Friday, June 15, 2007

North to Alaska

For years, my relatives in Alaska have been pleading with us to come up and see their beautiful part of the country. We finally did at the end of May to help my great niece, Jessica Davis, celebrate her graduation from high school.

My great niece lives with her parents, Scott and Traci Davis, in Ketchikan. My oldest sister has made a number of trips to Ketchikan and returned with great fish stories (supported by boxes of delicious halibut and smoked salmon) and other tales from the land of the midnight sun. So, it was finally time to see for ourselves.

We arrived by plane from Seattle and boarded the ferry to take us across the inland passage to the island where Ketchikan stretches along its shoreline.

One of the first things we noticed were the huge cruise ships lined up along the waterfront. I had never seen a cruise ship up close and these were gigantic. Scott told us they have some cruise ships that span 14 decks. Catering to the tourists appears to be the major economic activity here. We saw flocks of tourists surging from shop to shop, a horse-drawn wagon making the rounds, and charter boats filled with hopeful anglers plying the waters of the harbor.

The landscape reminded me of the Oregon of my childhood before the timber companies stripped many of the hills trying to make a quick buck by selling raw logs to Japan. The hills around Ketchikan were a deep green with tall fir and cedars and the mountains capped with snow. Even though it was almost June the weather was cool and it sprinkled off and on. Ketchikan claims to be the 4th wettest place on earth with annual rainfall over 400 inches.

I also got a chance to find out how rough it can be living on an isolated island with only one main road. The first night I was there I somehow came down with a virus. I wretched all night and most of the next morning. I finally decided to go in to the emergency room but had to wait for my family to return from an awards ceremony so someone could drive me in. They didn't get home until 1 p.m. which was, unfortunately, after the highway department started blasting the road they were attempting to improve while the weather was decent. They also used a little too much dynamite and ended up blocking the entire road (the only road between me and the hospital) and knocking down the powerlines. Initially, they planned to have an ambulance go to the other side of the rock slide and send a gurney over for me. I was afraid it was going to be quite a spectacle! We waited for almost an hour and a half. Then someone else behind us suffered a severe allergic reaction and also needed to go to the hospital and was in a life-threatening state. So, the highway crew hurried as best they could and cleared just enough room for us to get by in the car (we were cautioned not to roll the windws down or have our arms outside the car though because the power lines were still dangling).

I finally got to the hospital about 4 p.m. only to find the ER jammed with patients waiting to be evacuated to Seattle. Apparently, the ferry's engines had quit and it floated away (with another ambulance on-board) and there was no way to get to the airport without it. The Coast Guard came to the rescue and lassoed the errant ferry and dragged it back to the dock. I finally got a bottle of IV fluid and an injection for nausea about 6 pm. The doctor said I pretty much just had to ride it out since nothing much could be done for a virus except rehydration so we went home.

The next morning we were scheduled to go out on a charter boat. I was still a little shakey but I put my best foot forward, downed a sea-sickness pill, and headed for the dock. The charter boat captain was a friend of my niece and was quite welcoming. We trolled the inland passage hoping for a big King salmon but nothing much was biting in the gentle rain. The captain called in a bald eagle and pitched him some herring while I took pictures. Then we changed tactics and rigging and started fishing for rockfish and halibut. We managed to get several rockfish and just when it was almost time to go in, my brother-in-law, Ken, snagged a halibut. It was just a small one but I knew we'd have a delicious fish fry out of it.

That evening, my sister noticed an advertisement for a charity concert featuring "The Lettermen". They were popular when I was in high school. So, we changed clothes and headed for the auditorium. One of the original Lettermen was still in the group after 47 years of performances. He still sounded really good and his current fellow performers were wonderful too. We had a great time and even met them after the show. I thought to myself that I must have fallen into some time warp. This year I went to my first antiwar demonstration and my first Lettermen's concert thirty years after my 60s classmates had done those things!

The next day, my niece had scheduled a barbeque at Ward Lake Park. Since it is usually raining in Ketchikan, she had reserved a shelter just in case. Of course we needed it! We all huddled under the shelter while my nephew and his firehouse crewmates grilled hamburgers and hotdogs under the edge of the eaves. The local kids played out in the rain, throwing frisbees for their dog and splashing in the lake as if it was a sunny summer day.

Sunday, we all hustled down to the high school gymnasium to watch my niece receive her diploma. It was one of the best graduation ceremonies I have ever attended. Several of the seniors (including Jessica) got up and sang or played music. One very talented young man played music he had composed himself and conducted the high school band as well. The Tlingit Native American students wore their tribal ceremonial robes over the top of their cap-and-gowns and I noticed their parents and relatives did as well. Several of the seniors made the receipt of their diploma a particularly memorable event with acrobatics, skateboards, juggling, and, in Jessica's case, a march down the aisle dressed in her Dad's fireman's coat, hat , and boots. After all, she's a certified volunteer firefighter too!

On our last day, my nieces and sister took me to the Saxman Native Village where I learned about the Tlingit and Haida tribal histories, the importance of totems, and got a chance to participate in a tribal dance at the clan of the Beaver longhouse. I also toured the discovery center, the local historical museum, and had a delicious lunch up at the Inn at Cape Fox. Quite a grand finale! Have a look!