SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska
Column: Humor

Lost At Sea



September 28, 2017
Thursday AM

Ketchikan, Alaska -
We often gnash our teeth about visitors wandering around, seemingly lost, in Our Fair Salmon City.

jpg  Dave Kiffer

How can they get lost?

It's only a couple of streets?

Don't they all lead to the water?

Can't they see the ships?

Well, of course, those questions have just about 1.03 million different answers.

Most of them seem to revolve around the fact that 99.99 percent of the 1.03 million people are looking for an actual "Street" when they are seeking "Creek Street" but some things you just can't fix.

Anyway, put yourself in their orthopedic shoes. If you have spent your entire life navigating the wilds of Cleveland, you can probably find Ketchikan a little daunting. It is so small town here. So rustic. So bereft of the necessities of life. There is only one Starbucks for goodness sake and it is NOT, I repeat NOT, located within walking distance of their ship. This seems to be a deal breaker for many of the visitors.

"How could you possibly live here?" they ask when confronted with this information. "I just can't imagine."

Neither can I.

Anyhoo, sometimes I return the favor by going on board cruise ships and getting lost.

I know what you're thinking.

How can you possibly get lost on a cruise ship?

It's only got a handful of decks?

Don't they all lead to the buffet?

Can't you see the dock?

Well, maybe not.

I often go on those dog and pony shows where the cruise lines graciously invites "locals" on board.

They usually have two purposes. One is to exchange plaques and give short speeches when a ship visits the Ketchikan for the first time. Sometimes we even exchange lovely photographs of the ships and/or the ports. Those photographs are then stored in some vault never to be seen again.

I'm pretty sure there is an entire floor at City Hall dedicated to the storage and preservation of pictures and plaques of cruise ships that were taken out of service decades ago.

The other reason is the so-called environmental "photo op." Most of the cruise lines are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade their handling of solid waste and water waste.

In fact, if the state of Alaska spent as much effort and money on its own wastes, there would probably be no honey buckets or septic systems left.  All solid and water wastes would be safely collected in a centralized waste collection site. It would be called Anchorage.

Anyway, "waste" has been in the news a lot lately because Ketchikan has had some higher than acceptable levels of poopy bits in some of its beach water. That seems to get the populace up in arms - rightly - because we don't want to be wading or swimming or kayaking in other people's poopy bits (and yes, "poopy bits" is the official designation from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation).

Naturally, a lot of fingers start pointing when the levels of poopy bits gets higher than desired. Bet you had no idea there was a desired level of poopy bits in the water did you? Apparently it is okay when the poopy bits are measured in parts per billion. Unless the number is one billion parts per billion, I guess.

And despite the fact that we still have a whole lot of local people dumping their waste into their back yards (and where does it go from there?) and we also have about six million salmon swimming around each summer creating waste, the fingers get pointed at the cruise lines because they - gasp - discharge waste water into the our pristine waters.

And that directly leads to more "environmental" tours of ships in order to convince the local decision makers that the cruise lines are not the reason there are poopy bits in area waters.

The environmental tours generally have two parts. 

First, a lengthy tour of the ships innards in which visitors get to see (first hand!) the parts of  the ship "the passengers never see." We know that because, they repeat it over and over. As if we were entering a secret society, such as the Royal Garter of Solid Waste Separators or the Privy Council of the Privy Collection Systems. 

Of course, we also know it's the part of the ship visitors don't see because there are no carpets and the stairs get really narrow and steep.

It's like there is a gigantic Checkpoint Charley mid ship and you cross over from the glitzy, carpeted, wood-grain-paneled West Berlin into utilitarian, steel-lined East Berlin.

Suddenly you are in the working part of the ship.  Like the recycling area. The engine room. The giant tanks that take in the various types of waste and waste water (black water, gray water, green water, Dasani water) and through chemicals and magic, turn it back into something that you would be okay drinking. 

Well, maybe not okay with, but it certainly wouldn't kill you because as doctors are fond of telling us we are already 90 percent "gray water" based on all those bad things that we consume every day. Like the Lido Deck Buffet.

This is the "important" part of the tour because the local visitors are expected to whistle and nod their heads while an important member of the crew - usually the environmental officer - points at  the mechanical items and explains in great detail what they do. Of course, you can't hear a word they are saying because the engines and other doohickies are rumbling and whirring and stirring and sloshing about and you have inserted rubber ear plugs to protect your hearing.

So you just nod and occasionally ask an informed question like "how many gallons of water goes through that orifice recirculation valve anyway?" Or "If a cruise ship runs aground does all that waste eating bacteria escape and wipe out life as we know it?"

Fortunately, just about the time you reach your fill of information about ultraviolet ray disinfectants and sludge return air lifts, they take you back across Checkpoint Charlie and into the calming influence of the carpets and the wood-grain paneling. You then visit some of the public areas like the casino, the spa and several of the buffets/cafeterias that are more ubiquitous than "poopy bits" in the area water.

Then if you are really lucky, in the second part of the tour they feed you in one of the "speciality" bistros on board that cater to the higher end passengers who are willing to pay a little more to not be seated with 2,750 of their close, personal shipmates.

Then you get lost.

Oops, that was a bit of a bad transition. Need to go back and come a little more slowly across Checkpoint Charley.

Anyway, that whole discussion of the tour was a one "Gargantuan of the Sea" digression!

This was supposed to be about getting lost on a cruise ship, right?

One of the challenges of the ship tours is the you are walking and talking at the same time. Your guide is pointing out things and leaving you exactly zero time to ponder them yourself. And some of us like to pause to look at things.

One time, a couple of years ago, I paused to look at a guitar that had been signed by Freddie Mercury that was displayed outside one of the onboard theaters. In the 10 seconds it took me to ascertain that it was indeed Freddie Mercury's signature, the tour had zipped around a corner and was gone. I looked down one hallway, and then another.

I guessed the tour had quickly zipped onto one of the elevators, but I couldn't be sure to which deck they had gone.

My first thought was "how many days could I spend on board before they noticed me?"

But then I pondered getting "put off"  in some other port and having to pay for my own way home. Plus I had read recently that cruise lines were charging "stowaways" with "theft of service" and I didn't want to end up spending time "in the brig."

So I wandered into a nearby (you are never more than 12 steps from one) "piano lounge."  And sat for a few minutes. But quickly the bar tender began to eye me like I didn't belong. Especially after I started playing the piano. Apparently that is something that real "passengers" never do. Go figure.

Fortunately, the ship's "library" was just a few steps away and I snuck in there, knowing that no one ever, ever, ever goes into the ship library.

But, even for me it was too boring, just sitting there, pondering all the hardback tomes purchased solely because the color of their spines match the particularly bland wood grain paneling that had been deployed. So I got up and walked down the hallway, figuring at the least I would find my way back to the gangway and debark.

Speaking of which, there is a neighbor dog who needs to debark. It is very irritating.

But I digress, again.

It's interesting how - despite the fact they charge different amounts for different shipboard accommodations, all the hallways pretty much look the same.

And narrow. 

They look really narrow and it is hard to imagine 3,000 visitors (and 2,200 wheelchairs) exiting quickly in an emergency. If the engine room wasn't enough to dredge up "Poseidon Adventure" flashbacks  ("There's got to be a morning aaaaaafffffteeeeerrr"), those long narrow hallways definitely do it.

I guess at the very least, they should do like at Safeco Field and have "attendants" guarding the hallways to the suites. If I was paying big bank for the Davey Jones Locker Suite, I sure as heck wouldn't want any of the hoi polloi milling about in MY hallway.

Which is exactly what I was doing.  Milling about trying to find my way either back to my tour group or out of the ship.

Finally, salvation presented itself. 

I noticed a cohort of wheelchairs lining up near one of the elevators. Since the riders were already covered from head to toe in plastic bags, I guessed they were preparing to debark (yeah, yeah, the correct word is "disembark. " Sue me!). It didn't matter that it was 75 and positively baking in Ketchikan that day. They were prepared for the elements.

And rightly so.

So I quickly impersonated a helpful person by assisting with the elevator door. And I followed the group to the exit point and disembarked, missing both the end of the tour and the meal.

You would think I would have learned something from that unnerving experience of being marooned on a cruise ship.

And you would be wrong. 

Much more recently, like last week, I got lost again.

It happened because I was I was getting an answer to a highly technical question by one of my tour mates.

"Which way is the pointy end of the ship?" he asked.

I quickly peaked through to the other end of a nearby lounge and determined the "pointy end" was ahead of us. When we both turned back to the tour, it had vanished into one of the elevators and we had no idea which direction it had gone.

So this time, rather than milling around - or finding a good lounge to hole up in like my fellow lost tour mate kept suggesting - I immediately said "let's find the Front Desk."

Like any sea going "hotel" cruise ships have a Front Desk.  We jumped on the elevator and I randomly pushed a button. We popped on the chosen floor and low and behold, there was the Front Desk (maybe there are Front Desks on every floor, who knows) . We explained our plight and eventually were reunited with our group.

We finished out our "tour" and I have to admit that that I actually learned something.

Did you know that it is someone's job on the ship to change the area rugs in the elevators and elsewhere every day? That's because the rugs have the day of the week on them. It was a Friday, so all the rugs said "Friday."

Of course, it also occurred to me that maybe the rugs always say Friday. That would explain why some of the visitors act the way they do when they hit town.

But I also see this as important opportunity.

We should see about providing them with area rugs that say "Today is Friday and Creek Street is not a Street."


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