Five Family Adventures in Ketchikan, Alaska

Unique from the day it was discovered by Irish fortune-seeker Mike Martin in the late 1800’s, Ketchikan is a perfect example of Alaska’s love affair with fish, water, and opportunity. Located on a hunk of granite named Revillagigedo Island (or, Revilla, as per locals), Ketchikan is often referred to as “Alaska’s First City” due to its location at the southernmost end of the famed Inside Passage. Cruise ships and Alaska Marine Highway ferries coming from Washington state or Vancouver, British Columbia make Ketchikan their first port of all, causing this city of about 13,000 to swell to twice that many on busy docking days. Alaskans, too, will find Ketchikan a nice change from Interior or southcentral (Anchorage) landscape, arriving by Alaska Airlines to the funky airport on Gravina Island (use those miles, people!). Ketchikan has it all; from salmon fishing to hiking to ziplining through the trees, not to mention fabulous examples of Native Alaskan history scattered throughout the city. Here are five adventures your family might enjoy, should you set your soggy feet upon Ketchikan’s scenic and entertaining streets. Make it a day, or several, as you wander among the rainforest, spot an eagle or two, and take in what it means to be immersed in the history of southeast Alaska.

AK Kid explores animal habitat at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.

Southeast Alaska Discovery Center: Right smack in the middle of downtown, the Discovery Center is part of the Alaska Public Lands Information Center quartet (others can be found in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Tok), and is the perfect place to introduce kids to the climate, critters, and fascinating history of southeast AK. Built in 1995, the center houses interactive exhibits, beautiful examples of native and local artwork, and a stunning series of ecosystems made to look as they would in the dripping rain forests outside. Kids of all ages can take a scavenger hunt, learn about Alaska’s five salmon species, and talk with education staff about animals who call this area of Alaska home. Do not miss an opportunity to watch a video or their promotional slide show in the huge theater, where a state-of-the-art sound system nearly brought me to tears while watching photographs of wildflowers, sunsets, and little bear cubs. Admission is $5 adults/kids 15 and under are free, and the center is open M-F 8 am.-5 p.m.; Sa/Su 8 a.m.-4 p.m.

Some cross-cuttin' action at the Great Alaska Lumberjack Show. Yo-Ho!

Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show: Yeah, they’re silly, but in a good way, and who could resist a bunch of young, suspender-clad bucks showing off their muscle and skill as they set chokers, climb poles, and spin logs over a pool of water? Not me, and obviously not many other people, as the Lumberjack Show packs ‘em in each and every day during the summer season. These fellas are no ordinary bulls of the woods, however; each is a collegiate competitor in the sport of lumberjacking, and these guys know their trees. Chainsaws roared, axes slapped into logs, and crowds cheered on their favorite team. Kids adore the activity and goofy jokes, especially when they win a “cookie” of log sawed off during the competition; adults admire the genuine skill required to pull off such difficult job, especially in the wet climate of southeast Alaska. Each show is about an hour (perfect for youngsters with short attention spans), and runs rain or shine, thanks to a heated and covered grandstand. Tickets are $35/adults, $17.50/kids 3-12.

Totem Bight State Historical Park and Potlatch Park: A few miles north of Ketchikan are two fine examples of Native Alaskan culture and history. Totem Bight is a part of the Alaska State Parks system, and features a replica of a typical Native Alaskan village, complete with totem poles salvaged from a wide range of southeast area communities in the 1930’s. Towering above the already-tall trees, these totems are a reminder of who lived here first and what dedication it must have taken to carve such mammoth story-poles. The Totem Bight site is actually an old Native fish camp, and one could see why, with protected coves available for families to catch and prepare their most precious food staple. Don’t miss a walk through the Clan House, a replica dwelling that could house up to 40 people at a time and featuring beautiful artwork painted and carved into the walls. Take a cruise along the easy trails, too, allowing kids to truly feel a part of the twisted, gnarled trees along the way to the site. If the tide is out, stop by the pools and see what creatures have appeared under the barnacle-covered rocks and take a moment to gaze out upon the calm water and wonder, if you can, how things looked a few hundred years ago.

Clan House at Totem Bight State Historical Park. Note the beautiful fireweed!

Potlatch Park, right next door, continues the theme of Native culture with even more dwellings to explore, plus a great little antique automobile display and some vintage weaponry to impress even me (like it or not, guns play an important role in Alaska). Kids can pop into and around the dwellings, catching a glimpse of life as a Native Alaskan child at home, and walk down to the shoreline to see where canoes might have landed so long ago.  No car? Catch The Bus from downtown for a mere $1 and get off right at the parks.

Aboard the Duck Boat. Purchase a set of duck lips from the narrator and quack your way through Ketchikan.

Ketchikan Duck Tour: Quack. This tour is a fast and interesting way to capture an overview of the city proper, using these amphibious vehicles that are automobile one minute, boat the next. While they advertise themselves as offering “high-speed” touring boats (um, not so high-speed, but that’s okay), the tour takes about 90 minutes from start to finish, and offers glimpses of every nook and cranny of Ketchikan, including the fish hatchery, infamous Creek Street, the docks, and in harbor from water-side. A good narrator is required on such a tour, and ours was so, keeping the jokes rolling and showing off interesting photos of days gone by in Ketchikan. Tickets for the adventure are $38/adults, $24/kids 3-12, under 2 is free. AK Kid really enjoyed this tour more than any other we’ve done, and I suspect it is due to the unique opportunity to ride/float for an hour and a half. That alone made it worth the cost.

Can you spot AK Mom through the raindrops?

Alaska Canopy Adventures: Not for the faint of heart (or those under 70 lbs and 4.5 feet tall, either), ziplining is the hottest tour adventure in Alaska right now, and now I know why. With over 6,000 feet of cable stretched among the canopies of spruce and hemlock trees some 50 feet in the air, these folks teach visitors how to fly. With two separate sets of lines, one suitable for the ‘tweens and/or teens in your party, one for we crazy people, Alaska Canopy provides a safe yet absolutely exhilarating 3.5 hours. Even though the weather was frightful, our guides did an admirable job of pumping up our group of seven, leading us across creeks, over bridges, and into the lush canopy of the rainforest. Simply amazing. Expect to spend around $175 for each zipper, and know you will work for those heart-stopping zips, but the overall experience was amazing and incredibly bonding among my group of strangers. Younger family members, or those who don’t want to zip can take a guided tour along the boardwalks, where feeding bears and eagles make for a pretty nice experience as well. Visit the company’s website (above) for full tour and zip package information.

A town of character(s), Ketchikan. We love it for that.

It may be wet in Ketchikan, but your spirits will be warm and fuzzy after a day or two spent exploring this historic little spot in southeast Alaska. For the latest in Ketchikan adventuring, contact the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau. There’s a host of activities to suit every interest or ability, year-round.

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