Alaska panhandle; July 2016

Pat and I spent a week in the panhandle, visiting her sister Gwen and her family in Craig and exploring Ketchikan.


Tuesday 7/5: anxious about reports of slow airport security, we arrived at SeaTac 2.5 hours before we were scheduled to board. But, we’re so obviously harmless that the TSA pre-checked us. They put us thru a little metal detector with our shoes on and no line. Later we realized that they didn’t notice I was wearing my watch or that Pat’s water bottle was half-full.

We had breakfast in the atrium on Concourse A. Now and then a jet climbed steeply upward to fade into the overcast like a movie special-effect.

Our plane was a little CanadAir jet with two engines in the rear, where a pair of moms with babies sat to spare the rest of us from the crying. After a three-hour flight, we descended into a narrow inlet between two steep, forested ridges to land on Gravina Island. This is Ketchikan’s airport.

We boarded a little open-deck ferry to the mainland (actually just a larger island—the Alaskan panhandle is mostly islands). Pat couldn’t find her phone, so we quickly got off the ferry again, imagining the phone on the floor of the plane, bound for parts unknown. I sent her phone texts to make it beep while she hunted through her things. The phone revealed itself, and we hastened back on board the ferry.

Voyage to Craig

IMG_1739We towed our suitcases along the waterfront half a mile to the Alaska Marine Highway ferry dock. Here the Stikine, a small, sturdy ship designed for rough waters, was accepting vehicles thru a door in its stern. The windowless car-deck looked like an underground garage; it was half-full of cabless truck trailers. Upstairs, we found the cafe and ordered lunches. All the tables were occupied, so an Alaskan couple offered to share theirs with us. John was a fireman, and Cheri was an assistant courthouse clerk. They told us about their daughter’s middle school, which last year had sent its 7th and 8th graders to Washington DC to see the White House. The trip culminated over a year of fundraising with bake sales and barbecues; the island community was very supportive.

We moved to sunny seats in the forward lounge. The ship was crossing a wide strait garnished with forested islands; jagged ridges loomed on the horizon. I strolled around the bright, windy deck; the only other person outside was a crewman who’d wedged himself into an alcove and was smoking a cigarette. I saw only two other ships on the lonely sea. My hat tried to blow off; so I went back inside. I read and dozed, overhearing talk of whales being seen as we approached the Hollis dock on Prince of Wales Island.


IMG_1804Pat’s sister Gwen was waiting for us in the terminal. But before I saw her, I saw a man who looked like someone I used to work with. I shook his hand and then realized I didn’t know him. He laughed and said “Hi!” anyway.

Gwen drove us past quiet inlets, deep forest and very few buildings to our bed and breakfast in Craig, the Dreamcatcher. The innkeeper was gone, but the door was unlocked. Two men who were guests carried our suitcases up to our room. “How friendly Alaskans are,” I thought. Then they told us they were from Seattle.

We strolled up to Gwen and Thomas’ house for supper. Gwen’s daughter Dannyelle was in the front yard with their new rooster, a timid, sorry-looking bird. He had no tail feathers; the chickens at his last home had pulled them out. His last owner had given him to Gwen and Thomas because he’d heard that they wanted a rooster in hopes of getting baby chicks. But their four chickens had rejected him; they had to keep him separated from them so they wouldn’t beat him up. Thomas wondered if taping eagle feathers to his rear would improve his romantic life.

Cemetery Island

IMG_1751Wednesday 7/6: I had a pleasant breakfast this morning, and followed the causeway to the peninsula opposite our house. At the end of the road, a grassy hill is the town’s cemetery. Many graves have simple wooden crosses; others are more elaborate. Some graves had Indian carvings of whales for tombstones. Flowers were planted on some graves, in particular the tall white daisies that thrive here. A cane had been laid tenderly across a beloved grandfather’s grave.

The nice gravel path continued into lush rainforest above the stony beach. A low-tide aroma of clams drifted up from the shore. Ferns nodded over the moss; ranks of young firs grew out of the sides of their fallen ancestors. Eagles were around somewhere; I could hear their creaking, viola-like calls. A raven gargled from a treetop. Where the path ended, a black arm of crumbling bedrock emerged from the beach stones.

IMG_1760On my way back I met a white-bearded man on a bicycle accompanied by a gray-muzzled dog. David, called “Sparky” by some, was a retired electrician living on his 44-foot sailboat Harbinger in Craig’s little marina. “I should have thought of this years ago!” He chortled. He’d been working on the boat since he bought it in 2004; he’d added two solar cells and a wind generator. He’d bought the boat before learning to sail, which led to some interesting adventures. He does electrical work on other peoples’ boats for dinner money. He shook his head over the wiring shortcuts that some fishermen take. “Everything’s going to AC now; it can kill you.”

Old cannery

IMG_1764Pat and I strolled up to Gwen and Thomas’ house. I went on with Chapin to tour the remains of the old cannery. A line of piles just off the beach is what’s left of a cannery structure that burned, as Chapin said several old canneries in the area have burned. We looked at a pair of boilers overgrown with huckleberries. Beyond them was the cannery’s former mess hall. Its windows looked in on collections of old stuff found in the cannery, and Japanese floats, packing crates and other detritus that had washed up on the beach. We peered into the windows of a machine shop. A modern dock pushed past these relics; Craig’s waterfront is diminished but still active.


We came out on Cannery Point, a grassy park overlooking the entrance to the bay. Mike rode up on his bike to shake hands; he was a logger and had injured his leg. “Loggers are always getting injured,” Chapin commented. Trollers were coming in to the canneries to turn in their fish. We turned around and walked back thru town, pausing at a bar and liquor store to pick up Chapin’s paycheck. Every few minutes, Chapin said “Hi!” to someone he knew. We walked to the grocery in the upper town to get a loaf of bread. Chapin’s friend Roxanne was checking; “Have fun loafing around!” she teased.

Back at Gwen and Thomas’ house, Gwen made me a second breakfast of freshly-laid eggs and toast. Their chickens lay lots of eggs; they’re large, the brown shells are thick, and some have two or three yolks. A Pinochle game was getting underway when I wandered out to see if I could find David’s sailboat.

I walked around the docks in the south bay. The water was still, reflecting the dark piles of buildings clinging to the shore; somewhere eagles were talking. I saw spiffy cabin cruisers, strictly-business fishing boats and a few elderly, patched-up craft that might have been peoples’ homes; but no canoe-sterned cutter-rigged sailboat with a wind generator.

IMG_1769Chapin’s brother Lennon hailed me from Thomas’ boat, whose outboard motor he was working on. He said that the big boats were in the north bay. I crossed the road to the other bay, and asked a man sitting on the dock if he knew where David’s boat was. “The electrician? It’s opposite that gray boat. There’s a big black dog on board that’ll bark at you, but he won’t hurt you.”

I soon found David’s boat. His bicycle stood on the narrow side-deck along with a blue steel cane, so I figured he was inside. The dog, Crow, did bark; but we soon made friends. David gave me a tour. The 42-year-old fiberglass boat was worn but sound, other than the bow deck where the bases of safety-line stanchions have leaked and caused the wood under the fiberglass to rot. David planned to rebuild the deck next winter, tho he had no shed to do the work in. For the time being, he’d lashed a plastic tarp over the hurt. The cabin was comfortably cluttered; “You can tell that no woman has been down here.” Most of the people who came and went on the dock knew David. One man dropped off a bag of frozen meat, returning some past favor. David takes care of two neighboring boats for old friends whom he doesn’t expect to come up this season.

IMG_1773David, a conservative German Catholic, grew up in Virginia and Tennessee. He dislikes federal authority, be it Canadian or American; and has found Alaska a refuge from it. He told me some of his adventures as a traveling electrician in Alaska’s panhandle and north slope. “It’s been a hard life. But I like to live hard.” Crow also had a story. He’d nipped at a Chief of Police whom he’d judged was getting too close to his owner’s truck. The policeman said he needed to be put down. Instead David took him away and became his “alpha male.”

I texted Pat to ask about dinner. But Verizon’s network here is so slow that I walked back to Gwen and Thomas’ house ten minutes before she got it. Pandemonium reigned within. The womenfolk had emptied the refrigerator to clean it. Stacks of new food, old food, shelves and drawers stood about. Dannyelle’s son JohnPaul and his brother Jordan wrestled, Chapin was jockeying a stubborn rack into the refrigerator, and two big dogs lolled in everyone’s way. I could see that this kitchen wouldn’t be able to produce a meal for some time. So I bought pizza and breadsticks, and a salad for Pat. Chapin and I walked up to the high town to pick up stuff at the grocery. Dannyelle met us with Thomas’ truck at Papa’s Pizza. The restaurant’s owner was having dinner by the door. He’d owned the Dreamcatcher when we stayed here in 2004.

Cemetery Island II

Thursday 7/7: Our innkeeper served quiche for breakfast today, very tasty. Pat and I explored the only other road on Cemetery Island. We found a baseball park and what I guessed was a sewage plant. Here was parked an overgrown trailer holding a brightly painted fake dugout canoe; Pat thought it was a parade float. Later, Thomas told us that the tribal elders used to ride in it at the 4th of July parade. We walked the trail to its end at the rock outcropping. As usual, the tide was out. We’ve started to wonder if it ever comes in? I looked it up and found that Alaska isn’t immune to lunar influence; high tide was at 4 PM.

IMG_1781We walked up to Gwen’s in a faint drizzle. I went down to the beach to look for some old cannery machinery that Chapin told me had washed up there. I saw quite a few items, ranging from a set of gears to a large anchor. Gwen put on a buffet lunch, making a special trip to town for hot mustard for the barbecued pork.

Sea kayaking

Pat and I left at 3:30 to try the Dreamcatcher’s kayaks. It was still drizzling, but it was no worse than the paddle drips. Our kayaks were squat, ungainly “sport kayaks,” impossible for me to brace my knees in, and so rather unstable. But the water was glassy, so they were okay. Although the tide was high, the bottom was close. I saw rocks clothed in colorful undersea plants. It looked like an aquarium, the water was so clear. Now and then we slid over a bed of kelp or scraped past a barnacled rock. We approached a small island. A deer was grazing in a meadow near the water and not minding us much. Pat noticed that it was very pregnant. We decided against landing, to avoid scaring her. We landed on a mainland beach instead. Behind the beach was a boater’s park, with a few trails, a picnic shelter, and a toilet with a fine view and no door. Fortunately we were the only ones there. On our homeward voyage, Pat pointed out an eagle in a treetop near the Dreamcatcher. The sun was still oddly high.

We put up the boats, changed clothes and walked over to Gwen’s. The sun was still high. The days are long up here, and wet too; a faint drizzle kept the ferns and moss a vibrant green. When we arrived, Dannyelle had a pan full of fresh salmon ready for the oven and a grin on her face. She’d gotten a new job fishing, and had been paid partly in fish. This is usual in Alaska, Chapin explained; gasoline is another popular currency.

Old cannery II

IMG_1852.jpgFriday 7/8: An eagle’s cry woke me up. A jar of mixed-berry jam that Gwen had made yesterday enhanced my breakfast. Curious, I walked up Cold Storage Road; but it led to Craig Fisheries, which was gated and signed “Private Property.” So instead I went back to the cannery ruins. Fireweed was in splendid bloom, and as usual the tide was low; so I had a good time taking pictures. On the Mess Hall boardwalk, I saw a man with a gadget that had a long pole with a disk at the bottom. What an interesting place to use a metal detector; and the tide was low, too. “Good luck finding stuff!” I said.

IMG_1839“This isn’t a metal detector; it’s a weed eater.”

“Well, that was a Mr. Magoo moment,” I said.

He climbed down from the boardwalk to the tall grass below, and bent down. “I found a five dollar bill,” he reported. “And somebody’s cigarettes!” He was under a bench built into the boardwalk’s railing. “Somebody must’ve been drinking,” he guessed.

In the evening Pat and I walked out to the end of the breakwater on Cemetery Island. There’s a helicopter-landing pad, and a great sunset view.

Voyage to Ketchikan

Saturday 7/9: I decided to move on to Ketchikan two days ahead of Pat. The shuttle came for me 15 minutes earlier than we’d scheduled it, due to adding another rider who later canceled. The driver was a retired logger and a friend of Thomas’. He’d moved to Alaska in 1961 when very few people were here. He pointed out a sawmill where he’d worked. They used to make the logs into rafts, float them to the beach by the mill, and then drag them up to the mill at low tide. “I remember seeing two or three feet of snow on the beach in the winter,” he said. “That hardly ever happens now.” Due to environmental regulations, the logs are now transported by barge. What are we going to do for driftwood?

I’d lost our ferry tickets! But Pat had called the Interisland Ferry Authority and explained it; so they had my ticket waiting for me. I turned it in at the Purser’s table eight feet from the counter where I picked it up. This time the ferry was crowded, so I stayed in my seat. In Ketchikan I walked to the adequate Super 8 Motel.

Clarana Lake trail

IMG_1879I passed a Forest Ranger office, but it was closed. I found a guide to Ketchikan-area National Forest trails on the web, and saved it as a .pdf on my phone; no need to carry a guidebook!

I walked up thru town to the Clarana Lake trailhead. The transition from light industrial to residential was a steep one. Google Maps sent me up Jackson Street, which for its first two blocks is flights of wooden stairs. Up here I found a pleasant middle-class suburb, hilly, with streams running thru it and a great view. The trailhead was on a cul de sac at the neighborhood’s north end.

IMG_1890The first part of the trail was a gated road to a dam. Next came a mile or so of good trail along the lake with fishing docks at intervals. At the lake’s end the trail switchbacked up a moss and fern forest garden. My hands were prickling; no-see-ums were chewing on me. I put on bug repellent and buttoned up my cuffs. But I was running out of water too, and I didn’t have a remedy for that. So I had to turn back sooner than I wanted. At the bottom, I rewarded myself with a milkshake at The Galley, across the street from my motel. It’s a Filipino restaurant that also serves Chinese, Mexican, pizza, burgers and bubble tea.


Sunday 7/10: I tried to arrange a kayaking excursion with Pat for Monday, without success. All the scheduled tours left in the morning, before she would arrive. I hoped we could just rent some kayaks on the waterfront.

I had lunch at a Taco Time in the little mall next-door. It was decorated with Indian blankets and a stopped clock, and it was giving away free bibles. The menu featured lumpia, a Filipino dish. Yesterday I’d stumbled across a Filipino bingo hall. From what I’ve read, Filipinos originally came to Alaska to work in the salmon canneries.

I walked along the shabby waterfront and thru a short tunnel to downtown Ketchikan. Mammoth cruise ships with rabbit-warren cabins overshadow this area. It’s dedicated to the tourism trade, which seems to consist of totem poles, log-rollers, smoked salmon and beer. The Tongass Historical Museum is in its center. Here I learned that the town got its start in 1887 with a salmon cannery at the site of a Native American fishing camp.

IMG_1911It burned down after a couple of years, as canneries will. Capitalism didn’t take that for a “No.” More canneries followed as the city expanded along the beach, over the water on piles and up the mountainside. Fish traps fed the canneries, vacuuming up all the salmon until the territorial government made them back off. On land, lumberjacks cut all the trees within dragging distance of the water, improved their technology and went back for the rest. As far as I could tell, a photo of Alaskans dancing in the street on obtaining statehood in 1959 didn’t include any Native Americans.

I had Alaskan rolls at the Shogun, a Japanese restaurant that also offers Chinese food. These consisted of smoked salmon, avocado, asparagus and crab rolled in sushi rice and garnished with thick, spicy sauce. It was good; and they threw in green tea and a bowl of miso soup, an antidote to the long, gloomy Alaskan dusk.

As I walked back to the Super 8, an eagle’s cry drifted over the docks.

Monday 7/11: Outside my window at 6 AM, the first seaplane of the day revved up and roared into the sky. Time to get up! In the Super 8 breakfast room, I enhanced my double bowl of oatmeal with mixed-berry jam from Gwen’s kitchen. I packed, and discovered that my room’s refrigerator had frozen the food I’d bought for Pat. From now on, I’m bringing a refrigerator thermometer.

Downtown Ketchikan

I checked out, stowed my suitcase and groceries in the luggage room and walked up to the ferry terminal to meet Pat. We caught a cab back into town, picking up my stuff and driving on to the Gilmore Hotel. The lady driver took calls as she drove and dispatched other cabs. A drunk called for a ride well before noon. Someone on a cruise ship called wanting to talk to Phil, a cab-driver who’d been recommended to him as a good guide.

The Gilmore Hotel turned out to be next to Ketchikan’s tunnel and across the street from the cruise ship dock. The desk clerk insisted on seeing both of our IDs, and entered them into her computer. She insisted that the NSA had nothing to do with it. “If there were a fire, we’d need to account for all the people in the building,” she explained. If there were a fire, would she be at her desk? Would her computer still work?

IMG_1921We had lunch in Annie’s inside the hotel. It’s a good replica of a historical saloon, if you overlook the flat screen TVs showing football players lurching into each other and the cruise ships outside. I had salmon salad. I love salmon; but this salmon tasted nasty, and I didn’t finish it.

It was raining at intervals, so we gave up on kayaking and went thru some shops. We found a lightweight purple fleece for Pat. That makes us even; in Utah I bought a T-shirt and she didn’t get one. We went thru the SE Alaska Discovery Center, watching a documentary about Native American culture preservation projects, and looking at rain forest and local history exhibits.

Our restaurant choices were few; we ended up at Chico’s, an adequate Mexican place whose 4.5 star rating probably reflects a lack of competition. Pat wanted a book to read on the plane, but we couldn’t find a bookstore within walking distance. I found a laundromat on Google Maps. They often have a put-and-take shelf of paperbacks. But all we found at that location was an evil-smelling fish plant. We had tea at the New York Cafe across the street while another shower came through town.

On our way back to the hotel, we walked up Creek Street. It was Ketchikan’s whorehouse district up until the 1950s. Today it’s a clutch of cottage shops, jovially sporting red lights. “If you can’t find your husband, he’s here,” one house advertised.

Our hotel had no elevator; and our room was tiny, hot and expensive. Honestly, we’d have been better off at the Super 8. The window opened onto a parapet. Pat put what was left of her food outside to keep it cool, hoping that rats wouldn’t carry it off.

Flying home

Tuesday 7/12: We had a very nice breakfast at the Fish House near the Discovery Center. They created a cross between an omelet and scrambled eggs, with mushrooms and tomatoes, for Pat. I had an omelet and a quinoa and blueberry salad. Our cab got us to the airport ferry dock so early that we boarded the ferry before the one we’d meant to catch. After checking our bags, we had two and a half hours to kill before our flight would board.

IMG_1931We wandered outside and found a picnic area overlooking a seaplane dock. We went out onto the dock to take in the action. A little red seaplane landed in the strait and taxied over to the dock, engine sputtering. A man on the dock grabbed a line that was hanging down from a wing, and pulled the plane up against the dock. People tumbled out, and luggage was handed out to be stowed in a trailer towed by a little tractor. Then the plane taxied out into the strait and turned into the north wind. The ferry Stikine was approaching. Undeterred, the plane roared in the general direction of the ferry until its wake disappeared. The dock was busy, serving up to three planes at a time.

We had a picnic lunch and went back into the terminal to board our plane. The terminal is so small that our Delta Airlines gate had no number.

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