Uninitiated in Alaska, Ketchikan

An Alaskan cruise is a fantastic idea for adventurous, ambitious, organized types. Of course adventurous, ambitious, organized types have fun anywhere they travel. I’d like to tell you about Alaska from the perspective of the laid back, apathetic type. You wake up in sunlight even if you happen to wake up early. You don’t need to compete with the crowds that seem desperate to leave the ship as soon as allowed for their zip-line, wildlife viewing and sea plane tours. Instead, plan on a leisurely breakfast at the buffet on the Lido deck before going ashore. Meander off the boat in Ketchikan at about 9:30 am and your first view is of a giant hill with a paved road leading up a gorgeous snow covered mountain. This will be the adventure for the day. At the top, approximately 100 yards and 30 minutes later you find a lovely state penitentiary and marvel at the view the inmates might have. You quickly rethink any idea of staying however, when it occurs to you there are probably no windows. From here all roads lead into wilderness with only a sparse few homes. By this time, you’ve worked up an appetite and a thirst and are already pondering the eating and drinking portions of your adventure. As you turn around, your eyes are drawn to a free souvenir opportunity underfoot. We will coin the term Alaskan cobblestone (otherwise known as slate fragments). It may not fit in well with your existing European cobblestone collection residing on the fireplace mantel. The squares of slate are flakier than their dense and rigid European cobblestone counterparts, but they are natural and therefore diverse and interesting and free, did I mention free.

You will find that even without aiming for adventure, your excursions will be speckled with brief moments of excitement. Your first adrenalin rush comes when you turn around to face downward and realize that the slope is much closer to 90 degrees than you had originally suspected. There is no snow or ice, but you have a twinge of regret that you are not the organized type and are therefore wearing street clogs instead of hiking or running shoes for the impending descent. Too bad about the snow, sliding down on your butt might have been a good option. You quickly realize that walking is not a realistic possibility and move to plan B which is running with your ‘brakes’ on. You lean back and bend your knees to keep your weight toward your backside in case of a fall. You grit your teeth as your smart ass brother scampers past muttering something about not being faster than the bear just faster than the slowest person in the group.

Next stop, trinket store, unless an eating and drinking establishment happens to intervene. The goal of the trinket store stops is to test the hypothesis that every store in every small town you visit has the same items for sale. This requires looking in at least 2 or 3 stores at every stop and I won’t ruin your fun by giving you the answer. Another goal is to prove that if you buy an item at one stop, the subsequent stop will have the same item for at least 10% less. The reverse is also true. If you fail to buy an item at any one stop, the item will cost 10% more at all subsequent stops. I’m not sure how the stores arrange it. Clearly they have an elaborate system for keeping track of customers and their purchases at every possible trinket store. The trinket stores are especially easy to find in Alaska. Walk off the boat and look in all directions. Mostly you see wide open spaces, gorgeous mountains, large bodies of water, trees, wildflowers and sparsely distributed homes. But in one particular direction you will see a dense collection of buildings. This is your destination. In Ketchikan your task is made even easier by a large sign stating “This way to downtown” that is posted over one of the largest stores. Once through the first store, walk quickly past the vendors offering local tours, these tours require not only money but initiative. It is now ‘beer thirty’, so the uninitiated are ready for the eating and drinking part of the excursion. The first pub is contains only a bar, a few two-person tables and a love seat with a coffee table. The bartender’s tip jar says “bartenders vacation fund”. You order your first Alaskan amber and decide that this is your provisional ‘go to’ drink while in Alaska. The uninitiated like to keep their choices simple and reproducible. For those of us without Y chromosomes, potty stops are a priority. Luckily this small pub is attached to a wine and liquor store so when you ask the salesperson where the nearest restroom is. She explains that it is out this door, up the stairs and around the corner to the left. This is overwhelmingly complicated, so you decide to finish the beer before attempting the feat. Eventually, your quest for a bathroom proves much less demanding than it sounded and leads to another wonderful window shopping adventure. You walk through the craft area and admire the quilts and such during your walk to and from. Uninitiated ‘shopping’ does not require any slowing down or stopping while viewing items for sale. We are not here to buy, but to test our hypothesis and to admire overpriced items. After assessing the atmosphere, music and eating and drinking options of a particular establishment you are ready to ‘relocate’. Stop briefly to photograph the crossing guard, but she will need assurance that you’re not going to do anything ‘weird’ with the photograph. The next stop is food. At the restaurant across the street, the smoked salmon chowder is outstanding, so on your first day you have already discovered your ‘go to’ food option. This happy coincidence will eliminate the need for any effort with regard to future food and drink decisions, a definite plus for the uninitiated.

In most tourist locations, a place that catches your eye will be the pub with the outdoor seating and view of the water/mountain/downtown area. These will be heavily populated by tourists and are always a good destination in spite of the overpriced, uninitiated menu and the overworked, underappreciated staff. Of course a total lack of food is not great when choosing a drinking establishment. The Happy Bears saloon is a must see, even though the music is a bit loud and the lady GaGa selection a bit annoying. The bartender does not seem interested in my marketing ideas for increasing liquor sales at 11 am. Food and drink stops are great opportunities for gathering tourist information. The Happy Bear bartender mentions that the divey Burger Queen across the street has wonderful food. You wander across the street, but your party is distracted by the Asylum bar next door, so you wander in and order beer until the bartender directs your attention to a better suggestion called a Fuze (foo zee). This is a long island ice tea like concoction containing watermelon chunks. Uninitiated travelers occasionally appreciate learning experiences, so you order a Skinny Girl margarita. You also agree to taste the salmon flavored vodka. You now have two new experiences under your belt that you will not have to repeat -EVER. After a brief discussion about a deadliest catch boat and the crew that occasionally stop by and another discussion about the difference between the ‘in patient’ and ‘out patient’ restrooms inside the bar, you are ready to eat. On cue, the bartender pulls out a menu for the Burger Queen next door. Turns out they will deliver your order directly to the bar, removing the need to relocate. Any kind of fish is a good option in Alaska and anything fried is a good option anywhere, but sometimes the uninitiated prefer a simple burger and fries. This is what they know after all. The good news is that the bartenders all know your ships schedule better than you do and they are ready for you to leave so they can shut the doors of the bar in order to continue their own private ‘locals only’ party where they will talk about you and your obnoxious cohorts. Your bartender, who is now drinking at the stool across from you will gently remind you when it is time to leave. You return to the boat, hopefully in time for either another meal on the Lido deck or happy hour at the Ocean bar aboard the Amsterdam. It’s been a great first port.


Photo:  Asylum Bar