SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Biking the lonely 'rurban' wilderness



October 18, 2013
Friday PM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska -
I am always on the look out for mentions of Our Fair Salmon City in the national media. Not that long ago, if you Googled or Binged or Yahooed “Ketchikan” you would get innumerable references to “The Bridge to Nowhere.”                  

Thankfully, that bridge has finally been “crossed” off the national consciousness for the most part, although every so often an editorial writer seems bound and determined to resurrect it – usually in the service of contending some local federally funded boondoggle is truly necessary, unlike that goll-darned “Bridge to Nowhere” way up in Ketchikan, Alaska.

That, of course, does not mean that every time a Ketchikanadian heads Outside the “bridge” doesn’t come up. It does. Cab drivers have exceedingly long memories. But as far as the national media is concerned it is generally yesterday’s news.

Now, if you Google, Bing or Yahoo “Ketchikan” you tend to get travel stories or the occasional mini crime drama and that is probably the way it should be. A recent internet search of “Ketchikan” led me through 45 screens and hundreds of items before the first mention of any “bridge” and that turned out to a State report about one of our aging Tongass Avenue trestles. Fair enough.

So, natch, I was excited to open up a story this week on the USA Today website about "off ship" adventures for cruise passengers in Alaska and Ketchikan was mentioned

The article covered all the usual Alaskan highlights. You can hike glaciers, you can get (not too) close to bears, you can ride dogsleds!!! All those neato things that convince more than a million visitors to sail to Alaska each year.

I remember scoffing a few years back at a group of tourists who were elbowing each other in order to get photographs of a bunch of eagles roosting in a tree down by the canneries.

We who live here tend to barely notice eagles. To us they are as run-of-the-mill as ravens in these here parts. Sometimes you notice them circling high above on the thermals and you think, ooh bad weather is a coming. But in general, they are just part of the scenery that we take for granted.

But when I was later recalling the silliness of the visitors, a wiser friend noted “how many eagles do they get to see in Cleveland?”

Good point. The only eagle most of them have ever seen is on a dollar bill or in a zoo. While we think of eagles as just another local scavenger, they see something else. Something special. That’s why the visitors flock here by the boatload each summer. And that, for the most part, is a good thing.

But, as usual, I digress.

Back to the recent article in USA Today. I as noted it mentioned “Ketchikan” specifically. That in itself is not unusual because nearly all of the cruise passengers to Alaska pass through Ketchikan, either coming or going. It is why we have so many jewelry stores in town. Cruise passengers apparently buy lots of jewelry. Why that is I don’t know. I have some ideas, but that is another story for another day.

What was unusual was the reference to Ketchikan. Especially considering the fact that we in Ketchikan tend to think of Our Fair Salmon City as a more “urban” slice of the Alaska pie.

No, not urban compared to Anchorage, Juneau or Fairbanks. But certainly more “urban” than Bethel, Kwethluk or Klawock.

My son was recently on a sports trip to Prince of Wales and he came back amused that folks over there thought of Ketchikan as “the big city.” But, truth be told, we do think of ourselves as a little bigger, a little more important than perhaps we really are.

In fact, a few years back, I remember how “on step” the locals got when a large business in Anchorage sent flyers to Ketchikan, advertising specials to “Bush communities.”

Well, we are very happy to not be Los Anchorage, but don’t you dare call us “bush.”

Maybe we are some weird Alaskan hybrid. Not rural, not urban, perhaps rurban!

Oops, another digression. My bad.

Anyway, there was a single sentence about Ketchikan in the USA Today article. Here it is.

“Grab a bike in Ketchikan and head out on the highway to gaze at sweeps of the emptiest, loneliest land ever.”


That’s an interesting characterization of these here parts. Is there “wilderness” around here? Sure we are surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of uninhabited terrain. More than 95 percent of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough is Federal Land and most of that is pretty devoid of the handiwork of Man.

But, do you really think the land around Ketchikan, at least visible from the road system is the “emptiest, loneliest land ever?”

“Emptiest, loneliest land ever” conjures up images of some pretty wild country. I think of some of the highways in Nevada for example. The ones where a random cactus is a forest and there are more alien sightings than human ones. Or maybe the surface of the moon. That would be both empty and lonely.  Ever.

Twenty three years ago, when I lived in Wyoming I took to calling it "The Big Empty" because that was some spectacularly "empty" country down there with miles of general nothing between the rare outposts of humanity.

Even in Alaska, you have the Dalton Highway up to Prudhoe Bay. That is some spectacularly lonely territory, especially when your gas gauge is hovering around “E.”

When I think “empty” and “lonely” I imagine some of those treks in the real Alaskan wilderness, where you can have forest fire cover hundreds of thousands of acres and never get within a hundred miles of a habitable dwelling. That is empty.

I envision a snow covered Brooks Range where the closest “help” is hundreds of miles away, on a snow machine, in 50 below zero weather. That is lonely.

Somehow, north and south Tongass are just not that “empty.”

You can see some part of "civilization" from every vista and the hand of Man is around every corner. Heckfire, you are driving on a paved highway for goodness sake.

At the very least, we have a lot of eagles to keep visitors company and you are never any further than 18 miles from the nearest jewelry store.

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