Ketchikan: Follow the salmon to somewhere

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

View of Ketchikan from the cruise dock.You've probably never heard of the two Alaskan islands of Revillagigedo and Gravina. But you might remember how we all chuckled back in the mid-2000s when that state's plan to build a “bridge to nowhere” came to light.

The project became a political football when it was revealed that Alaska was pressing Congress to ante up millions of bucks to build an inter-island bridge to Gravina – where only 50 people lived!

It didn't get much publicity at the time, but Gravina is more than just home to 50 folks. It's also the site of Ketchikan International Airport, southeast Alaska's busiest jetport. To get to the bustling city of Ketchikan – about a mile away on Revillagigedo Island – passengers have to take ground shuttles from the airport to the Gravina dock, from which water ferries cross a half-mile-wide channel to the Ketchikan side. The bridge would have made it a lot easier to get there.

Salmon swim up a river in the middle of town.Still, few of Ketchikan's nearly 1 million annual visitors come by commercial airline. Some get there on private planes and boats, but most – 800,000 a year – come on cruise ships. Try to imagine this scene on a typical summer day in the city:

Passengers are pouring off four mega-liners docked at the edge of town and from other ships anchored in the bay. Some tourists make a beeline to the city's No. 1 attraction: a river, winding through the town, where thousands of coho salmon can be seen churning the waters like two-foot-long egg-beaters. What's going on is, the silver salmon are fighting their way upstream to spawn in far-away spots where they were born.

After four or so years in the Pacific, full-grown salmon get what the experts call “strong biological urges” to go home to regenerate their species. They instinctively follow the right rivers and streams – sometimes for thousands of miles – to their birthplaces, along the way jumping up waterfalls, flipping over rocks and battling their way through the claws and jaws of bears and the nets of salmon-catchers on the river banks.

Cruise ship skirts the Alaskan coast.Planes, catamarans and ducks

Other passengers head to a fleet of float planes along the docks to fly over the snow-capped peaks, misty fyords, 1,000-foot-high waterfalls and glaciers of Alaska's eye-popping Tonglass National Forest. Still others hop into catamarans to see all this while skirting pristine bays and inlets edging the forest.

Meanwhile, back in town, World War II-vintage amphibian “ducks” are filling up to roll along the town's streets – with stops at its colorful brothels of the early 1900s – and then slip into the water to give the passengers a fish-eye view of the dock area. Along the way, riders see dozens of upright eagles standing around like sentries on the breakwaters (they're actually hunting for lunch using a kind of lens over their eyes that lets them see under the water).

Less adventurous tourists are mobbing the curio shops, snapping up everything from miniature totems to masks, hand-painted drums, cedar-bark baskets and locally made jewelry.

'Duck' riders roll down a street.Getting hungry? How about a smoked salmon omelet? Or a salmon burger? Or salmon tacos? Or a quick bite of salmon jerky? They don't call this city “The Salmon Capital of the World” for nothing.

Between the frantic flopping of the salmon, float planes buzzing overhead every few minutes, amphibs darting around the streets, thousands of shoppers rubbing elbows in the stores and others gawking at soaring, hand-carved poles in the area's three totem parks, there's probably no such thing as a quiet, laid-back day in Ketchikan. At least during the spring-to-fall tourist season.

It gets kind of lively the rest of the year, too. Bridge or no bridge.

More info: Visit the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau at

Cruise lines: Alaska's cruise ports at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Anchorage, Nome and other chilly places host the ships of such well-known lines as Holland America, Princess, Norwegian, Carnival and Celebrity to name just a few. The lines typically begin their Alaska trips at Seattle, San Francisco and Vancouver, Canada, although other departure points may pop up on their itineraries now and then.

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