Sitnews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


and make life a little brighter

By June Allen


September 06, 2002
Friday - 12:40 am

Probably the amusing tourist comments and questions we hear every summer season haven't changed much in the past one hundred years or more. Only St. Patrick may know what Ketchikan's crusty founder Mike Martin of New York City via County Cork might have blurted out when he saw the Tlingit summer residents at their fish camp on Ketchikan Creek! In print, however, a lady travel


Downtown Ketchikan As Viewed From A Ship
Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress)
Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress,
Prints and Photograph Division, Washington, D.C.

writer in 1904 poetically described the small islands along the Inside Passage leading to Ketchikan as "dainty little round-topped ones covered with trees and shrubbery resembling an enlarged fern dish." Then, getting down to the nitty gritty, she also wrote that when Ketchikan folk apparently decided they would no longer "jump from stump to stump" they built plank walkways.

By 1908 tourists' silly comments may have centered on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife's sign posted at the shallow tidal mouth of Ketchikan Creek, which warned against trying to catch fish with bare hands. (Someone must have tried!) But 90 years later, tourists were still baffled by the creek's fish. Not too long ago, one woman was leaning over the railing of the Stedman Street bridge and watching the swaying pinks as they waited for higher water for their upstream run. She was shaping little bread balls from a slice she'd coaxed from June's Café and dropping them into the water for the fish. At the tour guide's explanation that the fish were heading upstream to spawn and die, she cried in a New York accent, "That's inhuman! You should put them in tank trucks and take them to some nice lake where they could swim and grow old."

There were also remarks about the transparent white jellyfish that pulsate as they swim in the tidal water by the bridge. "Used condoms," a man muttered under his breath to his wife, as he shooed their boys down the sidewalk (apparently disregarding the variety of improbable sizes.) At the bubbles that pop on the surface of the water there, a woman said, "Oh, look, the fish are burping little oil spills!"

As the visitors stroll about town, their observations are well, interesting. Two ladies were enjoying the sights on one of this summer's beautiful sunny days, sharing the sidewalks and crossings with locals walking their little dogs. A dog on his master's lap in a parked car yapped a little greeting through the window. "My, this town certainly has a lot of dogs," said one of the women. After a pause the other woman said, "Oh, I know why! This is Alaska ­ you know, where they have the Iditarod!"

On the docks, any dock, the questions are never-ending and very often center on the mysteries of elevation and tides. It could be that the visitors are just being polite and feel obligated to ask something? There are those visitors who think the Narrows is a river and want to know its name. Also, there's the common question "What's the elevation here?" Some of the folks think that because they sailed so far north, like, uphill? that they are therefore higher ­ look at a world globe; it makes a weird kind of sense. But one of the best comments was from a gentleman, who, when he was told he was at sea level, said, "Oh. I thought we were higher because the clouds are so low!"

But the tides are by far the most baffling of Ketchikan's phenomena to tourists. One visitor, who arrived at low tide via a lighter from a ship anchored in the harbor, paused on his way up the Ryus float ramp to look at the piling crusted with marine life. He pointed his pipe at the piling and said, "Hmmm. It looks as though the water level must have been higher at some time in your town's history." No one had the heart to say that, yeah, it was, six hours ago!

And then there was the woman who refused to reboard her ship because she had arrived at low tide and was ready to leave at a much higher tide, and she refused to believe the ship was "her boat!" Another woman in the same boat, so to speak, remarked to a friend, "Well, will you look at that! We got off one floor and now we're getting back on in the basement!"

There are quite a few questions and comments that could be filed under Miscellaneous. A very British ship's officer once asked, "I say, are your hemlocks the same as used by Socrates to commit suicide?" Well, no. Ours are trees, his was a deadly herb. But it makes you wonder why the names are identical. Even better is the eager tourist who disembarked and cried out, "Which way to the Tongass Forest!" But maybe the best of the miscellaneous favorites is the time a tourist asked what those white things out on the water might be. Told that they were whitecaps, she asked, "Are they edible?"

The late Owen "Ownie" Hamilton swore that he was once asked, "How long have you been an Indian?" Ownie was a Haida gentleman, and he explained carefully and patiently a little Native Alaskan history. And there was the time a lady phoning in on a segment of KTKN's First City Forum said that when she answered a tourist's question and said she was an Indian, she was asked, "Are you sure?"

Many tourists are so eager and happy to be in Alaska that it's hard to do anything but smile at them, even when it's late in the season. One visitor had been an Israeli pilot who had flown F-15's (I think they're called) in the Gulf War. The young man stood on the bull rail in front of the Visitors Bureau and watched in awe as float planes took off and landed on the Narrows. He simply couldn't take his eyes off them, even when his family members tried to coax him away!

On another occasion, a little lady scurried ashore and stopped a willing local to ask questions. "Someone on the ship told me about Tom Sawyer's store. Could you point it out to me?" The person pointed. Then the thrilled tourist said, "I'm from Missouri, you know." She started off and then turned back for a moment and said shyly, "Your Tom Sawyer is no relation, I suppose?"

Amusing comments are not limited to cruise ship passengers, although their very numbers make them the largest contributors. I'm sure even the airlines hear some good ones. The state ferry workers certainly do. One of their favorites happened either very early or quite late in the visitor season, whichever. Anyway, there happened to be a rather gorgeous display of the Northern Lights visible one evening and the announcement was made over the loudspeaker from the bridge. Passengers dropped everything and hurried to several vantage points to see the display. Except one man. He was eating in relaxed comfort and finished his meal. He noticed the other passengers returning to their earlier occupations and he finished his cup of coffee. Then ­ probably with hands in pockets and with a toothpick between his lips ­ he strolled to the purser's desk and asked, "What time is the next showing of the Northern Lights?"


Ketchikan's Tunnel is a curious sight. There's a
road around it. And houses on top of it that are
obviously older than the tunnel.
Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress)
Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress,
Prints and Photograph Division, Washington, D.C.

Then there was the obliging ship's officer who informed a curious passenger en route that Ketchikan is on Revillagigedo Island. At Wrangell, in answer to the passenger's question he said that Wrangell was on Wrangell island. Later, he mentioned that Petersburg is on Mitkof Island. And even later he informed him that Sitka is on Baranof Island. Upon arrival at Juneau, he announced that Juneau is the capital of Alaska. What island is it on, he was asked. "Well," the officer replied, tongue in cheek, "the same one that Seattle is on."

Of course, shopping is one of the biggie pastimes of Ketchikan's hordes of visitors. Surely tourists must say funny things while engaged in commerce? One curious tourist question was, "How do you folks celebrate Christmas?" In one of the historically compatible shops on the old spruce mill dock, a visitor is said to have asked, no kidding, "Who designed and placed your island?" Even that can be topped! A tour guide at Waterfall Resort on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island, which is about as close to authentic nature as you can get, had taken a visitor out some miles from the resort to fish. The gentleman looked around at one of Alaska's many sights of untouched Eden and said, "It is so beautiful around here! Who does the landscaping?"

But, from the sublime to the more pedestrian, a prime subject for tourist comments is and always will be our tunnel! We're used to it and know why it's there. But looked at from a visitor's perspective, it is a curious sight. Well, there's a road around it. And houses on top of it that are obviously older than the tunnel. Curiously, tourists don't ask about that.

One couple, standing near the mouth of the tunnel at the corner at Front and Grant, posed this question to a helpful local, "We see that your tunnel is one-way. If we walk through it to the other side, can we get back again?"

The late Joe Ambrose, who worked at the Legislative Information Office when it was located at that corner, used to go outside periodically to smoke. He loved to answer tourists' questions. One day a little lady came up to him and asked him a tourist-type question that he couldn't answer. She apparently thought she was at a tourist information office. Joe pointed out where the visitor information office is and then explained patiently that this was a legislative information office for the State of Alaska. The lady argued that Alaska was not a state! Joe replied that indeed it was and had been since 1959. She pursed her mouth in a smug little smile and announced, "If Alaska had become a state, I would have heard about it!"

But the final tourist funny and a personal favorite concerns two older women sitting in the Sourdough Bar to have a glass of white wine after a tiring stroll through Ketchikan's neighborhoods. One of the women had lived here back in the '30s and 40s when she was a girl. She was so excited to see her old hometown after so many years and to visit places that still looked the same as they had when she was a child! As she sipped her wine, she talked about what a wonderful place Ketchikan was and that in many ways it hadn't changed all that much. Then she added, "Of course, the tunnel wasn't there then." Her companion then asked her, "Oh? Where was the tunnel back then?" Can anyone top THAT?


Thanks to Gig Pilcher, Mellanie Isner, Donna Luther, David Landis, and to all the Cruise Ship Greeters who worked with me back in the late '80s and early '90s.



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