It would be difficult to imagine a more quintessential Alaskan port town than Ketchikan, with the docks of its downtown hanging over the Tongass Narrows on one side and 3,001-foot Deer Mountain tucking it in on the other. Dense forest rises above the colorful architecture of the streets that sit behind Front Street. The buildings have a fishery-meets-Western town aesthetic.
It’s Front Street — and the red and gray façade of the Ketchikan Mining Company — that greets me as I debark Westerdam on my Alaska Land+Sea Journey. I instantly see how pedestrian-friendly the town is.
I like to walk to edge of towns to get a sense of my boundaries. First I head inland to get a look at the famous (and infamous) Creek Street; the site, which earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, is really a boardwalk with the buildings (the shops were once “dens of iniquity”) on stilts. I pass the multicolored boutiques and little museums; the whitecaps of cold, clear Ketchikan Creek are lapping at the wooden stilts below. Coastal Alaska feels like the edge of the Earth.
Downtown is bounded on the southeast by section that sticks out like a short thumb. With an appetite for fish, I meander as close to the narrows as possible. (On the way, I hear axes striking wood during the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.) Lucky for me that Ketchikan’s economy relies on fishing and welcoming visitors like me — so I know I’m going to eat well. There’s nothing like local fare, and the homey, no-nonsense name of a place on the water — the Alaska Fish House — fits the bill. I approach the counter to study the menu: Dungeness crab, fish tacos, fish burgers. Local and tightly curated. That’s authenticity: Do a few dishes, but do them well. I sense that the signature choices are the various types of fish & chips.
“What do you like?” I ask the counterman. He turns to look at the blackboard. “I like the local halibut.” Confident and decisive. I order the halibut fish & chips and take a seat at a wooden table by the window. When my meal comes out, it’s everything I want it to be: The fish is flaky and fresh inside a golden crust. It’s so good that I trust that the blueberry rhubarb bread pudding will be a quality indulgence, and with its homemade cinnamon whipped cream and caramel sauce melting over the warmth of the sweet, wet bread, it is. Bread pudding is one of my favorite desserts, but I’ve never had it with these ingredients. Alaska does this dish well.
Satisfied and fortified, I hop on Holland America Line’s Saxman Native Village & Totem Park cultural excursion. What is remarkable is how committed the guides and carvers are to all things totem while the modern world rolls on. On the grounds of Saxman Native Village and inside the working Native carving center, we get up close and personal with the exaggeratedly expressive faces on the totems: the enormous eyes, hungry mouths—the humanistic and the animalistic merging. I look close and see that the as-yet unpainted wood contains grains that are as dramatic and delineated as the faces.
Our lesson in Tlingit craftsmanship is followed by a performance by traditional native dancers, who bring to life the emotions — the aggression and grimaces — that are frozen on the totems.
The next day we dock in Juneau, nearly 300 miles from Ketchikan. A water-jet-powered catamaran — with an open bow and stern for viewing the wildlife — has brought me from Auke Bay to Stephens Passage on the popular Whale Quest excursion. When we’re told that a humpback whale can hold its breath for up to 40 minutes, I lower my expectations. I’ve been on whale watches in other parts of the world and have been disappointed by the lack of sightings.
But, happily, as promised, a friendly whale appears to greet us: Flame, a 50-foot humpback. Hayley, the naturalist onboard, can identify Flame by the underside of his tail. Summer is his season to feed in these nutrient-rich waters, she explains, so encountering him was a pretty safe bet.
We get to see Flame several times, perhaps at five- or 10-minute intervals. I stop looking at my watch and scan the sea. We remain quiet enough to hear the inhale; I get goosebumps. When Flame finally breaches the surface, it’s hard to believe he doesn’t know how graceful he looks. His back achieves a perfect curve, and his tail flips up at the end of the dive in a kind of slow motion flourish. I stop trying to take so many photos and experience the air and water with Flame. Stop documenting, I tell myself. Be present.
On his final dive, Flame gets closer than ever. I would have gotten a great shot—but then I would have missed the performance that Flame seemed so keen on showing off.
THAT MOMENT IN ALASKAN WATERS WHEN…
… I learn that a nap is not a nap.
I feel a brief twinge of pity for my co-mammals when I learn that whales don’t have the luxury of being completely unconscious while asleep. (I’ve never been an early riser and I do love my sleep.) “They breathe like us and yet not like us,” Haylee, our Whale Quest guide, says. “We can breathe involuntarily, especially when we sleep. But Flame and other humpback whales have to breathe consciously. Even when they sleep, half their brains are still active so they remember to breathe.” That’s an adaptation in lieu of an alarm clock.
Drew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.