SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Hear That Lonesome Whistle
By Dave Kiffer


October 04, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - Several years ago I was working at KRBD and I got a pretty funny phone call from one of the federal agencies that deal with transportation safety. I can't remember which acronym it used.

On the line was a nice young woman asking me if we had run the public service announcement they had sent a couple of weeks earlier. We usually got somewhere between 20 and 30 different national or statewide PSAs in the mail each week (no internet then) and rarely ran more than a couple of the national ones.

jpg Marine Ferry Taku

The Taku in the East Channel on its way south earlier Saturday evening.
Photo by Ketchikan photographer Carl Thompson -

I didn't remember the particular PSA until she started talking about the importance of railroad crossing safety. Then the light bulb went off.

I remembered laughing with the rest of the staff about how idiotic it would be to promote railroad crossing safety in a community that had no railroads or railroads (I was disregarding the small industrial railroad at the pulp mill, I was pretty sure the folks in Ward Cove were promoting safety around that one.).

I tried to explain to her that we just weren't in "railroad country" around these here parts, but she would hear none of it.

"Really," she said at one point, starting to get exasperated. "This is a big safety issue, especially in rural areas like yours. You must hear them when you lie in bed at night. I do."

But here in Ketchikan, I tried to explain, I didn't. Finally, I gave up and told her we'd run the radio PSA. We did. One time.

Sure enough, some goofus called up the station. He claimed his name was "Boxcar Willie."

"Just thought you'd want to know," he said, snarkily. "There ain't no trains 'round here."

"We have listeners in Prince Rupert," I snarked back.

Hey, at least I knew what a railroad was.

A "joke" had made the rounds in my sixth grade class at Houghtaling many, many, many moons previously.

It was the one that starts out "Railroad crossing look out for cars, can you spell that without any r's?"

The trick is that the listener can't spell railroad and cars without "any r's" but they don't realize that you actually asked them to spell the word "that."

I told it it to my good friend Brucie. Brucie had never been off the island in his 12 years of life. He looked puzzled.

"That," I said. "Can you spell 'that.' T-H-A-T. Don't you get it?"

He shook his head.

"No," he said. "What the heck's a railroad?"

So it goes.

I was thinking about trains a few days ago when I was having dinner with my family at Jeremiah's.

No, despite all the chaos taking place nearby on Tongass, the DOT was not laying down train tracks.

But I was looking out the windows at the state and IFA ferries coming and going across the street. It was a busy evening in the waters off what locals used to call Charcoal Point.

While Ketchikan didn't have trains to leave "their lonesome whistles" in the night, we did have ferry boats providing the same sometimes mournful midnight refrain.

In the old days, ferries used to blow their horns as they passed town heading for the terminal. To let folks know they were in because it wasn't all that often that they were adhering to the printed schedule.

And old-timers will tell you that the ferries always seemed to be arriving in the "wee" hours. No matter where the Blue Canoes were headed to or headed from, they always seemed to be arriving in Ketchikan sometime between 2 and 4 am.

The arrival whistle was not only mournful, but it was usually loud enough to wake up everyone along the waterfront. And God forbid if it was foggy. The foghorn would rattle the windows of Ketchikan for an hour as the Malaspina, Matanuska or Taku would edge its way to the dock.

Since the horns would rattle our windows near Bar Harbor, I never thought of them as mournful. But they made me sad nonetheless.

I was born with the traveling gene and - to me - the ferries meant someone - obviously not me - was going somewhere. Even if it just meant Wrangell or Prince Rupert, it still meant that someone else was taking a trip, was on the whale road, was cruising the marine highway., was getting "out of Dodge."

It made me wistful for the adventure that was taking place in those staterooms and in the solarium. It made me wish I was pretzeled up in one of those lounge chairs or laying in a sleeping bag in the aisle.

They could be going somewhere fun! Somewhere warm! Somewhere that didn't have 157 adjectives for rain!

Okay, so Wrangell and Petersburg weren't exactly Washington or Paris, but - hey - once you got headed out, who knew where you would finally end up?

The only reason I was in Ketchikan was because my ancestors couldn't stay put elsewhere. Like I said, I had the traveling gene.

Although I wasn't trapped in a cell like Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" killer, I was trapped on dear Revillagigedo. The ferry boats represented an escape, albeit a slow and stately one (36 hours to Seattle!).

In later years, the jets leaving Gravina would elicit a similar wistful feeling (90 minutes to Seattle!) but the ferries still gave me a greater sense of sadness.

More like the lovelorn character in "Blues In the Night" (hear that lonesome whistle, whooo eeee!).

Maybe it's because the jets blast off quickly in a roar of engines, zipping up into the clouds, while the ferry boat - especially its lights at night- seems to linger at the edge of the horizon, tantalizingly close but moving farther away each second ike some galaxy you will never get to visit.

And I'm still not on it.


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

Dave Kiffer ©2006

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