Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Ketchikan, Alaska

Sparky and Eldo were in Alaska two weeks ago...Just now catching up with all the bazillion photos and memories we have of our wonderful trip. We took the 7 day Holland America inside passage one way cruise that was entitled "Glacier Bound". We loved it!

Our first port of call was Ketchikan, the "salmon capital of the world". All the Alaskan ports have small populations, but BIG areas to explore. Ketchikan has a population of about 8,000 and is an island surround by the Tongass National Forest. When the cruise ships come in, the town swells in population, of course, and the small downtown bustles with lots of shoppers. Tourism along with fishing and government services are the main occupations for the town. The native American Tlingit (Klinkit) tribe's influence can be seen in the many cool drawings, totem poles and carvings that abound in the area.

Ketchikan has the world's largest standing totem pole collection in several parks, here's one that we visited, Saxmen Totem Park.

If you take a certain shore excursion, you can see a world famous carver working on a pole in the carving shed in town. (The AVERAGE prices of shore excursions were about 200.00 a person on up). We bypassed the carving excursion and found a great land/city tour for less than 90 dollars. The totem park was on that tour, so we decided that was a good value.

It was a typical early summer day in Ketchikan, raining off and on, so that made it difficult to get some nice photos. The carvings on the poles tell quite a lot of stories, cautionary tales, etc. We really enjoyed hearing about them. We also saw a master carver inside a carving shed as we passed by showing a group of people how he works. Many of the totems are reproductions as they last only 70-80 years, but that's ok, the history behind them is very interesting and we're glad that more attempts are being made to preserve these remarkable poles.

The history behind the poles and the illustrations are fascinating. The Tlingit tribe's rich history of its matriarchal society made Sparky want to learn more. The totem pole carvings and illustrations on clothing, boats and other items are used to identify the mother's family, clan, and relatives through the raven or the eagle. It's more complicated than that, but to keep things simple, it's a start. The order of the carvings can range from the most important on the bottom, or the other way around. Ever feel like you are the low man on the totem pole? Sparky used to feel that way at work some times.....

The native Americans had a tradition called the "potlatch", a celebration usually to mark the creation and erection of a totem pole reflecting your family's wealth, clan and prestige. Sometimes the totem was a carving to preserve an oral legend. The potlatch was the original pyramid scheme! You would throw a big party once a year, invite all your relatives, and your relatives would invite their friends and the party would get bigger and bigger. You were expected to buy gifts for anyone and everyone who showed up. You never quite knew how many people would arrive. Once you had entertained your company with lavish gifts, livestock, song and dance or whatever else you deemed a worthy gift for your attendees, it would be their turn next to throw a party and invite you back. If for some reason, you insulted a guest or your gifts were not worthy enough, sometimes a shame pole would be carved in your "honor" or vice versa. It really wasn't an honor. You should be ashamed of yourself and you have embarrassed your family, your clan. And conversely, if your guests did not invite you back, that was an insult and an excuse to construct a "shame" pole with their offense and likeness carved on it. It would be a very plain pole with only something at the top, perhaps a caricature of the person who had offended you or your family.

One of the most famous shame poles is the one we saw in Saxmen park. It depicts William Seward, the statesman--U.S. Secretary of State who was responsible for the purchase of Alaska at at time when people thought that was a crazy idea--"Seward's Folly", they called it. Apparently, he failed to reciprocate a potlatch, not knowing the custom, and so this "shame pole" is a reminder for all future generations to not stiff your party host! His ears and nose are painted red to represent his stinginess. The rest of the pole is totally plain all the way down to the bottom.
Sparky LOVED the Tlingit artwork. It has a very distinctive look to it....Here are a couple of examples of the raven.

On this same tour that took us to the totem park, we stopped by a waterfall, and a rocky outcrop. The waterfall was nothing too spectacular, we'd seen lots bigger ones with lots bigger water volume, but the interesting thing about the waterfalls is that NO rivers or lakes feed many of the waterfalls, it's just groundwater that comes from the melting of the glaciers. 
There were seals showing their noses in this pond, but you can't see them
Our young tour guide driver stopped by the rocky outcrop and BAM! There were some bald eagles. At least EIGHT of them sitting on the rocky outer walls.

Most were the immature, young bald eagles with brown heads, but we looked up, and there were at least four to five more mature bald eagles with the white heads right above us. All of a sudden, people shouted, "WHALES!" Two separate pods of Orca whales swam by just beyond the rocky outcrop. Sparky saw them and managed to catch one pod.

She was crouched down by a retaining wall when Eldy said, "Jeannie, there's an eagle right by you. He's less than 3 feet in front of you." HOLY MOLEY!
"Go away, kid, you're bothering me."
Sparky had been so busy trying to catch the orcas, she hadn't seen the juvenile eagle perched right in front of her! This was NOT taken with a zoom, folks!

The eagle didn't move one inch. More people came and took his photo. He still didn't budge. The guide thought perhaps he might be injured and unable to fly, so he called the wildlife service. But what a thrill to see one so close! And the whales! When your guide starts taking photos, you know this is a special moment. He said that was the first sighting he'd seen of the whales this season and he couldn't stop saying, "Wow, this is amazing! You guys are really lucky to see this all at once!" This was our first tour off the boat, and we were in LOVE with Alaska!

We had a marvelous time in Ketchikan...there were more excursions offered, but this one met all of our expectations, and you know how Sparky loves nature! So she was thrilled! If we didn't see anything else the rest of the week, Sparky would still be one happy camper!  Stay tuned, we did see more.....


  1. what a fabulous, wonderful place. . .love seeing it all again through your eyes. . .and how marvelous that you saw the whales. . .wow!

  2. Very smart to take a local tour at a much better price. You guys are pros at this travel stuff. And boy did you see some things. I can't believe you saw not just A whale but a POD. And not just eagles but right in front of your nose. Wow, a whole week of this might make you want to move to Alaska next. What's the difference, Alaska is gorgeous and cool in the summers while Florida is too hot and Florida is relatively cool in the winters while Alaska is................