The last time I was in Ketchikan it was raining. It was raining this time as well - one of those grey rains that makes everything shabby, but it didn't stop people from streaming off the ship in ponchos, fanning out to the shops. Several of the stores were selling salmon for 40% off the usual price. You imagine the owners were kicking themselves: the one day I drop the price to the bare minimum, and four ships pull up and disgorge 6,000 customer! Ay yi yi! Well, sign's up, nothing I can do about it.

It has the look of a place that's worked hard and done its time.


The last time we visited the wildlife museum, which means pictures of bears and stuffed salmon and Interactive Exhibits that let the tots push a button and see a picture. Nothing as deadly as the small-market educational museum built with hefty government funds. Big rooms with little to engage you. Tasteful placement of important objects. This time we went to the museum about People, a subject I find more interesting than bears, inasmuch as human societies change over the course of years, and bears remain bears. Except for Old Groaner, who went from being a Live Bear to being a Reduced Bear, represented by a skull. It sits in the local museum, next to a picture of the rangy young fellow who put her down with three shots. That was back in the 30s. He died nine years ago in his nineties, a local legend. Wonder if he came down to the museum to look at Old Groaner’s skull and explain: t’warn’t personal. Just you was a bar, is all.

I don’t know if they talked like that. No idea. But I have a better idea how they lived up here, and it’s rather familiar. As a North Dakotan I have an inbred interest and clan pride, if you want, for the people who went to places where there was nothing. No roads, stoves, buildings, laws. On stony hills they built towns, and in these places they brought the things that guaranteed the rise of a community. By which of course I mean diving suits and prostitutes.

The museum had just what I like to see: ordinary stuff made extraordinary by the passage of time. Beer bottles. Household items. Many old photographs of the town. The energy and stamina it probably took to survive up here was so great the long-gone people still leap from the picture, ready to grab you by the lapels and tell you all about the wonders of the cannery and the excellent meals down at the hotel and all the other fine virtues of this exceptional place. Why don’t you move here? There’s money to be made if a man’s on his toes.

Some closeups of the shots: this guy looks like John Law. A ghost in the middle; a kid who cannot bear the sound of the whistle of the boat. Or perhaps the gunfire.

The Respectable Folks in their finery.

All the boys enjoyed Standing Around Days, which went for a week in July.

The machinery of the cannery looks as if it guaranteed a finger in every hundred cans:

The obligatory mid-entry wide shot gives you the docks and the views.



Back to the museum, where a sign gives you evidence of the local attitudes towards officialdom and its various proclamations:


I know it’s an odd trip where your favorite photos are photos of photos, but there’s little else. Well, there’s Spring Street, which is the former more than the latter.

During Prohibition, I read, the skiffs would go under the bars and stores and lift liquor up through trap doors.

I can't think of anything more fruitless than trying to enforce Prohibition in Alaska. For heaven's sake. Let them drink.

Nineteen seconds of context, if you like:

That was the morning, and it was short and wet. Wife and daughter went off to see some logging thing, a tourist demonstration that occurs every few hours for people who got off the ship to buy a box of dried salmon. Sitka this isn’t, but it’s different, and I’m glad I found the pictures.

Like this.

Something on the right burned down, I suspect.

LATER (THE NEXT DAY) Up in the Crow’s Nest, or the Explorations Cafe, depending on whether you’re drinking hooch or coffee. One of the guys I’ve known on every trip said there was someone standing outside the ship with a sign:


As you might imagine this was . . . concerning, inasmuch as there was no reason for anyone to be standing outside the ship expecting me. Turns out the local newspaper editors had tweeted an invite for Charles C.W. and myself to join them for coffee; since I don’t have any internet on these events, I didn’t get the notice. Drat: would have been fun. I mean, when do you walk off a ship and find readers waiting? Makes a fellow feel like a globe-trotting author with readers in every port.

We pulled out around noon, and headed out into an impatient sea. Fog and swirling clouds of doom that suggested we were heading into the land of deep evil, but no, it was just Canada. Last dinner - Friday night everyone will be in port - so this meant the parade of kitchen staff and the clap-along hoorah. At least this time it was not accompanied by Baked Alaska, or a long entreaty to give them good marks on the survey forms. We were told that the scale only went from 1 to 9, because 10 was perfect, and they could only try for perfection. Some sort of line-wide humility meant that perfection was out of the question, because they defined it so highly mortals could not hope to meet the standards. But of course a scale of one to nine simply means you're judging them in Base Nine. In order for this conceit to work, there had to be the option of a ten, which you would refrain from choosing because that would be hubris, and the gods, thus angered, would send the ship thundering to the bottom.

Anyway, they just sang a song and we could choose our own dessert.

TOMORROW: The end, with a twist.




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