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Column - Commentary

Ketchikan, If You Just Listen!


May 28, 2023


Ketchikan, Alaska - You can learn a lot about Ketchikan by talking to the visitors, they seem to know everything.

For example, Ketchikan has a glacier.

The other day, a pleasant middle-aged woman (I can't really call her elderly because she seemed to be about my age) asked me if I could tell her how to the get to "the glacier."

I've gotten this question before, because, frankly, Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway end up seeming the same to many visitors.

I have also been asked if it is a "long walk" to the railroad. 

Indeed it is.

Either 90 miles south to Prince Rupert or 372 miles (12 hours, light traffic, according to Google Directions) to Skagway. I'm not convinced you can even fly to Skagway from here in 12 hours, given connections and layovers, let alone drive,  but knock yourself out if you have an Amphicar or an Aquada, the traffic is indeed "light."

But I digress.

Anyway, this lovely young woman (once again, my age) wanted to go "see the glacier."

I calmly pointed out that we don't have any glaciers in Ketchikan, but that they do have a lovely one in Juneau.

"No," she answered firmly. "They do not. I did not see a glacier in Juneau."

I asked her if she had left downtown Juneau and she said no.

Then, indeed, she did not see a glacier in Juneau.

But that was not going to prevent her from seeing one in Ketchikan. Because someone on the ship told her there was a glacier in Ketchikan.

I tried to explain that I have lived in Ketchikan nearly all my life and have never seen a glacier here (even in those wonderful days in the 1960s when we all remember we got SO MUCH MORE snow than we do today).

She was still not convinced. So, I pulled the mayor card.

Usually when you tell a visitor you are the mayor, they tend to believe that you might indeed know something about the community. But in this case, she seemed bound and determined to take the word of a casino attendant on the ship over a local. So, I just pointed toward the snowcapped saddle of Deer Mountain and she cheerfully trundled off. I hope she made it back to her ship in time. I have grave doubts.

But that was not the weirdest thing I heard on the docks this week. I was walking around trying to blend in and I heard a man (of course it was a man) loudly explaining to the others in his "party" that the Chief Johnson on Dave Rubin's statue "The Rock" was an "Apache Chief."

Well, that was a new one. 

I am used to people arriving in Our Fair Salmon City and asking where "the Eskimos" are. Even in 2023, there are folks out there who seem more than a little confused that Alaska is not all ice, snow and dogsleds.

Usually,  one tries to politely explain that we don't have any "Eskimos" in this part of Alaska (at least not indigenously) and that, by the way, they prefer to be called "Inuit" or "Inupiat."

To be blunt, Eskimo is not a term that the folks up north like very much. And I don't blame them. When I was in college, people called me S. Kemo and one person (not a close friend) even asked me how I could be "Alaskan" and be so pale skinned.

I explained that it was "protective coloring" like the polar bear. I had to blend in with the ice and snow so the polar bears wouldn't eat me. He walked off, satisfied with the answer.

But I digress, again.

Back to the "expert" expounding on Alaska Natives.

"Chief Johnson was a Tlingit," I said, trying not to be too confrontational.

"A what?" he snapped back, clearly not used to having his facts questioned.

"A Tlingit."

"A Klingon?"

"A Tlingit," I repeated. "The Natives of this area of Alaska are Tlingits, Haida and Tshimpsians."

He looked at me like I had three heads. I decided to move on.

But I tossed one final bon mot over my shoulder as I disappeared into the madding crowd.

"Chief Johnson whipped Geronimo's butt when the Apaches tried to take over."

You can read all about it in Ketchikan 101.

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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.

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