First dose of the Alaskan infusion

Sunday, June 3 and Monday, June 4   55º20.37’N 131º38.46’W Ketchikan’s Thomas Basin

Nobody believes us when we say Dixon Entrance was like glass, but it was.  Our sails were completely useless.    Once we get within radio range of Ketchikan we hail the Harbor Master who calls around to find a fishing boat planning to be out a couple of days.  The result is a stall right downtown in Thomas Basin, behind a seawall of cruise ships.   We’re welcomed by the same US Customs guy who came down to our boat the last time.  We duly report our recent Canadian purchases: a fifth of gin, six Washington apples, a bell pepper from California, and two very-slow-to-ripen Asian pears of unknown, and consequently suspect, origin.  He say just be sure to throw the seeds overboard.

At New York Café at the end of Creek Street, William O’Brien pours me three-quarters of a glass of amber lager topped by a dark two inches of Guinness, for which he is the town’s only purveyor. In return, I get free wifi, a huge dose of chat, and introductions to everybody in the place. I admire the mural with Ray Kroll’s tripy waves with sockeye and halibut swimming the breadth of the south wall. It seems Troll is not only animates Ketchikan’s visual landscape but also its homegrown rock scene.

William and his wife have had the business, which shares premises with the historic New York Hotel, a mere three months. It’s been a long day but when the last cruise ship leaves it’s happy hour. Yes, the summer ships keep the local watering hole afloat throughout the long dark winter. He runs down the cruise schedule: eight thousand one day, nine the next, a mid week break with only two smaller ships. Still, any time the ships are in, the door may suddenly fill all 38 seats in an instant. That’s a lot of fish and chips at once.

The next morning I am scrupulously organized. Clean up the boat at six with coffee, get groceries at 7, drop off the laundry at 8 and head for the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center before the ship folks. It’s one of Alaska’s four centers designed to educate the public about public lands, all of course courtesy Uncle Ted. Best is the exhibit on life in Alaska. I watch every one of about 30 short video interviews with Alaskans. A community leader shows a totem pole raising. A Dad explains the importance of showing kids, Native and non-Native alike, how to cut and pack smoked salmon for the Elders. A Mom in heavy weather gear with a babe on her back expresses the joys of a long hike in the rain to the comfort of a park cabin. A white haired woman in oilskins talks about getting hooked on hooking salmon. Commercial fisherman, conservationists, loggers and miners discuss details of their callings. There’s a staggering range of lifestyles and perspectives here.

The Alaska Geographic Bookstore has moved from the basement of the Discovery Center to adjacent to the front desk, shrinking in size and featuring more DVD postcards and stuffed animals and fewer serious books. But I pick up a Misty Fiords map showing all the mooring buoys and am delighted to find Pojar’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. I’d seen it on Earth Day where the NW Trackers folks said it was indispensable but Powell’s had been unable to supply it before our departure. While taking my credit card, Gayle commends me on my purchases and recalls spending an evening using the plant book to identify every single species on New Eddystone Rock, the tiny island and icon of Misty Fiords. She fills me in on the best places in that watery wilderness, exuding that I-live-here-for-a reason Alaskaness. Since her happy hour means putting on her boots and hiking into the 10 pm sunset, I ask about hiking. She suggests an alternative to Deer Mountain, where the trail is still under snow.

Next to the public library where email and the PHLUSH blog brings the latest on Jack Sim’s Portland visit. Arriving the night of the Rose Festival Starlight Parade, he was the guest of the Royal Rosarians and woke up to morning meetings and an afternoon of ecosan visits I am sorry to miss. But I can call and welcome Jack later.

At noon I head back for lunch on the boat in Thomas Basin, a deservedly rich National Historic District. A photo in the little museum adjacent to the library shows the charming waterfront was once Ketchikan’s baseball field, surrounded by the same old crescent-shaped wharf on which I walk past the New York Hotel and other two-story frame buildings still in business. To create space for the salmon fleet serving Ketchikan’s thriving packing industry, the tidal flat was dredged in the mid-1930s. A photo taken a few years later shows more than a hundred small trollers packed into the small space. Ah ha! That’s why low tide leaves a mere 18 inches below our keel!

After lunch I throw my camera and binocular (Chapman, in Piloting and Seamanship, insists it is a binocular, analogous to a bicycle. Aye aye, Sir!) into my backpack and head to the bus stop to catch the blue line dollar bus north out of town. I get off at Ward’s Cove and hike into Ward’s Lake past salmonberry in blossom and then around it through old growth forest. Ancient Sitka spruce and western hemlock stand on old root stilts, the more ancient nurse logs upon which they grew having dissolved into a forest floor nurturing skunk cabbage, Devil’s Club, and a variety of sedges. Rounding the lake puts me in a state of Zen contemplation. I feel Alaska infusing my bones.

I slowly wander back to the road where within two minutes a bus arrives from the south meaning I continue north. The end of the line is Totem Bight, the gorgeous site of a long house and a dozen spectacular totem poles. Through a small oval doorway in the base of the central totem, I enter the long house, the setting sun filtering in to light my way. There is no one around. I take time to read the poles, to look down on Tongass Narrows, marveling at the light and the spectacular yellows browns and greens left by the low tide spectacular,

By the time the bus brings me back to Ketchikan, the big ships have gone and the waterfront has returned to normal, human proportions. I get off a couple of stops early and walk the now quiet but still bright length of it. I realize I have forgotten my welcoming phone call but by now Portland is dark.

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