Every now and then, I ask the fans on Facebook what they would like to read about. The last time I did it, one of the long-time fans of the blog, Doris P., said,
“I’d like to know more about your island home. Maybe more current stuff. I loved the history video. Things like annual rain fall, usual highs and lows in temps, how people feel about visitors who decide to stay, medical facilities,etc.”
Doris, request granted! This will be lengthy so grab a cuppa joe, settle in and prepare to get acquainted with my island home – Ketchikan (ketch-ih-kan), Alaska.
I was born and raised on this island. Yes, I have come and gone and lived elsewhere – only to come back home. I know this is where I want to live in Southeast Alaska for the rest of my life. I love the rain, the evergreens, the wildlife, and the salt-of-the-earth people that call it home. I love the fact that I am not under the repressive thumb people in other states have to live with (like California. They have a rule for everything!). I can pull over to the side of the road in most places and just jaunt off into the forest on a trail or blaze my own. Such freedoms! People still help little old ladies here with their groceries, stop for people who want to cross the street (without stop lights telling them to), and wave and smile when passing. I frequently say, “There is no more beautiful place than Ketchikan, Alaska…..when the sun is shining.”
The sun gracing us with it’s warmth and light is far lower than most places get. This year, we have already gotten 74+ inches of rain. Here are some good, hard facts about my island home.
- Population: City of Ketchikan – As of 2013, the population of the city was 8,214. On the island overall, the population in the 2000 census was 13,905. We don’t have counties here, we have boroughs though they function pretty much the same.
- Island Size and Location: Revillagigedo Island (re-vill-ah – geh-gay-doe) is 35 miles wide and 50 miles long. It is a little less in square mileage than the state of Rhode Island (around 200 sq miles less). It is located north of Seattle and South of Juneau. A ferry ride will take you to the port of Prince Rupert, Canada in around 5 hours. When I was a kid, we used Canadian coins the same as American – we’re that close.
- Financials: It is expensive to live here. Milk is around $4 a gallon and so is a pound of tomatoes or a loaf of Orowheat bread. The upside is we tend to have higher wages and finding work isn’t nearly as difficult as being in the ‘lower 48’ (or ‘down south’ as we call it, too). Housing is expensive as are lots; There is only so much space on an island. We rent a 2 bedroom apartment for $950 a month and that is considered ‘cheap’ rent (and it is a rather crappy apartment). No state tax but there is a local tax of 6.5% on everything, even food.
- Transportation: To get to the island, you literally have to be floating. Either you come by boat, floatplane, or ferry. Our airport is on another island about a 1/2 mile across the ‘bay’ which is called the Tongass (ton-gass) Narrows. We are not connected to the mainland at all. Until recently, Alaska Airlines was the only company that flew in and out of here and oohhhh boy, did we PAY for it. $500+ for a round trip ticket to Seattle (a mere 700 miles south). Thankfully, Delta has moved in to offer flights in summer and what do ya know? Those same tickets dropped to less than half. Some of you may recall the whole “Bridge to Nowhere” story that was in the media back when Sarah Palin was trying for Vice President. Yup, that’s us. Don’t even get me started on that woman…you’d likely never read my blog again. 😉
Climate: We have two seasons here: Wet and Wetter. I am not kidding when I say we get, on average, 13 feet of rain a year. FEET. The upside is everything stays incredibly green year round and the downside is….well there really is no downside for me because I was born to it. At the time of writing this article, we have only had one day of rain in the last two weeks and I can feel myself starting to twitch. I miss it! It keeps the dust down and the water catch systems full. It fills the streams and creeks for the salmon to go up and spawn more easily. Living in a rainforest (yes, look it up. There really is a rainforest in Alaska) that gets overly dry makes the locals really nervous. I admit I am thinking about doing a rain dance out there just so the threat of wildfire drops back down.
- All joking aside, it is very mild here. We rarely get snow that sticks on the ground and stays for longer than a day or two. It doesn’t get overly hot in the summer. Blazing hot to us (factor in humidity and the angle of the Earth we are on) would be somewhere in the upper 80’s. Personally, I prefer it to be between 65-75 F. Anything more than 80 and I want to jump in the ocean. I would rather be cold any day of the week.
I could rattle off stats to you all day long but I will leave you to look at the wiki entries if you want more number crunching goodness. Instead, let me paint you a picture of this amazing place I call home.
Ketchikan is a quirky place by all accounts. Built on the cliff side of Deer Mountain (elev 3,001 ft), it was originally a fish camp for one of three Native tribes that were here before the Russians came along. The salmon spawning creek runs literally through downtown and can make for some…interesting scents in the later part of the summer. In case you didn’t know, salmon return to the creeks they were born in, spawn the next generation and then die.
Back in the earlier history, this now picturesque town was once rough and rowdy with all kinds of sin available for those who had money to burn. Loggers and fishermen in from camps and long trips at sea often spent their hard earned money on the ‘ladies of the night’ who resided on Creek Street (which is the same salmon spawning creek in the middle of town) and the bootlegged alcohol that was served there. There is a joke that Creek Street is the only place in the world where both the men, and the salmon, went upstream to spawn. Ya, I know. What can I say? It’s a quirky Alaskan thing.
Prohibition didn’t have too much of an effect here…after all, we are just a few miles from the Canadian border. 🙂 Though things have become more civilized and we have all the comforts that any larger city does, there are certain things that are uniquely Ketchikan. The Blueberry Festival in August, the insane number of artists, the Native culture that is not only alive and well, it THRIVES: all this makes for a colorful and rich culture.
In summer (we consider summer here May-September) we have the fish running in the streams, berries absolutely exploding all over the place, the tourists pour in, and the land goes lush. The sun is fully up by around 5am and won’t go down until about 9-10pm that night. We don’t get the 24 hours of dark and light that the mainland does but they are extended hours. On Summer Solstice night, it never really gets ‘dark.’ It’s more like an extended dusk that turns into dawn. We have an incredible population of Bald Eagles here and there are nests close to my home. I often wake up to the sounds of them calling each other. May through September is the time of plenty. For us, we catch salmon for winter, pick berries to make into jams, jellies, and syrups, harvest and preserve the garden for the coming darker months.
Summer brings the salmon and also the bears. We have black bears here who are adorable but oh-so-dangerous and destructive. Remember the show “Northern Exposure” with the moose walking through town? The same can be found here but with bears instead of moose. In fact, there are no moose, elk, or caribou on the island. We have Sitka BlackTail Deer, which are both beautiful and delicious! In the ocean, we have the whale migration, seals, sea otter, herring runs…it is a very busy and active place!
In winter, it is fully light around 9ish and dark again by 4pm. Yes, there are issues with vitamin D intake and depression from a lack of it (called S.A.D. or Seasonal Affective Disorder). Many people take supplements and do the occasional tanning to help boost the vitamin D, get light exposure and get over the winter blues. A large majority of people plan their vacations for winter time to a sunny destination. While we don’t see those frigid temperatures most people associate all of Alaska with, that wind-driven rain at 34 degrees sure does seep into your bones. Thank goodness for Alaska Airline miles!
People wonder what there is to do here. If camping, hiking, fishing, and hunting aren’t enough (or your thing), there is always the arts! We have a high percentage of artists throughout Alaska but in the southeast portion of the state, the concentration seems to be thicker. Ketchikan is home to world renowned Master Native Carver Nathan Jackson and artist Ray Troll. Troll’s t shirt, “Spawn til you die” has been spotted on every continent all over the world and he has works in the Smithsonian. Personally, I love his quirkiness and way of seeing the wonderful world and wildlife of the ocean. Whimsical, silly, and definitely humorous, there is no other like Ray Troll. He is a really nice guy, too. Nathan Jackson carves totem poles and Ketchikan has LOTS of them but none so concentrated as in Saxman Native Village.
I could go on and on about this place. Before I lose your interest, here is a speed round of information:
- It takes a certain kind of person who can handle the rain, darkness in winter, and isolation. Slightly deranged seems to work well. 😉
- We do indeed get an annual check from the profits of the oil that is pumped out of the state. The amount varies each year. Before you go thinking we ‘get paid’ to live here, one check is usually enough for a month’s rent. Usually.
- A lot of people get stung by ‘the bug.’ This land can and will get under your skin and imprint itself on your soul. I have met hundreds of people in my life who came up for a vacation and simply never left. Those who do leave end up yearning to come back. Alaska calls. She is rough, wild, brutally beautiful and will present opportunities like no where else. Are you strong enough?
- Natural disasters consist of earthquakes (rare), the potential for wildfires (also rare), tsunamis (never seen one), and mud/land slides. The last one actually happens often but rarely in populated areas.
- Crime is weird here. Yes, we have drugs and violence but nothing like it is ‘down south.’ Murder is rare, overdoses on drugs also rare, but there are a lot of cases of domestic and sexual abuse. It is an ugly side of our society. Thankfully, we don’t have roving gangs doing drive bys and turf wars. There aren’t muggings and car jackings (where would they take the car? There is 32 miles of main road haha). You can still let your kids play outside, in the street, on any given day. Kids still trick or treat, have sleepovers, and wild adventures in the forest being kids.
- Medical facilities are ever expanding here. We send far less people south to Seattle or north to Anchorage than we used to. The hospital here is part of the Peace Health group. There are some traveling specialists for certain things but at one point it was so bad that there was actually a reward or “finder’s fee” paid to people who could talk a medical professional into coming up here and staying. There was even incentives to students fresh out of school to not only pay them, but also help them pay off their student loans!
- When I was a tour guide, we got some really…interesting questions. The first time I was asked some of these, it was hard not to bonk them on the head. Examples:
- Do you accept American money?
- How much does it take to mail a post card to the United States?
- How long will it take a letter to get to the United States?
- What time do the salmon spawn?
- When do the eagles/whales/seals come out? (as in what time)
- How big is the river out there? (That’s the ocean…)
The number one question we would get asked leads me to a story I will close this very long post with. One day, I was on the dock and taking a break from selling tours. I was standing at the edge, watching the little fish swimming around and enjoying the sunshine. I took a drag off my smoke (don’t judge me) and looked down the way at the people. There was a man who I pegged as being from Texas on sight – the hub cap belt buckle and huge hat kind of gave it away and our eyes met. He nodded and I knew in my gut he was going to come talk to me. I was already tired and just wanted 5 minutes to myself.
Sure enough, he comes over and I plaster on my smile. We chit chat a few, I confirm he is indeed from Texas and then he asks the question. “‘Bout how far above sea level are we here?” Snap. Crack. Twitch. It was the proverbial straw. I looked at him a moment, waiting for him to ‘get it.’ I mean, how many HUGE cruise ships really go up rivers? They travel on the OCEAN (at least, the ones that come here). Nope…Mr. Texas was sincere, looking over the edge of the dock we are standing on and I just couldn’t help myself. I looked him in the eye and said;
“I’ll tell you what. How about I pitch you off the end of this dock here and when you come up, you tell me how far you think you fell. That is how far above sea level you are.”
Thankfully, the guy had a sense of humor. 🙂
If you have questions about my home town or any about Alaska overall, please feel free to leave a comment below or ask on Facebook and I WILL answer them! I love telling people about this amazing state I live in! Want more? Check the links to some great videos below!
Ketchikan: The Timber Years
Ketchikan: The Bush Pilots
Ketchikan: Our Native Legacy