Up the Creek in Ketchikan

Published 11:01 am Monday, June 5, 2017

by James D. Howell

The sign reads “Creek Street, where fish and fishermen go up the creek to spawn.” It brings a chuckle from all who stop to read it. I grin to no one in particular. Creek Street, a former red light district, is precious real estate today, boasting gift shops, a cafe or two, and a watering hole or two with and without food. Its shoreline, historically and currently, is boardwalk with a few twists and turns to charm the visitor.

This is Ketchikan, a port of call for our Alaskan cruise. So far, it’s been a dream come true — much, much more than we thought. The bright sunny day adds to the pleasure.

I stand on the Stedman Bridge and see thousands of salmon, milling around in a pool, awaiting their next hurdle in Ketchikan Creek. It begins here, the first pooling spot for the spawning grounds further up.

The challenges are many; some have been made a little easier by the construction of fish ladders around man-made obstacles. There’s a hatchery also, a bit further up, to help waning populations in this and other waterways in Alaska. This creek flows from a two lake glacial catch basin a few miles up the valley.

I glory in the bright sun and spend time along the bridge for photo opportunities. I am not disappointed. Horse-drawn carriages stop for a few moments to admire the creek buildings, and Dolly’s, one of the more famous “spawning” houses on the creek.

Dolly was a real person, born in Idaho, migrated to Alaska, and furnished “services” to patrons of many sorts. A large population of single men and few women made for an active market. She was apparently well liked in the town.

Today, the house is a museum, with a docent and self-guided look-around, with a printed information sheet. The furnishings are authentic and well kept. Dolly was a businesswoman as much as anyone else, and she owned more than one house on Creek Street.

I wander onto the boardwalk for a closer look. Art shops and souvenir shops are the mainstay. The overlook from numerous balconies give up the beauty in this south Alaska town.

Here the salmon is king. In the shops are unlimited graphics, maps, clothing, canned salmon, salmon-related food products, native (and not so much native) products — all related to the search for, catching and preservation of salmon and the often hazardous and arduous process of living in the area where all that occurs. It’s a Mecca for cold weather clothing.

I take the elevator up to the Cape Fox Lodge. I don’t plan to visit; I want to experience the views from the stairs on the way down. It’s a good call. I arrive with energy conserved and stop at several landings on the trip down to look and take pictures.

I continue along Creek Street to the fish ladders at Park Avenue, and use the sidewalk to cross for the walk back. I can access the creek in several places here; I stop and watch salmon pool and burst into energy trying to make it up small ripples and falls.

Most don’t make it with the first effort. I can only try to imagine the instinctual drive that it must take for the fish to work until completely exhausted, then rest and try again.

It’s a natural wonder. Carcasses of those that completely give out lie in the shallows, awaiting a scavenger.

I wander along the creek bank mostly. Here other buildings, streets and parking lots compete for space. It is not a busy competition, and I follow the shore till I reach the salmon monument in the center of town. The salmon really is king.

I’m aware that my time is limited — that there are trails to be walked, wildlife to be photographed, and Native American (Tlingit) culture to be learned. I know that Ketchikan is a major stop on the Marine Highway; the terminal and airport is a little further up the coast. I know the Tongass Wilderness is just around the corner to the south, with ancient forest growth, and miles of trails.

I check out the larger commercial area downtown, rest for awhile on a shady bench and make my way along the large wharf back to our ship. The huge ship tied up right downtown is an impressive sight.

However, it does not seem out of place; for this short time, it’s our home on the water.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com.