Alaska III – The last of Sitka, and on to Ketchikan –

Day two in Sitka is better, due to the arrival of the cruise ship (which means businesses will be open) and a full night’s sleep. It’s sunny today, almost t-shirt weather. The only place that’s open for breakfast is the unappealing hotel restaurant, so I take a walk instead. I visit the totem pole in Marina Park, and the bronze statue of a prospector outside of Pioneer Home, the retirement home for the city.

It’s a Miracle! St Michael’s Cathedral is open today!

Built in 1844-48 from spruce logs faced with clapboard on the outside and lined inside with sailcloth for insulation and acoustics, it burned to the ground in a fire that took much of Sitka’s downtown in 1966. Nearly 100 Sitkans formed a bucket brigade to retrieve the relics inside before the church was completely lost. The large chandelier that hangs from the dome was rescued by a parishioner who stacked benches underneath the fixture until he could reach the chain to unhook it. He handed it to a pair of men standing below him, who carried it out of the church. It later took 6 men to carry the 300 pound piece to the Bishop’s House for storage.

The ornate pair of gold doors in front of the altar are also originals. These hand carved doors were taken off their hinges with a crow bar and carried out of the church during the fire. Afterwards, the man who had single-handedly rescued these doors, was unable to pick them up by himself.

Photo courtesy of The Roaming Boomers

A replica of the church took ten years to build and was completed in 1976. It was built following the original plans and was constructed from concrete and steel, and lined with fireproof canvas.

Services are held at least 3 times a week for a parish of 50+ people. The Orthodox faithful believe the Church is the place where heaven and earth unite and intermingle, so there are no pews, although there are a few benches along the walls for those who cannot stand for a full service or wedding. This leaves a lot of open space to walk around. It’s one of the cheapest admissions ($2) and the docent was very friendly and informative.

The Cathedral is built in the shape of a cross, with the altar located behind a pair of hand-carved gilded doors. These doors symbolize the entry into the Kingdom of Heaven (I saw an excellent example of this style of door at the “Gates of Heaven” exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum earlier this year). This is the only Russian Orthodox church I have visited that has opened these doors and exposed the altar to public view. St. Michael’s has three altars: the principal in the center, one on the left for Mary, and one on the right for Saint Innocent. These smaller chapels are sometimes used for weekday services when there are fewer faithful in attendance. The church is full of artifacts, including icons painted in oil on wood, vestments, chalices, censures, and a pair of wedding crowns that are still used today.

The wedding crowns are the style worn by Queen Elizabeth, ornate silver with red maintenance caps. The docent said Orthodox weddings are 2.5 hours long, and during that entire time the crowns are held above the heads of the wedding couple by their attendants. Orthodox weddings have a large number of groomsmen and bridesmaids because they need to spell each other off during this ceremonial task.

Most of the icons date from the 19th century, with some dating to the 17th century. Many icons are covered with a detailed metal plate called a ‘riza’, which both protects and ornaments the painting. Open spaces in the riza expose the face and hands of the saint, which are considered the holiest parts of these icons. Rizas date back to about the 17th century, icons painted prior to the 17th century were typically left uncovered.

The icons to the sides of the royal doors were brought to Sitka on the Russian warship Neva in 1813. The Neva ran aground and sank about 20 miles off coast, and all but one of the icons were salvaged from the ship. One, depicting St. Michael, was found undamaged in a crate which washed ashore 30 days after the Neva sank. The riza is worked in gold and duplicates his armor and wings, I think the most beautiful icon in this church. I am sad that I have no photos of it.

One of the most impressive icons is “Our Lady of Sitka” also called “Our Lady of Kazan”, painted in about 1800 by Vladimir Borofikovsky. Miracles have been attributed to this icon, mostly the healing of eyesight. But the one that left me with the greatest impression is “Virgin Mary Not Painted by Hands.” The unidentified monk who painted it, was unhappy with the face and hands, so he blacked them out and went to sleep. When he woke up the next morning, he found his original work had been restored. The docent pointed out that wherever you stand within the cathedral, the Lady’s eyes follow you. And it’s true…

Travel tips:

  • See Castle Hill and St. Michael’s if you don’t see anything else.
  • The city closes between 5 PM and 6:30 and doesn’t open again until 9:30 or 10 AM, but these times are relative…
  • Time your visit to dovetail with the cruise ship schedule so you have a fighting chance of things being open when you are here.

And now that this place has partially redeemed itself, it’s time for me to leave.

The ferry today is the Colombia, the biggest ship of this trip, and sailing the longest leg, departing at noon for arrival in Ketchikan at 7:15 tomorrow morning. The Colombia is 418 feet long, 85 feet wide, and carries 931 passengers, though I think there are less than 100 on this run. The Bridge and Boat Decks are the best observation points, and my seat is on the left side of the bridge, 7 stories above the water. Even though it’s a beautiful day, with breaks in the rain, I’m ready to climb back into a sweater.

During lunch, the view out the window is of evergreen trees so close that I thought the ship was going to brush the branches. There’s no beach, the only thing separating the trees from the water’s edge is a layer of small boulders. We spot deer, as well as dolphins, eagles and herons. This turns out to be Sturgis Passage, the narrowest passage the Coast Guard will let a ship this size pass through. 

Suddenly the ship’s steward alerts us to a very rare sighting – tree flamingos! What I see looks amazingly like the plastic yard variety. Which, of course, they are…an April Fools joke pulled off several years ago by a local, that the ship’s steward takes great delight in keeping alive on every sailing … 

The terrain has become rugged again, resembling Juneau. There are supposed to be whales in Wrangell Strait. I’m getting really lethargic, even after the excitement of seeing the “rare tree-nesting flamingos from Madein China”…

And then, here we go … the captain announces over the loud speaker that whales have been sighted just ahead. I whip out my binoculars and start scanning. A dorsal fin, then two, then four. Not just a whale or two, but an entire pod of humpbacks! The steward says they are ‘bubble feeding’ and suggests that we enjoy the view through our eyes rather than our cameras, since they move so quickly. I duck outside with my binoculars and see an upright white pectoral fin, then the whale rolls over and the other pectoral fin comes out of the water, bending at the tip as though it’s waving. It then rights itself and dives, exposing a big tail, black on top, white below. Wow! Another whale breaks water, and I see its eye and pink striated throat. We watch for about half an hour as we pass by the pod at least 10 whales. I never see a fully breaching whale, but seeing the playful fins and tail of the one, was still pretty spectacular.

And now, I Am Fully Awake…

Humpback whales are baleen, or toothless. They feed on zooplankton, krill and herring-size fish, and eat by straining seawater through the baleen plates that are on both sides of their mouth. (Baleen is what corset stays were made from during the Victorian era.) The mouth of an adult whale can expand to hold 15,000 gallons of seawater, or the equivalent of seven Volkswagon Bugs.

The distinctive patterns in the water that I call whale-sign, are areas of bubble-net feeding. A team of whales dive below a school of fish, swim in a circle and start blowing a ring of bubbles. As the bubbles rise, they form a curtain around a column of water. The fish stay within this bubble curtain as though it were a net. The whales then swim up through the bubble-net, with their mouths open, and scoop up all the fish. Single whales use smaller bubble-nets to capture swarms of krill at the surface.

The pectoral fin I saw was about 12 feet tall, a third the length of the whale. Tails are up to 15 feet across …

At 9 PM we pull into Petersburg, with all of its houses along the water, one completely over the water, on stilts. The steward comments that from this point south, cities are “three miles long and 3 blocks wide” and that everything is on the water. I would later surmise that the first 100 feet from the water’s edge, is the only flat land in most cases …

The next point of interest is Wrangell Passage, the second most narrow passage after Sturgis. We will hit it in the dark and see why it’s called Christmas Tree Alley because of the red and green towers of flashing buoy lights. This passage has to be traversed at high incoming tide. If the captain misses the tide, it’s a 12-hour wait for the next one. (I bet this is why my ferry schedule changed.) It’s the steward’s favorite part of the trip, and he sits in the front of this observation deck and keeps a running commentary going for at least an hour.  The pass, is not as brightly lit as I expected, but lights any brighter would skew the crew and captain’s night vision, and land us on the rocks.

I leave the deck before we are through the pass, and bed down in a secluded corner of the theater. The next morning I’m one of the first one’s up, my reward is having the shower to myself. I step out onto the deck in my jeans and t-shirt, my hair whipping in the gray windy drizzle. I grab a cup of coffee, and see a lighthouse about a half hour from the dock.

September 10 – Ketchikan

I have arrived at the final destination for this trip. I take my watch off, no longer needing to keep track of ferry schedules, and truly relax. The van from the Gilmore Hotel is waiting at the ferry dock. I stash my luggage at the hotel and hop the city transit (called simply, ‘The Bus’), to head back towards the ferry dock to start my walking tour.

The locals say that Ketchikan is “the place where it rains so much only a white man would build a city here”. They get 13-16 FEET of rain a year. The shuttle driver said they are having the worst summer they’d had since the 1940’s, and that there had only been a dozen days of sun so far this year. I get off the bus but realize I have overshot my destination, and walk about 3 miles back in to town, now soaked to the skin.

I stop to chill out at Caryanne Creek, a salmon spawning area. This place is ridiculous with salmon … watching the creek is like looking into a carp pond, except it’s full of 30-pound sockeye that you could probably pick up with your hands if you stood in the creek. The most interesting sight is the real estate office that sits right in the water, with salmon flopping against the building’s foundation on their way upstream. I head back to the hotel to check in and get some dry clothes.

Travel Tips:

  • If you book the ferry, book a sleeping berth. Also pack a towel, as the ones the ferry supplies are the size of hand towels, thin and inadequate.
  • I recommend the Gilmore Hotel to anyone visiting Ketchikan. It’s the most centrally located one downtown, and is a historic register site that lives up to its name. The most expensive room of the trip at $118 per night, I have a corner room with a bathroom and all the standard amenities, including a flat screen that is a minimal distraction from the rest of the room. In addition to room and laundry service, they offer freezer space in case you go fishing. 
  • There’s no porter or elevator, but the stairs are broken at the halfway point with landings, and the larger landings have pleasant seating areas. One of the landings has a computer with free internet access. The adjoining seating area includes four chairs at a round table in front of a stained glass window, with a nice view downstairs of the chandeliers and the street.
  • The Gilmore puts out a nice continental breakfast spread at the Annabelle Saloon next door. It is very nice eating from china, with real silver, and was a real experience to eat breakfast sitting at an old-timey bar. 

I head back out, and find that the walking tour is well signed, but you have to start from downtown in order to see the signs. No wonder I can’t find things… I find Hopkins Alley, which is a let down compared to Seattle’s older and more interesting docks. The city feels like Ilwaco or Westport, but with a very steep mountain, like Juneau. Building houses up there must require quite a bit of engineering skill.

The cruise ships have just arrived, and are staggeringly tall.  The smallest one is half the size of the others  but still looks like Seattle’s Smith Tower laying on its side.  Tour guides wander through the throng of off-loaded passengers, holding signs for their attraction which they whisk you off to buy tickets for, and then pack you into a parade of other tourists waiting to see the same attraction. What a zoo!

The “trading companies” and other main street / dockside galleries all look the same. I set out to find the real galleries, several blocks away from the dock. I find works by native artists well beyond my budget but at least now I am finally seeing native-made art. I find what looks like a promising fish bar for lunch. Me and 20 of my closest friends queue up…

Tourists! No wonder the locals look forward to the season being over. A young woman behind me starts whining because she doesn’t eat fish. After a minute or two of listening to this, I turn around, point to the Godfather’s across the street, and say, ‘You know, there’s a pizza place Right Over There…”

I go shopping, and find that even the native art is mostly copy work. I had really wanted a totem pole, since Ketchikan has the largest collection of historical totems in the world, but I didn’t want a stock one, and the only one that looked like an original, and that I could afford, was unsigned. I treat myself to a berry picker – a stout wooden comb with a dimensional handle carved into Mother Bear.

Later on, I stumble across a blacksmith, and buy a small ulu that he has forged. The Sitka Deer bone handle has a nice contour which fits comfortably between my thumb and forefinger. The artist is Jake Beimler, Bifrost Blacksmithing, ‘Blacksmithing goods done the traditional way’. He is originally from Montana, a short and stout blacksmith, and predictably, a Viking re-enactor who has organize a fighting troupe in Ketchikan called “Grott, the Lost Vikings”.

It’s pouring rain again, and I find a pair of guys selling stone carvings at the open air Artisan Marketplace at the city center. I buy small Inuksuks carved from Glacier Jade and serpentine. The artist is Jon Fathom, born in a log cabin in Juneau and currently living in Ketchikan. I give him one of my cards, which he recognizes from Best of the Northwest Art & Craft Show when he was a participating artist a couple of years ago. What a small world …

Inuksuks and Inunnguaqs
When I got back to Seattle, I found out that the pieces I purchased are actually inunnguaqs.

An “inuksuk” (pronounced “in-uk-shuk”) is a monument used for communication and survival that is usually made of stacked, un-worked stones. They have been used by the Inuit people in the Arctic to mark trails, caches of food, nearby people, or the migration routes of caribou. These “signposts” were essential for survival and Inuit tradition forbids their destruction.

Historically the most common type of inuksuit are a single upright stone. An inuksuk is often confused with an inunnguaq, a cairn representing a human figure. Interestingly the symbol chosen for the 2010 Olympic Games in Whistler BC is called an inuksuk, but is actually an inunnguaq. I’m sure the Native Peoples are laughing about that…

Sites today include Creek Street, a dock on pilings, lined with Victorian shanties, which became the red light district in 1903 when the City Council consolidated its brothels away from the center of town. 

Tour Dolly’s House for $5, which buys you as much time as you want in this tiny two story house crammed full of 1920’s – 40’s furnishings, her wardrobe and her memorabilia. Highlights of the house include the flowers on her shower curtain that are made from silk condoms, and the elevator for alcohol that was delivered by rowboat beneath the house during Prohibition. 

Dolly Arthur was born Thelma Dolly Copeland in Idaho in 1888. By the time she was 18 or 19, she realized she could “make more money from the attention of men than from waiting on tables.” She arrived in Ketchikan in 1919, changed her name to Dolly Arthur, and became Ketchikan’s most famous Madame. 

Dolly did not consider herself a prostitute, but rather, a “sporting woman,” a distinction that was important to her. Sporting women were available just for conversation and drinks, a vocation that was often more lucrative than turning tricks. Whiskey at Dolly’s sold $1 for a teaspoon, $2 for a shot, and $3 for a shot at Dolly. She serviced 20 men a day to sustain her $100 a day income. She never lacked for gentlemen visitors, even well into her retirement years.

When she died in July 1975 at the age of 87, all the major newspapers on the West Coast carried her obituary, paying tribute to a woman whose spirit exemplified the tough, roistering years of Ketchikan’s early history. 

I walk to the Totem Heritage Center (admission $5) for a look at totems retrieved during the 1970’s from Tlingint villages at Tongass and Village Islands, and from the Haida village of Old Akasaan on Prince of Wales Island. These villages were abandoned at the beginning of the 20th century when the villagers moved to Ketchikan and other towns to be closer to schools, churches and jobs.

Traditionally, totems were carved to honor important people and to commemorate significant events, personal status and land claims. They were also used as house posts, heraldic markers and funerary pieces. They are not religious objects and are not worshipped. Although you may recognize figures on the poles, you can’t actually “read” them. You can only learn what the pole means by finding out why it was created. This information was traditionally shared when the pole was raised, and passed down orally to subsequent generations. In the case of the older totem poles, this information has been irretrievably lost.

The totems on display were carved from Western red cedar. Red and yellow cedar was the predominant material used by the native peoples because of its natural resilience to water and decay. There are three in the center of the building as you walk in, and several laying on their backs in climate control cases in one of the side rooms (which felt like a morgue to me). Most of these totems date back to the 19th century.

There is also a display of more modern artworks done by local students, including an unadorned canoe. Tlingit canoes are carved from a log, and the interior is filled with water that is brought to boiling with hot rocks. This steams the wood and allows the boat builder to force the wood out to the desired width. It makes a canoe that is completely leak proof since there is no joinery.

Dinner plans at the New York are foiled by their 4 PM closing, so I end up at the Pioneer Café. It’s a 1950’s diner — the real McCoy, not a replica. I order coffee and pie while I’m looking at the rest of the menu. I hear the cook and the waitress banter back and forth about how “She’ll never finish it, she’s spoiling her dinner with that pie.” Had I not been so tired, I would have stood up and said, “Hello, I’m In The Room” … They lost my business the next morning when I would have parted with my vegetarian diet to try their Reindeer Steak and Eggs for breakfast.

September 11 – Last Day

I have nearly an entire day, so after missing The Bus by a few minutes, decide to walk to Saxman Village  along a bike trail that borders the water. It’s a beautiful walk, and I arrive at Saxman just before the city bus does. I watch Fred Trout, a local master carver, work on a totem for a few minutes, chipping away with an adze. I looked through a sketchbook, and saw several templates in the shop, which the carvers use in the same way I do with my embroidery templates. Another artist explained that tribal women used to collect salmon berries, and masticate them, and the mixture of the berries, saliva and whatever coloring agents (usually ores or ground stones) made for a primitive type of oil paint.

New poles are painted with commercial oil paints. New totems are also capped to prevent premature decay from the elements and birds nesting. New poles can be commissioned from an apprentice carver at the rate of $500 per foot. The going rate for a master carver starts at $3500 a foot.

Saxman Village has one of the largest collections of totems, or kooteeyaa, as the Tlingit call them. One has President Lincoln at the top, others have a single animal at the top, and another single figure at the bottom, with no carving in-between. One of the totems that is in the courtyard of the tribal house, has a “tail” of grass that had sprouted from the top. It was funny because the grass actually made the tail of the animal, but was sad because it also showed the totem was starting to decay.

At the Totem Heritage Center I learned that many of the poles that are currently standing, are replicas of earlier poles, and that some of them are third generation replicas as totem poles start to deteriorate after a 100 years. It then occurred to me that the totems at the gift shop, although mass-produced, are still handmade and are following the tradition of replicating original works.  

The Bus stops right at the gift shop at Saxman Village, so I hop it back to town and hop off again for lunch at the New York. The restaurant is now the Ketchikan Coffee Company. I order a salmon sandwich, which turns out to be canned sockeye (the next to lowest grade of fish).

I stopped back at Dolly’s House to by a book, and chatted with one of the guides about life as a Dolly’s Girl, and life off-season. She has a blast and compared it to other “living history houses” that she and friends had worked in in Nevada. Off-season, she passes the time with books and her sketch pad. It’s hard to find work during the off season, and many Ketchikanians live with at least one other person, on someone’ boat if they can, because the moorage fee ($400 for six months) and electric ($100 per month) is cheaper than a single month’s rent in a conventional apartment.

Although tourism is a major industry here, I frequently hear shopkeepers telling eachother “Thank God the season is almost over.” The residents don’t think much of the tourist traffic and at times seem to barely tolerate them. Given what I’ve encountered of other tourists on this trip, I’m not sure I’d be very tolerant of them either. 

I find a gallery that stays open year round, which means it caters to locals. I chat with the owner, who is interested in trying me out on consignment. I’m thrilled, as I had pretty much given up on finding a gallery in this city.

My last stop is St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Built in 1903-04 during the tenure of Bishop Rowe, St. John’s claims to be the first church in Ketckikan. It was originally built on pilings, and parishioners could tie their boats up to the dock at the front door. It was built by native artisans from red cedar cut at the mill in Saxman, using a tongue and groove construction technique that required no nails. The ceiling looks like the inverted hull of a ship. All the walls are imbedded with stained glass windows, some dating back to the 1930’s, most of which were purchased as memorials. 

A Haida drum is on a stand next to the organ, and is used as a call to prayer for native language services. I shoot the rest of my film here, drop a couple of dollars into the offering bowl, and thank the very attentive docent for her time.

I spend the next hour walking along the promenade, finding ice cream at a corner drug store before returning to the Gilmore for my luggage and a cab.

The cabby arrives, and the first thing out of his mouth is, “too bad we don’t have a bridge”, a reference to the Bridge to Nowhere, which had it been built, would service the airport. Instead, he drops me off at an unmanned ferry dock, with a ticket machine. The ferry arrives in a few minutes, a tiny thing with room for about 6 cars and 20 passengers in a central metal shack, open at both ends, which must be very unpleasant in the dead of winter.

  • The ride is about five minutes and costs $5 per person (in 2008)
  • Bring cash for this ferry!
  • Dress warmly if you are a foot passenger for this open air contrivance.

The Ketchikan airport itself is about the size of the one in Yakima, WA or Modesto, CA. I change my shirt and shoes, and wait a couple of hours for the plane. The flight home was quiet, with more people sleeping than talking.  As we flew over what I think was the northern tip of Vancouver Island, the last of the sunset turned the sky a shade of blood red that I had never seen before.

Home at last, ten pounds lighter, and freed from my fear of flying. I’m happy with how this first adventure went overall, and now bitten by the proverbial travel bug, I’m already gearing up for my next solo adventure…

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