SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Ketchikan Didn't Need to Be 30 Miles Long, Four Blocks Wide


July 20, 2009

Ketchikan, Alaska - I have the greatest respect for the founders of Ketchikan.

They came up here, survived the weather that we only grumble about in much worse conditions than we have to deal with - outdoor plumbing and no central heat, anyone?

jpg Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer

They chopped and they dug and they blasted and they built a town - Our Fair Salmon City - that clings to the side of a hill.

And when that wasn't enough they filled and built pilings and managed to make a bigger town out of just about no flat land at all.

In fact, they created our lovely little "30 miles long, four blocks wide" community. And we are here because of them. God bless them.

But sometimes I can't help but wonder, out of all this wilderness, couldn't they have chosen a slightly better location?

No, I don't mean Cabo San Lucas or Waikiki - although October would be much more pleasant in both those climes.

But even in these here parts, I think there were probably better options.

Although our entire region is in a temperate rain forest, there are naturally some areas that are more "equal" in terms of rain than others and we are one.

Let's face it, short of Little Port Walter on Baranof Island which apparently "averages" more than 200 inches of precipitation a year, we are just about the wettest place in the Alaska. We are certainly the wettest place where large numbers of folks want to live.

For example, did you know that Annette Island gets about 40 inches of rain less per year than we do? And I won't even mention that Annette frequently seems to have slightly higher temps than we do as well.

The rainfall comparison, of course, is based on the Ketchikan average estimate of just over 150 inches of rain year. And that estimate is based on what the airport at Nowhere, Alaska (Gravina) gets each year.

Anecdotally, how many times have you been caught in a Revilla Rain Funk and have looked across the bay to see the sun shining on Gravina through the breaks in our clouds?

I rest my case.

Also anecdotally, I know several weather spotters on this side of The Narrows who insist that the real "Ketchikan" average is closer to 160 or 170 inches of rain a year.

At any rate, if you head north to old the town site of Loring there is significantly less rain than in "the Narrows." Same if you head further south on Revillagigedo. Clearly, when it came to ensuring inexhaustible supplies of freshwater, Ketchikan's founders really knew how to "pick em."

Which basically means that someday when the rest of world has completely run out of water (are you listening Lost Angeles?) we will be sitting fairly pretty on more of the "liquid gold" than we could ever use and will be exporting it for great financial gain.

Unfortunately, that day is still a "fer piece" into the future.

So then, Our Forefathers and Foremothers must have picked this side of the Narrows because it was a great site to build a town, right?

Well, it did have a salmon creek with a big run of fish. But was it the best site to try to build something more permanent than a summer fish camp?

Okay, to be granted, our dear friends in Metlakatla had already snagged one of the best natural harbors in the area (Port Chester) and one of the flattest areas.

And our competitors in Loring had already taken a pretty could location as well. I often imagine what would have happened if Loring had gotten the Customs House rather than Ketchikan in 1900. For one thing, Roosevelt Lagoon would have a lot more boat traffic these days.

Heck, even Ward Cove would have made a great location for a city, and some folks thought so at the time. Although then we would have rapidly expanded into the Ward Lake basin and pretty much wiped out the recreation area that we all love so much today.

So, okay, the Ketchikan side of the Narrows was pretty rugged and it showed our "mettle" that we huffed and puffed and built a town on it.

Which leads me to the point of this whole column.

There actually was a better option. "Nowhere!"

Every so often, I take a short road trip on the South Gravina Highway, the three mile Road to Nowhere that is designed to connect the airport to bridge that will probably never be built.

It's interesting because from Ketchikan, the mountains of Gravina look like they rise up right from the water.

But in reality, there is acre upon acre upon acre of flat land, rising relatively gently from the beach back towards the mountains. And there is even more "flat" land leading down toward Bostwick Inlet to the south.

It may not be quite as flat as the Metlakatla town site, but it is certainly more easily developable than just about any other town site in Southeast Alaska.

Put simply, there is a ton of flat land on the Gravina side of The Narrows. Sure, it's a lot of muskeg and "wetlands" and that would make it more challenging to develop in the modern era of "wetlands conservation" but once upon a time - before federal regulations choked off development - you could have laid a pretty sizeable town "grid" across the area.

Of course, then we would have been separated from our beloved "Creek." Perhaps the canneries could still have developed on the "Creek" side of the Narrows, with the rest of the town developing on the Gravina side.

Then we would have been like Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. Which has its fishing harbor somewhat removed from much of its residential area.

And, interestingly enough, they are connected by a bridge.

Which the State of Alaska built for them.

In 1981.



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