Chapter 10.  Inner Passage - South

Bert & Shari Frenz, 1998 All rights reserved.

Day 115 - September 3, 1998 - Milepost 8644 (10 today + ferry) - Inner Passage, AK

(Bert) The last time we’ve been in a city that develops film and stayed long enough to pick it up was Soldotna in July. With 10 rolls of film, we head to the mini-mall in Prince Rupert. The cost for Kodak processing is high so we negotiate a better price. When I tell them I wanted seven rolls of two each and three rolls of three each, the owner drops the price from $205 (Canadian) to $136. I accept his offer, leave the film and head to the ferry dock. Shari parks the Pathfinder on a side street while I head RTENT to the U.S. Customs booth. The officer asks me when I intend to return to Texas. "When it cools down," I answer. I received two e-mails from College Station friends that reported 103-degree record temperatures a couple days ago. Pleasantly, ours has been 45 to 60 degrees. Our ferry is the M/V Aurora, a smaller and older ship commissioned October 27, 1977. However, the older ferry has a better loading and unloading procedure since we enter through the stern and exit off starboard near the bow. The newer ferries require backing out the same opening through which we entered - a tricky maneuver with a 35-ft. motorhome and even harder with a 5th wheel or trailer. As we leave the harbor I notice Prince Rupert is a commercial shipping port with lumber being loaded on a ship bound for Taiwan and grain elevators filling Tokyo ships. Fishing boats work their trade in Chatham Sound as we pass Portland Inlet which connects inland to Hyder and Stewart. Our passageway is much wider here at the southern end of the Inner Passage. We’ve picked a good day to be traveling. Although the skies are not clear, the sun often shows through the clouds and our visibility is many miles. Several hours later while Shari and I are playing Canasta - I lead first, then she gains the lead, but contrary to her statements, we do not finish the game - in the cafeteria, I see another ferry approach us. Knowing that Gene and Char are supposed to cross our path today, I take a photo of their ship, the M/V Matanuska, as we pass in the Revillagigedo Channel. We encounter more freight traffic in the channel. An Alaska Marine Lines raft is towed by a tug boat. The open raft holds the container bays that fit on semi-trucks and I am amazed at its capacity. The huge containers are stacked doubly end-to-end and 35 side-by-side. For most of the raft the containers are stacked four high. If filled to capacity the raft would be carrying the equivalent of 280 semi-trucks. This one is about three-fourths full. Near Tongass Narrows we meet a raft of floating logs, pulled by one tug and pushed by another. The surface area of the solid mass of logs must be at least two acres. They are held together by an outer ring of chained logs and a series of cables stretched over the tops of the log raft. I can see a cruise ship docked in front of Ketchikan and I estimate it will be a half-hour before we arrive. I underestimate: it takes nearly an hour to close the distance. Ketchikan is a small port on a big island called Revillagigedo Island. The city is many miles long, but narrow as it builds up the mountain behind it. Although the mountains cap at 2,500 to 3,400 ft., they look shorter from our vantage point in Tongass Narrows. Disembarked, we drive RTENT several miles along the coast and then inland to a new Forest Service campground at Ward Lake in the Tongass National Forest and camp beside Signal Creek.

(Shari) I park the car on the street near the ferry terminal and walk to where Bert waits for me. The ferry, Aurora, is already boarding and, shortly, we drive RTENT down the ramp into the bowels of the ship. The attendant directs us inches from the motorhome to our right and car in front of us. The closeness of our right-hand neighbor, forces us to exit from the driver’s door. The Aurora is a much smaller and older vessel than the other ferries we’ve taken on the Inner Passage. The sun streaming into the windows brightens the shabbiness of the seats and carpeting, however. For the next six hours I read, nap, eat lunch and beat Bert at Canasta. Using my binoculars as we approach Ketchikan, I seek out motorhomes and 5th wheels parked along the street. I rarely do not know in advance where I am going to camp for the night. I am uneasy and uptight. As we drive off the ferry (forward on and off) I tell Bert to turn left away from town. I see many parking places on the street in the 24-hr. zones, but they look too congested. I want to stay within biking distance of town (five miles for me). Unfortunately I find nothing suitable and we look for the US Forest Service Campground at Ward Lake, nine miles away. The road to the campground is brand new and the area reminds me of Williwaw near Portage. We are deep in the rain forest with huge Western Hemlock trees surrounding us. Daylight barely pokes her arm through the dense vegetation. In the midst of this, a small lake, teaming with fish, brightens the landscape. We park next to a stream leading from the lake and can hear the salmon fighting their way up the shallow 6-in. water. Fishing is as great here as it was in Pullen Creek, Skagway; unfortunately the Pinks are in the same condition. A few true fishermen are casting their lures to catch the fish just for the sport of reeling them in to shore. I guess I am not a true angler and find it too bothersome to get out all the fishing gear if, in the end, I have to return the fish to water. After beating Bert at cribbage, we turn out the lights and marvel at the total darkness and stillness of the night.

 

Day 116 - September 4, 1998 - Milepost 8644 - Ketchikan, AK

(Bert) When most people think of the words "Rain Forest," they conjure an image of an exotic tropical jungle. Today we camp in a rain forest, but it is not tropical. The definition relates mostly to rainfall. Ketchikan receives 250 in. annually along the coast and 150 in. inland where we are in the Tongass National Forest. In spite of these record rainfalls, we’ve had none since we arrived and expect none today. As I hike this morning, I am most impressed with the cathedral of trees towering above me. Although there are samples of Alaska Cedar, birch and aspen, the dominant trees are Western Hemlock and Sitka Spruce: tall enough to put a kink in my neck as I look up toward their crowns. Their straight, almost branchless, trunks are massively thick. A small toppled trunk is chest high when I stand next to it. Others, still erect, must be at least 8 ft. in diameter and at the base they spread even wider in buttresses big enough for children’s tunnels and playhouses. The under story is green rich in thorny Devil’s Club, bushy Rusty Menziesia, Huckleberry bushes, Lady Fern and countless Rhubarb shaped plants with elephant ear sized. On yet a smaller scale, flowering dogwood, sphagnum moss, lichens, shelf fungi and mushrooms fill in the remaining gaps. Every square inch is growing and by the size of things, I get the feeling I can see it grow while I watch. Cob webs of thin watery mist tangle tree limbs, condensing into droplets. I follow a raindrop’s route: sparkling tears suspend from leaves, drip on lush plants, mix with the trees’ dark tannic acid, trickle down slopes, seep in my footpath, fill small cavities, drain into Ward Lake, rush past salmon fighting the current of Signal Creek, pour over boulders strewn downstream, dump into Tongass Narrows, flow through Revillagigedo Channel, combine with Chatham Sound and finally join the Pacific Ocean. The water is home to the beaver I see swimming across Ward Lake. Its flat tail drags a hundred-foot wake, a V-shaped ripple that stands above the mirrored surface. Red Squirrels harvest cones from the crowns of Sitka Spruce. I watch one scamper from limb to limb, biting off the drooping fresh cones and letting them tumble through the branches 250 ft. to the forest floor. Standing beneath the cone fall, I count 11 cones landing per minute - an industrious worker. A Stellar’s Jay watches me watch the squirrel. As I hike, he follows. Even in the darkened forest, the iridescent metallic blue black sheen of his feathers flash as he alights within 6 ft. of me. Winter Wrens act uncharacteristically tame also. At even closer approach I watch cocked rooster tails on bobber-sized brown feather balls bounce between branches. High in the trees a high pitched squeaking song blends into background noise. I summon the birds down and four Golden-crowned Kinglets descend from the heights. I call again and they come closer, almost arm’s reach - tiny mouse-sized birds with royal gold crown stripes. There is more to explore, but breakfast awaits. So I return to RTENT.

(Shari) The day looks gloomy to me but Bert says it is beautiful. After breakfast, we walk the mile long path around the lake and indeed the day is beautiful. Once out from under the canopy of trees, the sun shows brightly. The interpretive trail points out that 150 in. of rain fall annually and the climate is temperate. It is cooler here than the Yukon in the summer, but warmer than Indiana in the winter. Everything today is wet and damp. We find Black Huckleberries on a hillside and Bert picks enough for his lunch. We intrude on a Banana Slug out for a morning stroll. Poking him with a twig, we watch as he contracts his black body from 6 in. to 2 in., and retracts his antenna somewhere into his head. We watch more salmon fighting for their last breath. After lunch, we take our bikes down Ward Lake Road. Finding a plethora of berries, we stop every few feet to look at the different varieties. Bert tries to identify each and every one, but is unsuccessful for the first three attempts. Finally he thinks he has found Red Huckleberries. We ask a young man bicycling past what they are and he also says huckleberries. We are in huckleberry heaven and pick the red berries wherever we see them. Back at RTENT, I make them into sauce, which tastes more like cherries than cherries themselves. No wonder this berry is so prized! It is the same size as a blueberry but is firmer and retains its shape when cooked. Yum, Yum!

 

Day 117 - September 5, 1998 - Milepost 8669 (25 today) - Ketchikan, AK

(Shari) After huckleberry sourdough pancakes with blueberry syrup, we vacate the campground today and take RTENT on a sightseeing tour of Ketchikan. Our first stop is Totem Bight State Park, where we learn about the stories behind the carvings on the totem poles. The park has several re-creations of original totem poles on display plus a replica of a Tlingit Clan house. After that visit we take RTENT into Ketchikan. We want to find a spot to park for the night. I see several motorhomes in a Carr’s grocery store parking lot. We drive in and notice the other vehicles have their jacks down. While Bert naps, I go into the store to shop. At the checkout counter, I ask the clerk if they allow 24-hr. RV parking. She tells me it is allowed and people do it all of the time. It looks like RTENT has found a home for the next 2 days. We maneuver into the back end of the lot which edges the bay. Our view is fabulous. We have the judges’ stand for the water parade going past our windows. Cruise ships, float planes, fishing boats, ferries and Coast Guard cutters all go by on their way to and from the city. We are maybe 2.5 to 3.5 miles from the city and will be able to see the nighttime lights of downtown from our window. Ketchikan shopping is paradise. The Labor Day Weekend signals sale time. I cannot resist the bargains and in one short afternoon, we buy another T-shirt, long sleeve shirt, sweat shirt, baseball hat, and seven presents for friends and relatives. Creek Street, not far from the cruise ship dock, is an interesting area. One T-shirt proclaims that this is where the salmon and the sailors come to spawn. Until the 1950s it was the red light district. Today it is a quaint area with original buildings housing shops and restaurants instead of brothels. The buildings are built on pilings high above the creek with a boardwalk connecting them. We return home with tired achy feet. Tomorrow we’ll use our bikes.

(Bert) In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corp. (CCC) started reconstruction of Tlingit and Haida clan houses and totems at Totem Bight, on the coast about eight miles north of Ketchikan. Today when we visit the site, I see the best collection of totems anywhere. Like many other aspects of this Indian society, I’m just beginning to recognize the richness of their heritage and society. The totems tell a story if you already know the story. The story reads from the top down and each of the half dozen or so images is a character or object in the drama. With a key to the designs, I can identify eagle, crow, bear, killer whale, sea demon, woman, etc. Tlingit originally used the Ketchikan area as a summer fishing camp. Ketchikan’s nonnative history is a checkered past. In the 1890s, settlers built a trading post that soon became a wild frontier town with a booming fishing industry. In the 20s, prohibition fostered an active bootlegging operation, gambling proliferated and prostitution commonplace. Alaskan law deemed more than two woman boarders as a house of prostitution, so the women lived singly or in pairs. As Alaska’s largest town and its position as gateway to the territory, Ketchikan was a hub of activity. The cat houses along Creek Street where not closed down until 1954. Now they are reformed as cute tourist shops and quaint restaurants, wooden structures supported on pillars sunk into the creek bed and connected by short wooden bridges. Over the railings I watch Pink Salmon struggle upstream. We are walking through the best of Ketchikan, perhaps the largest collection of shops of any of the coastal towns. All are built next to the cruise ship docks and patronized by the travelers disembarked from the three ships in port. One shop has a map of the U.S. and another of the world. Annually they clear the map and let visitors push pins on their home towns. Since May 6, 1998, a dense mass of 32,000 pins have been inserted. Except for the mountain states, all of the U.S. is a completely covered, as is England, Germany, Japan and eastern Australia. In fact, there is strong representation from everywhere except central and northern Africa, China and Russia. In late afternoon, we hike back through town, past the worn and tattered section where residents live in three-story houses built into the rock hillside and work on the opposite side of the street in aging buildings. Three miles from the glitzy cruise ships, we are parked overnight in a Carr’s grocery store parking lot. RTENT parallels Tongas Narrows, a few feet from shore, and we have a great view of the marine traffic.

 

Day 118 - September 6, 1998 - Milepost 8669 - Ketchikan, AK

(Bert) RTENT rocks in wind pushing off Tongass Narrows. A buoy rolls in white-capped waves, flashing its red beacon at a nearby tug. The tiny tug pulls a big barge, stacked high with lumber. Gray lights of Ketchikan pierce through the gray fog floating over the gray seas, under the gray skies. Outside the comfort behind my fogged window, this Sunday morn looks colder than the 54 degrees registering on the thermometer. Except for the tug and the incessant gulls, 7 a.m. is still and deserted. Cruise ships have vacated, float planes are moored to docks, pleasure boats are invisible. Everything waits silently as the rain picks up and the gray fog closes in. By 10, we decide to test the weather and donning raincoats, we walk umbrellas to First Lutheran Church, a 20 minute stroll. Cheery dryness and friendly people welcome us into a New England style white board building with antique stained glass windows. Pastor Berntson’s style is laid back and conversational, but he hits the mark with his sermon on the personal cost of discipleship. Rain still falls during our hike back to RTENT. One of the parishioners told us to expect the same for the next two days. This weather is more typical for Ketchikan than the idyllic days we’ve just passed. We hole up most of the afternoon, occasionally watching weather through fogged windows. When the rain lets up, we ride our bicycles to Sky Talk, an Internet facility next to the cruise ship dock. For $2.50 we get a half hour of telephone connect time to transfer e-mail. Other patrons are buying time on computers connected to the web. Most of their customers are deck hands on the cruise ships who are getting e-mail from home. We bicycle past shops we visited yesterday, Shari exchanges a sweatshirt and we bike back in light rain.

(Shari) Ten inches of the annual 150 in. of rainfall must have fallen last night. The rain continues all day long as well. If we want to do anything, we have to do it with our raincoats and umbrellas. At 10 a.m. we walk the mile or so to First Lutheran Church, arriving ten minutes early, wet and soggy. As we hang our coats in the narthex, we are welcomed by the official greeter couple. The service seems irreverent to me. Bert calls it casual. The juxtaposition of Pastor Berntson chanting the liturgy and conversing the sermon is odd. The sermon topic, Growth in Personal Discipleship - Measure the Cost, could be more powerful than it is. Maybe it is I, but I feel spiritually unfulfilled as we exit the church into the still pouring rain. It is definitely a nap day and after lunch we both curl up for a snooze. The rain lets up to a drizzle at 4 p.m. Putting on our raincoats again, we bike to the downtown area that offers e-mail service for $2.50 per half hour. We use up our time retrieving and responding to our mail. We return home in drizzle turned into rain. Later in the evening, the clouds break and a double rainbow appears to the south, dissipating the grayness of the landscape. I see a cruise ship heading south as it slowly departs Ketchikan.

 

Day 119 - September 7, 1998 - Milepost 8669 - Ketchikan, AK

(Bert) Ketchikan has more totem poles than anywhere in the world. We’ve already visited those at Totem Bight. Another 33 original poles, houseposts and fragments are at the Totem Heritage Center, all gathered from abandoned Tlingit and Haida villages. Today we bicycle to Saxman, a community three miles north of Ketchikan. Saxman was established in 1894 - named after a nonnative teacher - as a new location for people of Tongass and Cape Fox villages. The Tlingit brought their totems with them and today we see them lining a short street starting at a bay on Tongass Narrows and ending in front of a clan house. The oldest is 106 years; many of them delineate stories. Some are comical, such as the Auntie-Auntie Totem depicting the boy who caught his hand in an oyster shell after failing to take his Aunt’s advice. In a nearby work shed, native Tlingit carry on their carving tradition. I watch Darald DeWitt (K-Kla) and Lee Wallace (Guugwaags) carve large totems. These are commissioned projects, the owners already agreeing to the price and design. Typically, a good carver can complete one totem foot per week. Lee Wallace can often do a foot per day because he has much experience and the training of his father who was a totem carver before him. The going price for a hand-carved totem is $500 to $2500 per ft. One of the poles in process is for the owners of the Indianapolis 500 racetrack. Their pole will cost them $43,000.

(Shari) It is still rainy and gloomy. 9 a.m. looks like 7 p.m. The windows of RTENT have a constant fog on them from the humidity outside and the warmer air inside. Even our salt dispenser has a moisture laden top and caked sticky salt in the shaker. I feel isolated without our car. Many people travel with just their motorhome but they must not go to all the places we do. You just do not hop into the RV to check out the sights. I always ask myself, "Is there parking or turnaround room?" We prefer to park RTENT in a pleasant spot in a central location and then use our car for sightseeing. On flat roads and sunny days, our bikes work too. Ketchikan is neither. Except for the main downtown street, streets here remind me of those in San Francisco. Edmond Street is more a set of steps that slice to the top of the hill. Recent town elders have done a lot to attract outside tourism dollars. Boardwalks, parks, bike paths, totem poles, a civic center, museums, viewing platforms all enhance the city’s image. In spite of my grousing, I can think of worse places to be without a car. We pack a lunch, and bike the estimated 6 miles to the Totem Heritage Center in Saxon, a suburb of Ketchikan. We view original totem poles moved here from all parts of Southeast Alaska. We watch master carvers chisel logs at the carving center. A sign near the artists at work, mentions totem costs at $500 to $2000 per ft. For a price, anyone can have a totem in their front yard. On the return trip, we detour up a hill and eat our lunch at the city park and fish hatchery. The rain returns forcing us to take refuge in the shops. Darn! I have Bert trained now. He has taken an interest in the Beanie Baby craze and is now looking for the mallard duck, one of the newest toys released. The rain slows to drizzle and it is time to hightail it home. I roast a chicken in the oven to keep us warm. After dinner we move RTENT to the ferry staging area and endure the long wait until boarding. The ferry does not depart for Prince Rupert until 1:15 a.m. We read, make popcorn with the generator, and play cribbage to pass the time. Finally it is our turn to board. No matter how often I do it, I always cringe when RTENT hits the ramp entering the ferry. How can a ramp, consisting of such a thin piece of metal at such a slant, hold all our weight? At any moment I anticipate falling into the sea. This time, we make it safely onto the ship. Gathering our own pillows, we climb the steps to the observation lounge to find an almost comfortable seat for the night. We are getting to be experienced old hands at this. Everything is dark and I wait for my eyes to adjust to the dim light before I sit down. I snuggle into a double seat and am almost asleep when a gravelly voice from Star Wars awakens me. The voice will not be quiet and before I shout at it to shut up, I grab my pillow and hunt down the other sleeping areas. None of them are as comfortable so I return to the original place. The troll is still making noises, forcing me to sit in another area as far away from it as possible. Finally the noise stops or I fall asleep.

 

Day 120 - September 8, 1998 - Milepost 8902 (233 today) - Telkwa, BC

(Bert) Shortly after midnight, the M/S Taku arrives in Ketchikan and I drive RTENT down the loading ramp into the car deck. Long before its 1:30 a.m. departure time, I’m fast asleep on the floor of the observation deck. Rudely, I’m awakened by a high pitched gravelly voice that sounds like the ancient Jedi teacher in Star Wars. Without looking up I would judge this lady to be 120 years old and she sounds like she won’t live through the night. Even after her son and grandson say goodnight to her, she continues to mumble nonsense. It must be 30 minutes before I dose off again. Several hours later I get up to walk around, but practically lose my balance. The ship is pitching in unseen waves and when I open the outside door, the deck is awash in pouring rain but beyond the railing I see only blackness. I wonder if I’ll be seasick, yet upon returning to my makeshift bed, I find the rolling ship soothing like a rocking cradle. The next time I awake, it’s morning and we are within sight of Prince Rupert. After docking, we pick up our 10 rolls of developed film and leave Prince Rupert, heading northeast. Doubling back on our previous route, we follow the Skeena River upstream for 180 miles in overcast skies and light drizzle. The river is wide and shallow with a gravel bottom and shoreline. Bald Eagles patrol the lower stretches of the river. After stopping for lunch, Shari drives southeast, following the Buckley River through more open country. Under sunshine and pretty skies, we begin to see farms with recently mowed alfalfa; horses and Herefords graze in green pastures. Shades of brown represent Fall, but the brighter colors are missing. We stop at Telkwa, just south of Smithers, for the night. I spend a couple hours cleaning our vehicles, a task I’ve neglected for several weeks. The car wash is free and we’ve also got electricity, water, sewer, TV cable, laundry and e-mail facilities - luxuries we’ve been without for many weeks.

(Shari) We do not fall into the sea this morning as we travel up the thin ramp, off the ferry. I smile when I see our car still parked where I left it. I expected it to be there but there is always that little nag in the back of my mind that it could be stolen or broken. It starts like a charm and I follow RTENT into town. We park in front of the mini mall (the locals call it a mall, but mall to me connotes 70+ stores under one roof, not 10). Today is the day we promised to pick up our 10 rolls of developed film. Back at RTENT I am so tired that I cannot even look at the pictures. I snuggle under the afghan and sleep while Bert drives. Soon, too soon, he is stopping for gas in Terrace. Terrace has the lowest gas prices I have seen yet in Canada, 47.9 cents per liter. About 100 miles later, we see the sun for the first time in days. Until now, most traffic I saw was RV’s. Today most of the traffic consists of cars. There is a slow steady stream of traffic in both directions on the smooth curvy, hilly road. We parallel the Skeena River for miles but I see no one fishing. It is all catch and release in Canada because of the pitiful number of fish entering the mouth of the rivers. Two years ago, enough fish were coming up, so that the only controls were size, number, and dates. Now, only catch-and-release is permitted. It will only get worse until the over fishing out in the ocean is stopped. Those poor fish do not have a chance against the purse netters out there. We stop tonight at Fort Telkwa RV Park which advertises free RV wash and sauna. We take advantage of the wash but are too tired for the sauna. Everything gets washed: the vehicles, the bikes, our clothes and our bodies. Crawling into clean sheets again is delightful.

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