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How The World Wags

"Things We Tell The Tourists"
  By Dave Kiffer

June 16, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - A couple of weeks ago, I made light of the "unanswerable" questions that the visitors often toss at us.
For the record, I have been reminded that the Redington family (of Iditarod fame) did have a store here briefly and they had a couple of huskies on the premises so the question about where all the "cute little Iditarods" were wasn't totally off-base.

jpg Dave Kiffer

I was thinking this week about how sometimes we compound the cluelessness with our frequently facetious answers.
Admit it! Sometimes when presented with the "how high above sea level are we?" or "do you take American money?" we come up with some pretty wild answers. (The correct answers - of course - are "this far north we're approximately 15,276 feet above sea level" and "you can exchange your dollars for otter pelts at the cart de exchange in the Visitors Bureau.")
For example, there was a group of tourists was on one of the Misty Fjord cruises recently and one noticed a "black line" on the shore. It was actually, the upper edge of the seaweed. But when asked about the "black line" one of the Ketchikanites on board said "oh, that's there so the tide knows where to stop."
Which leads to another conversation during a blazing hot August day (temp was in the mid 80s!) a couple of years ago.
"I thought they said it rained a lot here."
"That's just what we tell everyone, otherwise they'd move here."
"Huh. So how come everything is go green?"
"After the ships leave, the store clerks go around with green spray paint!"
"Doesn't that mess up the environment?"
"Of course not, they use preservative paint!"
One night, there was a gaggle of tourists blocking the door at the Cape Fox Lodge because there was a medium sized black bear foraging in one of the dumpsters next to the civic center.
"Is he tame?" one of them asked. "Can we pet him?"
"Sure," replied a snarky local. "His name is Ben. He's real gentle."
Being anywhere near the docks seems to bring out a local's most sarcastic angels.
A woman strode up to a local girl selling bus tours.
"What time do the killer whales come out in the harbor?" she asked.
"Noon, two and four," the girl replied without missing a beat. "But there's a special show for overnighters at 8. You can pet them then."
The hordes on Creek Street also seem to inspire some pretty smart alecky responses.
"Where are the fish?"
"Well, it's a little early in the season."
"This brochure says there are fish."
Long pause.
"Well, there weren't that many and the folks at the Halibut Hole already caught them for their fish and chips. You should come back tomorrow."
"But our ship is leaving in a couple of hours!"
It's also not unusual to have someone ask where the "prostitutes" are when ducking through the crowds on "The Creek."
Naturally, the reaction of most locals is to throw their arms in a wide, all encompassing gesture which means: The prostitutes are still here, they just wear more jewelry. But that's usually a little too subtle.
"They'll be out later. They sleep during the day."
"Oh, yeah that makes sense."
Standing in line at the downtown post office substation almost always involves the following exchange:
"Is this the post office?"
"Well, no it's actually a mail collection center."
"Well, okay, where's the post office then?"
Fortunately, we seem to have finally passed the era where folks would come off the ships and say "Are you sure we're in Alaska? It looks just like "Canada here."
But that's only because most of the visitors these days are heading south on the ships rather than north. I'm sure they are thinking that Ketchikan looks a like Juneau.
Still, I can pretty well guarantee that at some point this summer, some one will marvel that I am such a light-skinned Alaska native (little n, not big N).
"Actually," I will earnestly reply. "I am an albino Eskimo."
"Are there many albinos in Alaska?"
"Not so many here, but a lot more way up north around Barrow."
"Why is that?"
"Why are polar bears white? You just blend in better."
"Oh yeah that makes sense."


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

Dave Kiffer ©2005

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