2004 Sep 14: Wrangell to Ketchikan

On September 14, the barometer was steady at 1008, the sky was clear to the east and cloudy to the south. It began to rain as we departed Wrangell for Ketchikan. In Zimovia Strait the fishing boat ahead named SEA FIRE hailed us on the VHF marine radio to say that he was towing a gill net. We altered course to port to give him a wide berth.

Two bald eagles were sitting in the rain on top of green navigation mark “15” at the beginning of the narrows. Soon into the narrows we watched a bald eagle fly down to the water and catch a fish in its talons, white tail flared like a fan.

We entered Ernest Sound in scattered rain and a light wind on our port quarter. It was slack tide. The sun peeked out rarely, but we had good visibility to almost 5 miles. The channel is very deep, and deeper ahead, up to 1488 feet deep. We passed several “snags”, submerged trees with branches and leaves above the water’s surface.

We entered Clarence Strait at 2 PM into an ENE wind as forecast, but the seas were lower than expected. In the rain we dodged logs and numerous pairs of floats marking crab pots 1/4 mile apart just 1/3 nautical mile off shore. During the afternoon we were passed a by the sport fishing boat ALASKAN STORY, also by a tug towing a barge heavily laden with crates and containers, and finally by 2 huge cruise ships which were approaching Ketchikan.

As we were entering Tongass Narrows, a procession of three cruise ships were departing. The third one was so enormous and was moving so very slowly that we thought it was anchored. It was not until with the binoculars we could see a tiny bow wave that we realized that it was actually on a collision course with us. We easily altered course to starboard and passed the cruise ship port side to port side.

On the VHF radio, we spoke to Rick at the harbormasters office. He said we could end tie at finger 5 in Thomas Basin, or go to the City Floats. He said that a creek at the head of the Thomas Basin caused a current alongside the end of the finger. If we did not like that we can go to the inside of the City Floats, but this is not as “secure” as the Thomas Basin. We could go to harbormaster’s office after 8AM tomorrow. Rick will be in office until 10PM today.

When we arrived at the marina in Ketchikan, we found the berth in Thomas Basin was too short for ADAGIO, so we tied up on the outside of the floating wharf at the City Floats, and the next morning took ADAGIO to a better spot inside the float. By the end of the day, all spaces were taken in the marina, with

fishing boats rafted up to each other. Our luck was holding.

The next morning the circus began. At 5 AM, we were awakened by an alarmingly loud machinery noise. I quickly looked out to see if one of the large steel commercial fishing boats might be maneuvering very close to us on his way out of the harbor. The fishing boats were still rafted up on the adjacent wharf, but beyond them I was appalled to see an enormous wall of lights, slowly moving past the marina, only a few hundred feet away. The ugly machinery noise continued until the cruise ship had passed and was berthed at the cruise ship dock just next to the marina. By noon, there were two cruise ships berthed, and two anchored out in the channel. Each ship carried thousands of passengers. The busses lined up in the street to load long queues of tourists.

The float planes buzzed around the harbor like flies. We had not noticed the sea plane floats near our berth when we had arrived. The pilots lined up the little single engine planes in a row on the floats and had their propellers spinning invitingly, as the tourists streamed past. At the end of the day, it was fun to watch the little planes oooch themselves back up onto the floats, where they stayed perched out of the water overnight.

Every year hundreds of large king salmon swim between the boats berthed in Thomas Basin marina, past the shops and artists on Creek Street (the old red-light district), up Ketchikan Creek and through a large pipe into the ponds of The Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery in Ketchikan. The eggs and sperm are taken from the fish and held in trays underwater until hatched. The fingerlings are fed many times a day, and grow quickly. In the spring over 300,000 young king salmon are released back into the creek. Some will have been marked by clipping off the tip of the adipose fin, so they can be identified as hatchery fish which are still considered to be wild fish when caught. The hatchery is not a large operation, considering how many fish they ‘produce’, with fewer than a dozen large tanks and many aeration pumps.

Next door to the hatchery is the Totem Heritage Center. In this small museum have been preserved in glass cases many original, unrestored totem poles from Tlingit and Haida villages in the area. The 1800’s is considered to have been the “golden age” of totem pole carving. By native tradition, these 80 to 160 year old totems were left to fall and return to the soil. But so many of the natives died from diseases brought by Europeans, that the villages were long ago deserted. The most famous totem poles have been duplicated by contemporary native carvers, and stand in various parks. We were able to watch Tlingit artist Israel Shotridge carving a totem pole in a shed behind the Totem Heritage Center. The Saxman Village totem pole park north of Ketchikan displays about a dozen old and new totem poles. “Living cultural treasure”, Nathan Jackson, was carving a totem pole in the park’s Carver’s Shed. Using hand-made carving tools, these contemporary Michaelangelos create complex three-dimensional figures by eye and simple measuring tools. Occasionally an artist will first create a small wooden model of the final sculpture.

Images of the beaver, eagle, raven, bear, whale, salmon, orca, frog, man and wolf are the most common figures carved into totem poles. With practice we can identify the figures, but each pole carries its own story or statement. In the town of Ketchikan, natives have begun carving totem poles to display in front of their houses, like a family crest. Other totem poles are carved to assist in the telling of the native legends, for example, about how the raven stole the sun, moon and stars and flung them into the sky for all to enjoy. Other poles represent the characters in a story about the man who married a bear, and a story about an eagle that tried to pick up a very large clam and ended up getting his foot caught in the clam and dying. Other poles have been carved to ridicule a person, or as a memorial to a revered person who has died.

Two of our favorite native artists in Ketchikan are Norman Jackson and Marvin Oliver. You will enjoy having a look at their web sites. I would buy one of Norman’s carved wooden masks if I could afford it.

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