By Bala Menon
Ever wondered which waters boast the most salmon in the world?
From mid-July to mid-September it is the waters of the Ketchikan Creek Falls in Alaska where mind-boggling numbers of feisty salmon migrate from the ocean and fight their way upstream to get to gravel beds in calmer waters.
There they spawn to continue their ‘dynasties’ and die. Newborn salmon then spend their early years in the river and then travel to the ocean where they grow into adults and on maturity return to their place of birth to spawn and die. The cycle of life thus continues.
The salmon run is rich picking each year for Ketchikan’s fishermen, Alaskan bears and the thousands of bald eagles – all forming part of the food chain that has sustained life through the centuries in this frontier land.
Ketchikan, the southernmost port on the Inside Passage of Alaska’s Pacific Northwest is known officially as the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’. There is a sign that arches over the town entrance on the waterfront “Welcome to Ketchikan, Salmon Capital of the World” which was first erected in the 1920s – making the title now semi-official.
Over a million tourists pass into the small town through the archway during the summer months after disembarking from the many cruise ships which make Ketchikan the first or last port of call during their fabulous Alaskan cruises.
The Ketchikan Creek, with its legendary salmon runs, flows through the town ending just a little distance away to the south and emptying into the Tongas Narrows (which is part of the Inside Passage).
It is said that the town means ‘Thundering Wings of an Eagle’ in the indigenous Tinglit language (obviously referring to the bald eagles that sweep and soar during the salmon run).
The town itself is a narrow strip of land stretching around 16 km along the waterfront and is surrounded by the thick woods of the Tongas National Forest.
The 3,000-ft Deer Mountain towers over the downtown area. A few houses are perched along some of the green wooded hills overlooking the port.
The town was established by an entrepreneur Mike Martin who purchased 160 acres of land from a native chief in 1885 and soon lumber mills and fish processing plants brought in a measure of prosperity to the area.
Ketchikan has always been a fishing and logging community unlike the other Alaskan communities of Juneau (378 km away) and Skagway (508 km) which grew as mining towns during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th century. Many residents are employed in the canning and tourism industries or work for the government.
There are several small outfitters renting out canoes and small powerboats to tourists who want to experience or fish in the waters of the Ketchikan Creek.
Although there are local bus shuttles, most tourists prefer to walk through the town which has crisscrossing streets lined with small shops selling everything from indigenous art and handicrafts to jewellery. Small restaurants abound with the most famous being the Great Alaska Salmon house where people line up to get a taste of the local fare.
One of the fabled parts of the walking tour is Creek Street about three blocks from the port – which until the early 1950s was a red-light district with bordellos on either side patronized by seasonal loggers and fishermen.
The establishments were/are wooden structures built on pilings. Today, the street has gone upscale and we find shops, art galleries and eateries. The oldest building on the street is Dolly’s House museum, named after one of Ketchikan’s most notorious ‘madams’.
Ketchikan is also famous for its totem poles. The Ketchikan Visitors Bureau says the town has the world’s largest collection of these magnificent standing artifacts – spread throughout the area with the Totem Heritage Centre alone displaying several that have been recovered from abandoned First Nation villages and in the forests surrounding the town.