When we stepped off our boat at 7:30am the town was peaceful and quiet. Our little boat of 130 contained the only tourists in town. By the time we left at 11:30am, Ketchikan had reached the frenzy of a shopping mall the weekend before Christmas. Three large cruise ships had arrived and we heard that two more were on the way. Ketchikan is a cute little town, although it has acquired more T-shirt and jewelry shops than we remembered from last time. Clearly the myriad tourists appreciated this opportunity to shop, but I fear that Alaska may be suffering from the same problem that faces our national parks - being loved to death. The tourist population outnumbered the locals three to one. A positive factor is that at the end of the day, we all leave and little residue is left behind.
As we sailed away we enjoyed a lecture from an Indian artist on board, whose job it is to illuminate us about his art and culture. He talked about potlatches, a term I had heard before, but really did not understand. A potlatch is a gathering of invited guests which can be extended family or people from other villages, depending on the intent of the host. They are held for official tasks such as naming a child, or claiming a new song or dance that a member of the tribe has created. It could also be held to honor the memory of someone who had died. It is the responsibility of the host to shower his guests with gifts at this gathering. When they accept the gifts, they are accepting the responsibility of bearing witness to whatever official business occurs at the potlatch. In the past gifts may have been blankets, pots, or masks, but these days could be cash or a BBQ grill. Potlatches can go on for days and the guests must be fed and hosted throughout this time. It is an occasion where tribal history can be reviewed. Doubtless this developed before the tribes had written language and was the way they could record important events and relationships. As he talked it made me think of confirmation, bar mitzvah, and coming out parties all rolled into one.
Then we visited Misty Fjords National Monument
, an isolated piece of real estate set aside by Jimmy Carter. The handful of park rangers who administer it live on a floating barge and kayaked to our ship and came on board to narrate our trip into the fjord. This fjord had ice bergs in it perhaps a thousand years ago like the ones we had seen the last few days. It was interesting to see how mother nature had begun to cover the deep gashes the ice had carved into the rocks with plant life. The punchbowl area (see photo) was especially dramatic. This park is very remote and gets very few visitors a year. The rangers said that one third of their job responsibility is serving cruise ships like ours. The end of the fjord was very narrow, so only small ships like us can make it to the end.