SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Bye, bye Smithers, Hello Waterslides!


July 25, 2012

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska
- Liam and I had one last splash around Mike Smithers’ Pool before it closed a couple of weeks ago.
jpg Dave Kiffer

Right off, I need to note that we are not one those “swimming” families that has spent every waking – above water – breath there!

I know some people who now have gills because they started in “guppy” swim, graduated to “bullhead” swim, moved on to “smolts” and eventually were absorbed into the endless lap swim-a-thon that is Killer Whales. Their children followed them and now they have grand “guppies.”

Good for them!

That is exactly why we built the community pools back in the early 1970s.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time – when I was a “bullhead” – in which Ketchikan had no community pools. That was back in the 1960s. Even though just about everyone in Ketchikan spent some time on the water at some point, we didn’t have any real pools because, well, just because.

Part of it was that old cussed Ketchikan nature. The old “well, I learned to swim in Tongass Narrows or Ward Lake or at Bugge Beach and that was good enough…….”

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Of course, the 1960s were the not so good old days when it was not unusual for someone to drown in Tongass Narrows or other nearby waters. Usually happened several times a year.  Didn’t even make the front page of the newspaper, like it would today.

If fact, I know of 10 children who died in a variety of water based catastrophes between 1960 and 1973. I would hazard a guess that we have not have had a TOTAL of 10 youth or child drownings in Ketchikan waters in the last 40 years. At any rate, years go by now with a drowning.

Of course, it could be argued that we have been more “rock centric” in recent decades. We don’t fish or head out on boats the way we used to. Kids today are more inclined to play a “whitewater” video game than they are to take a rowboat out in the harbor like we did.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Oddly enough, I heard some of the same old arguments when we were talking about building the new pool.

People thought the cost was too high. People thought we could just fix up the old pool with “Marine Tex and bailing wire” like we have been doing for the past 15 years. Some people even questioned why a pool was necessary.


Now, I come from a family where swimming is not held in particularly high regard. My great grandparents, grandparents and parents were all commercial fishers in southeast Alaska. And how many of them could actually swim?

Not many.

I once asked my grandmother why she didn’t know how to swim.

“Because if the boat goes down three or four miles offshore, being able to swim just means it will take you longer to drown.”

Of course, I thought she was kidding, but there was a fatal streak amongst all those old fishermen (and women). Boats usually went down in bad weather. You probably weren’t going to make it by swimming several miles to shore in a storm and if you did you would just die of exposure or hypothermia when you got to the beach.

My father could swim, though. But even he was a bit of a cynic.

I was complaining – at a very young age – about no pool (like the ones my cousins had in Seattle). We happened to be rowing ashore at the time and he lobbed me over the side of the skiff and watched as I struggled twenty yards until my feet touched the rocks.

“There’s your pool,” he said.

Of course, that cured me of even wanting to go back into the water for several years. I would wade with everyone else, but I would be darned if I would put my head under the water. This lasted till I was 9 or 10 or so.

Eventually, I got over it and even took to swimming a bit. If we traveled away from KTN, I was always on the lookout for a motel with a pool or a family member with something splashy in the backyard. Still I wasn’t much interested in more rustic areas for a swim like Ward Lake or Tongass Narrows.

Yes, there was always the enclosed tidepool at Bugge Beach – where generations of locals had learned how to swim. But the water was always more than a little bit murky there and it only got truly warm enough three days out the year anyway.

Then the Kayhi pool opened up when I was in junior high. I spent just about every day there for the next several months.

After all, by then it was clear that I would never be a great basketball star and wrestling was the only other available indoor sport. The idea of wearing a singlet and trying to twist someone’s elbow into their nose didn’t appeal to me.

So I would get my exercise – indoor thank goodness - and prep for Olympic glory at the brand spanking new Kayhi Pool.

Natch, it didn’t work out that way.

 I was skinny but not sleek. Therefore I was not particularly fast. I had also never quite gotten over that feeling of not wanting my head underwater. I could splash back and forth for a while, but the idea of doing twenty or thirty laps in a 25 yard pool just didn’t work for me. To quote my grandmother, I was just learning to take longer to drown.

When Liam was little, we immediately signed him up for swimming “lessons.” He was about 9 to 10 months old. We didn’t realize that we were also signing up for ear infections and ear tubes as well, but that was part of the process. As a result, even though he kept at “pool” until he was four or five, it never took hold. He was not a water baby. Water would not prove to be his métier.

He was also pretty incapable of floating. That was really unhelpful toward his aquanautancy. I suppose he could have been an Alaskan Jacques Cousteau, but even Cousteau eventually needed to swim back to the surface.

In general Liam just tended to flounder back and forth, making the life guards nervous because they could never tell if he was drowning or just had bad form.

Unlike Liam, I have always been able to float well. I could tread water indefinitely. A skill my grandmother would say was about as useless as……….  Well, yadda, yadda, yadda.

As usual, I digress.

So, anyway, back to the old Smithers pool.

It was fun to float around on the surface at Smithers one last time, looking up at the ceiling and thinking how lucky we were to have a pool for so long and how lucky it had held up just long enough. Those cracks and stains in the roof had been giving me serious pause for several years.

Liam thought it was more fun just to splash around and toss waterlogged basketballs at the mini baskets.  He has been looking forward to the new waterslides at the new pool for two years. That is putting it mildly!

I look forward to floating on my back and relaxing at the new Aquatic Center. It’s bigger than the old one.

So, it might take a while longer to float to shore.

I think I can make it.

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