But you haven't really seen this lovely "first" Alaskan town unless you've toured it with a jovial transplanted Scotsman named Cruin MacGriogair.

Since it was our fifth visit, we were looking for something new and found this charming tour guide, woodcarver, philosopher on line.

This stunning scenery is what attracted Cruin
and enticed him from his native Scotland.

He met us dressed  in a traditional kilt -- he's a big guy, so it's a big kilt -- and began a lively tour of this 1880s village turned bustling tourist spot.

Bruce Keller and Cruin
MacGriogair talk history.

The town gets its "first" moniker because it is set at the southernmost entrance to Alaska's famed Inside Passage -- network of waterways that snake through some of the world's most stunning wilderness. It's the "first" town most tourists see on their trek into our 49th state. 
SO WHY DID did MacGriogair trade pastoral Edinburgh, Scotland, for the rugged beauty of Ketchikan?  "Why? Just look at this," he says, sweeping his hand affectionately across the horizon. "Beauty everywhere." On that note, we set off for Cruin's take on the town's most famous Creek Street. He pointed out a sign for "Married Man's Trail," where men could sneak along a woodsy trail to reach the brothels on Creek Street below undetected.

Cruin displayed his custom made tools, with
which he carves and creates one-of-a-kind art.

Brothels were big business with 30 operating between 1903 and the 1953 closure of the infamous red light district. Its most famous madam, Dolly, operated until then and is vividly remembered in Dolly's House and Museum, complete with red satin curtains, appropriate for a red light district.
CRUIN TOLD TALES of a hidden trap door through which booze boxes were smuggled into boats on the river below, and through which partiers could escape during raids.
Because a "Cruin tour" is custom designed, this amiable guide will
stop for whatever piques your fancy. Here, he pulled over so we could
photograph this beautiful bald eagle on a drive outside town.

We drove both ends of the town and beyond, traveling the Tongass Highway-- to the controversial new cruise ship dock (large ships pay less here, docking a few kilometers from the city) to the other end of town with beautiful trees and abundant bird life. He stopped so we could photograph a bald eagle and answered questions about berry bushes and trees, showing knowledge and enthusiasm for his chosen home.
THE PLACE has a wild feel, with both fishing and timber still a large part of the economy. Tourism, of course, is the third side of Ketchikan's economic triangle. Cruin's delightful tour is custom designed. The visitor tells him what he wants to see. We said "take us off the beaten track," and he did, with history, art, dining and shopping tips.
Christene "Cookie" Meyers and
Bruce Keller at a "Cruin stop."
Our ship was among three that recent day, when the town's 6,000 people are visited by thousands of tourists departing ships to spend their day seeing the sights and shopping.
NEARLY ALL come away with a package of salmon, since Ketchikan is the world's salmon capital. At the salmon industry's peak in the 1930s, there were 13 canneries exporting  tens of thousands of pounds of salmon.
WHAT GIVES the town its name? Ketchikan comes from the Tlingit name for the creek, Kitschk-hin, which likely means  "the river belonging to Kitschk." We learned of other possible meanings, including my favorite: "Thundering Wings of an Eagle." Cruin also emphasized that native peoples inhabited the area for centuries before its 1886 settlement, which explains the town's fascination with Native American artifacts and totem poles, both on display throughout town. 
A skilled carver himself, Cruin makes his own tools, so he knows the painstaking way in which totems are created.  He also shared insight into the word "totem.”  It's a reference to a guardian, ancestral being, or a supernatural spirit, and  can also symbolize significant events. The Tlingit call the totem pole "kooteeyaa,” meaning "people of the other side.” 
THE TOWN'S colorful and continually changing totem poles tell the history of its people through these eye-catching, wooden sculptures. We'd seen Totem Bright State Historical Park with its extensive totem collection so we asked Cruin to show us his town's unique poles instead. With his wife Elizabeth, of native descent, he's studied many Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian totem poles.  Some are under restoration, others recently preserved, a few need work and the town plans to see that done, Cruin said. 
Crazy Wolf Studio offers unique masks, authentic glass and
carved wooden art and a fine selection of tasteful souvenirs.


WE'D EARLIER toured nearby Misty Fiords National Monument, a glacier-carved wilderness with snowcapped mountains, waterfalls and salmon spawning streams. It's fun to see once but you'll  find a more vivid insider's tour through Cruin's own stories and close-up bird, forest and nature stops.

A beautiful sculptural bear commands center
stage at Ketchikan's Tongass Historical Museum
WE RECOMMEND a stop at Totem Heritage Center,  a downtown museum that houses precious 19th-century totem poles collected and preserved with permission from the Alaska Native elders, and Saxman Totem Park, home to 25 totems -- well done, authentic replicas of original poles found left in abandoned villages as Native Alaskans moved into more populated cities.
And do ask Cruin to take you to his favorite gallery, Crazy Wolf Studio, where native American artist Ken Decker's exquisite work is on view. It's a museum quality collection of masks, beadwork, glass and carvings, plus for the budget minded, beautiful native inspired notecards, vivid prints and elegant dream catchers. 


A conductor brings the train in aboard the White Pass
and Yukon Route Railroad, with spectacular scenery.

We're north -- in Alaska, with highlights of several days spent there recently. Next up, we ride the chilly rails into Yukon territory aboard one of the world's most exciting trains.   Then we're whale watching in Juneau, for humpbacks, orcas and a bevy of dolphins.  Remember to explore, learn and live and catch us each week for a fresh look at nature, adventure, travel, family and the arts.

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  1. Seattle SeafarersJuly 7, 2022 at 4:44 PM

    Wow! Cruin sounds like a real character. We go to Alaska often and will find this guy! Thanks.

  2. So much to see in both our states! Have been to Anchorage and Fairbanks but this made me curious about Ketchikan.

  3. Excellent overview of a town we've watched grow and change through the years. Fun piece and great photos as always.

  4. We lived in Fairbanks for 10 years and visited Ketchikan several times. The art is the best and most authentic in the state. Wonderful carvers and painters and your guide is one of them!