Exploring Ketchikan, Alaska, by Private Boat
By: Linda Kissam
I’ve been to Ketchikan twice before on a cruise ship. Visiting it by private boat is a whole different experience.
A group of three boats left Seattle together for a fast 12-day trip to Alaska. At the time, the Canadian government was letting US boats in to Canada for the sole purpose of transiting straight through to Alaska. We had to submit a quick action plan to Canadian Customs and be on our way. Each day a government representative would call each of us to assess our progress. No getting off the boat anywhere to explore deserted coves, tiny villages or gas stops along the way. Rafting together, even though we were all vaccinated, was not allowed.
Arriving in Ketchikan was so very welcomed. This was the kick off point to our June – August summer trip and the first bit of freedom off the boat in many days. Tongass Narrows is the lead in to the busting fishing village port. It’s a leisurely entrance of scattered waterfront homes leading in to the main city.
It is also a great place to purchase a sturdy pair of rain boots. Some have a bit of fashion to them, but most are beige colored water stoppers. Ketchikan gets more than 150 inches of rain each year. Its driest month (July) is wetter than Seattle’s wettest month. That’s saying something. I used my boots throughout the entire trip. I was especially thankful for them as I trudged up many a wet slippery gangway on my way to various grocery stores and attractions.
We arrived before the cruise ships so the town was in a “sleepy” mode. Oddly, the float planes were in high form buzzing all around us…in the air and on the water. There is nothing like seeing and feeling a fast arriving or departing float plane drop directly in front of your boat or soar up and over your boat. It’s hard not to want to “duck and roll” when you hear or see them coming.
The cruise ship docks dominate the small slice of about 3 miles of waterfront land that makes up the town of Ketchikan. Ketchikan is a small town, something I hadn’t realized when I was on the cruise ships. I just assumed when I got off the ships that the dazzling large array of shops, sightseeing companies and restaurants went on and on, beyond the place where the cruise ships moor. Not so much.
Private boats like us sail down the waterway until they tie up at the Bar Harbor South Marina. This is a working marina where large fishing vessels stage waiting for the various fishing times to open. Finding a spot to moor is on a first come-first served, only if room is available. We were lucky to find three spots close to each other. This tie up is about one plus mile away from the cruise ships docks, a few blocks from the supermarket center (which includes McDonalds and Taco Time) , a quick walk to affordable dependable bus service, outstanding ER services and a marine (where fishing licenses are purchased) and hardware store. It is about two miles from Walmart. All of these things may seem mundane, but when traveling by private boat, they are all your lifeline for repairs, restocking, sightseeing and refueling.
To get around the town you will walk, use the bus service or there are plenty of taxis to assist. To keep things in perspective walking costs $0.00, a bus is $2.00 and a taxi can range from $8-15 each way. Ketchikan has a number of attractions to explore. Museums such as the Totem Heritage Center, the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center and the Tongass Historical Museum are fairly close to the marina. The Saxman Native Village and Tongass Trading Company are accessible by bus. Bear watching is available at Herring Bay in August and September. The cruise ship center where all the glitzy attractions and Creek Street area are about a mile away and are best accessed by bus, but beware! No cruise ships in , equals reduced or closed shops and restaurants. Honestly, just riding the short loop around Ketchikan on the bus can give you a good view of village life.
Three unique places I think you might like to visit are: New China Restaurant on Dock Street, Forget-Me–Not Chocolates on Main Street and Starboard Frames and Gifts on Dock Street.
Something to consider is that AT&T is the only game in and around Alaska. If you depend upon cell and internet, you will need to switch out whatever current service you are using for AT&T. We were in full consternation mode when we arrived from our Canadian passage, which somewhat accommodated our T-Mobile service, to full-stop coverage in Alaska. Just sayin’. That’s not to say there still weren’t plenty of times even after we switched to AT&T that we found ourselves in the “no service” zones. Accordingly, we certainly were not above floating out away from our three-boat party to search out and circle a “live” area to keep in contact with family, friends, Amazon, investments and so forth. What we did for 21st century communication would likely amaze most.
This also brings to mind what to do about mail when such a long trip is taken. There is a mail stop service in Ketchikan that will receive and hold all packages for visitors at a charge of $2.00 per package. We used the service a lot, bringing in various boat parts, medicine delivery and special groceries.
Speaking of groceries, we quickly learned that supplies are expensive, produce scarce and much of the incidentals are bought up by the fishing fleets. It is a daunting experience to walk in to a grocery store where shopping carts are flying out of the check stands filled up with massive amounts of milk, paper plates, canned goods, frozen pizzas and bottled water. Depending upon opening day fishing schedules, grocery shelves can be easily decimated. I learned to grab things in advance of when I needed them.
We would eventually visit Ketchikan three times during our trip. Once upon arriving in Alaska, once in the middle for major restocking, mail pick up, repairs and a brief visit to the ER, and then as a final staging area for the big trip back home to Seattle through Canada. It’s a great little town and can be best explored, in my opinion, via a private boat.