The beauty of a cruise vacation is that it's all inclusive—for the price of your fare, you get transportation, lodging, most food and entertainment, and plenty of sightseeing opportunities. As someone on a pretty tight budget, acclimating to an environment where I could order a steak or lobster without immediately experiencing regret was a great feeling. Sure, I was ever mindful that alcohol and "port-of-call excursions" were slowly stacking-up on my end-of-cruise tab but it's easy to ignore those things and pretend to live a life of luxury for 7 days.
Every now and then however, we would force ourselves to be mindful of our expenses. Typically, this was possible without sacrificing enjoyment or experience but Ketchikan would be a slight exception to this rule. For all of us, Ketchikan served as our "budget" port-of-call—the place where we didn't purchase any "excursion", instead hoping to wander the town in search of free activities. So if at any point this report feels dull, you can blame this poor-kid writing it.
We arrived in Ketchikan on the morning of our fifth day at sea. After pleasant stops in the Tracy Arm, Skagway, and Juneau, we were curious what the southernmost stop in the Alaskan panhandle would hold. We knew that Ketchikan was known for its totem poles and its tourist-trapping lumberjack shows and were hoping to learn more about the destination. After a unique maneuver to flip the ship into alignment with the dock, we were soon permitted to disembark.
I had actually done quite a bit of research about alternative, budget-friendly activities to pursue while in port. One involved us all chipping-in to rent a car and independently exploring the greater region; As the trip neared, that felt too complicated for our taste. Another plan involved hiking to the top of the neighboring peak, Deer Mountain; After all the piles of food we devoured, a strenuous, unguided mountain hike didn't seem favorable by any. So by the time our day in Ketchikan arrived, we figured we would just get off the boat and wander around.
Once on land, we started to wander down the main street through town and wound up at the lumberjack show. If you have ever flipped through the channels and landed on ESPN 14 showing competitive lumberjacking (where two burly dudes face off head-to-head as they try to chop a block of wood in half), that's what the lumberjack show appears to be about. Throw in some jokes, chainsaws, and even some characters (our cruise line touted a custom-version of the show) and you have a presentation designed to keep your attention. Despite the generously positive reviews of the show it can't shake the feeling of being a mega-tourist trap and at $40-$60/a viewing, we couldn't justify it. So onward we proceeded, to Creek Street.
Ketchikan's historic center, Creek Street is a boardwalk clinging to the hillside above the Ketchikan Creek. I recall seeing the main view of the street (above in the cover photo and to the right) and thinking, "How charming—I bet that goes on for a half-mile or so, with more shops and side-alleys to explore!" Unfortunately, I guessed wrong. The Creek Street area effectively starts on the right side of this photo and ends not too much further beyond the left side of this photo. It's quaint and charming but you walk through it in about two minutes. There's Dolly's House, a former brothel-turned-paid-admission-museum, and a few souvenir shops selling the same stuff found elsewhere. It was a beautiful albeit underwhelming stroll that ended with an old-timey funicular up to the hotel above. Deciding it would be better to ride than walk to the top, we decided to take the funicular, offering great views of the town and our ship.
Once up top, we decided to run a GPS search for a local totem pole museum we heard about. Ironically, our directions required us to walk back down the hill we just rode up but hey, the view was lovely! It was strange to walk down this winding residential road, marching in front of people's front yards. Ketchikan was the only town we truly got a glimpse of residential life in a state apparently characterized by everything shutting down for half of the year. Interestingly, a lot of people stored stuff out in their yards, giving a uniquely transparent glimpse at their life. Furniture, rusted old cars, old political signage, as well as mass storage in overgrown yards felt strangely personal and yet—to be honest—a little bit sketchy. This led to our unfortunate nickname for the town: Sketchikan.
We arrived back down at the Ketchikan Creek and then began to follow up towards the totem pole park. It wasn't long before we were overcome with an unmistakable fishy odor. We looked to the stream and witnessed one of the amazing phenomenon of life on Earth: The natal homing of wild salmon. This is where salmon, in an effort to reproduce, swim from the ocean to the exact stream they were born in. There, they swim upstream, battling the pressure of the constant current against them. This is Discovery Channel stuff folks, where you see epic B-Roll of a bear taking a swipe and miserable jumping salmon.
For all of the excitement this concept inspires, the actual event wasn't particularly riveting. The opposing current seemed to suspend the salmon in place so there wasn't much forward motion to see. Additionally, the banks of the river were lined with all of the dead salmon who were unsuccessful in their quest, likely expiring from exhaustion. Again, the idea of this is fascinating but the reality was quite, well, stinky.
Continuing on, we finally reached the totem pole museum we set out towards. I don't know what we were expecting—perhaps an open park with colorful poles to walk among—but the museum did not impress from the outside. It was a building the size of a house, it was unclear how many original poles you would see, and it touted a $5 admission fee. For all of the effort of getting up to it, we decided it wouldn't be worthwhile to pay the $20. Instead, we grabbed a photo with the pole out front and decided to head back towards the ship.
When we ran a GPS search for the port, it recommended that we take a different route back. Our walk back put us even further in the residential, less-touristy areas of the town. The buildings were very simple and plain and the walk was uneventful. When we arrived back in front of Creek Street, we debated on whether or not another pass at it would be worth it—ultimately it wouldn't be. I remember that Chuck thought that he saw a seal in the creek but after some studying, none of us believed him. After a bit of shopping, it was time to head back to the ship for some hot tubbing. There we would remain until it was time to leave the town.
To be clear, I know that I am painting a very unimpressive picture of Ketchikan. Further, I understand that this is my fault for not being willing to spend a bit on an activity or adventure. Perhaps on your next Alaskan cruise, you can avoid my mistake.
For more photos of our wander around Ketchikan, check out the gallery below: