SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Thankful We Survived Again


December 05, 2008

Ketchikan, Alaska - Well, we made it.

jpg Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer

We survived "Thanksgiving."

No, not the Kiffer Clan.

Although - with our far flung political and religious beliefs - at our family get-togethers it's always "touch and go" which will get carved up more, the avian turkey or one of the human ones!

But, as usual, I digress.

To be honest growing in Ketchikan has accustomed me to expect the worst on Thanksgiving.

A lot of people have wonderful "homey" memories of Thanksgivings past.

All the relatives huddled around the table, lobbing the mashed potatoes and jellied cranberries back and forth. And arguing the relative merits of "white" and "dark."

I - on the other hand - was raised in Ketchikan, so my Turkey Day memories are a little different. I wistfully recall hurricanes and power outages.

There was a period in the 1960s - my formative years - when just about every Thanksgiving was accompanied by disasters, natural and otherwise.

Actually, there was a period of about five years in the mid to late 1960s in which every Thanksgiving featured near or above hurricane winds.

The first one I have much of a memory of was 1965. I can't remember how windy it was, but I do remember that we lost a bunch of shingles off the roof. And my father had some remarkably profane things to say about that.

In 1966, the wind was blowing so hard that spray from the water front was hitting our house. We lived on First Avenue and the beach was on the other side of Tongass then. Later I was told the wind topped 100 mph, but that may have just been a guess. We didn't lose any shingles that year, but a house on the other side of Jefferson lost its entire roof.

It also goes without saying that these windstorms really put a damper in Thanksgiving meals because they caused power outages. It was beginning to seem like cold turkey was on the permanent Thanksgiving Day menu in Ketchikan.

In 1967, the obligatory high wind Thanksgiving was accompanied by an unusually high tide. I seem to remember it approaching 19 feet. Anyway, Tongass Narrows "approached" all the way over Tongass Avenue. Some small houses at the corner of Jefferson and Tongass flooded. I remember that we were thankful that it didn't quite reach up to First Avenue. I was more fascinated that the water was several feet deep in the "Toot and Tell" drive through which was then at the foot of Jefferson. Thenext year "the weather" would take care of that.

In 1968, we got hit by the "mother of all storms" to use a phrase from more modern times. Actually what we called that little "blown-in" was the "Great Thanksgiving Day Storm of 1968."

I have heard rumors that it may have been topped by another Thanksgiving Day Storm in 1984, but I was in California that fall, so I have no first hand knowledge.

I do know that in 1968, the Daily News later reported that wind gauges in the area whipped apart at speeds topping 130 mph

The storm of 1968, I remember very clearly.

First of all because, as some point early in the morning, the entire roof of the "Toot and Tell" Drive (it was shaped like one of the A&W Root Beer drive ups) flipped over and began crunching its way down Tongass Avenue.

I also remember the big storm because I getting a whole bunch of teeth pulled out when it hit.

In those days, it was not unusual for the traveling orthodontist to schedule appointments on holidays and I was in the dentist chair downtown at around 10 am on Thanksgiving. I was getting a bunch of teeth pulled because it had been decided that would be the best way to handle my "orthodontia" needs. I was not to get braces, but I was to lose half a dozen teeth in two different visits. Rather that showing "metal" when I smiled, I would look more like Grandpa Jesse when he forgot to put in his false teeth, which was most of the time.

Oddly enough, even though the wind was gusting hard enough to make it difficult to walk from the car to the dentist office, the power had not gone off yet (thanks for nothing, KPU!).

Sometime later, as the building continued to shake in the wind, we heard a loud crashing sound. I would later find out that it was the two-hundred-foot communications tower (we called it the KTKN tower) crashing down on Inman Hill.

About that time, the lights in the dentist office began to flicker and the orthodontist announced that he was closing down for the day (My teeth had already been pulled, thanks again for nothing, KPU!).

We drove carefully home through the nearly empty streets. I say nearly empty because no one else was out driving. But the streets were pretty filled up with all manner of flying debris. My father had to slalom his way down Tongass Avenue around skiffs, roofs, fire hydrants, just about anything that hadn't been tied down that morning.

Natch, as soon as we got home, the power went out for good. More cold turkey for the Kiffers.

The next day, the damage was really apparent. The "Toot and Tell" was pretty much destroyed (it would reopen later on the other side of Tongass at the foot of Adams Street - where the Galley is now).

Plenty of other businesses had their windows blown out and their marquees turned into pretzels.

It seemed like about half the boats in Bar Harbor were either swamped or had come loose and pinballed each other.

Two other two-hundred-foot-high communications towers had also collapsed across the street from Houghtaling School. The only tower to survive the hurricane was the old gray White Alice (ACS) tower that still towers over the west end near the KPU building.

Numerous houses had lost parts of their roofs. Just about every tree in town had lost its leaves and many of the trees themselves were knocked down into the roadways. It took several days for the power to go back on to all parts of town.

What was also striking was the amount of other tree "blowdown" there was. Thousands of trees were peeled back on all the nearby hillsides as if a giant boot had squashed them flat.

A Forest Service survey later estimated that more than 1 billion (yep billion!) board feet of timber was knocked down by that storm in the region. That amounted to more than 18,000 acres of trees, give or take.

The next year we were very thankful when only a 70 mph storm hit Ketchikan. Damage was limited, but of course the power still went out.

In 1970, there was also a storm of sorts but it may have only been in the 50-60 mph range. Anyway, we barely noticed it. KPU - of course - took notice. The power went off around 10 am, again.

At some point, in the early 1970s, we stopped having big windstorms on Thanksgiving.

But to commemorate past storms, KPU kept up the holiday tradition of power outages. For the next several years, you could pretty much tell when everyone popped their turkey in the oven. At that point, there would be a massive brownout (usually sometime between 8 and 9 in the morning) followed by sporadic outtages and finally the grumbling of a thousand cooks as the lights went completely out.

As usual, the Kiffer clan was ahead of the curve. At some point in the late 1960s, my parents started the holiday tradition of cooking the turkey the night before Thanksgiving.

Then the next day, we'd warm it up on the wood stove in the basement if need be.

And everything was fine. Until the year that my Dad decided to use an electric knife to carve the turkey. But that is another holiday horror story.

Too bad KPU didn't have an outtage that year.


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

Dave Kiffer ©2008

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