Off the Grid in Southeast Alaska
“Don’t be scared to walk alone. Don’t be scared to like it.”
I had been carrying this quote in my head for several weeks. I was finally traveling to Alaska to visit my youngest son who works at a remote fishing and hunting lodge in Southeast Alaska.
I had never traveled alone.
I had never stayed overnight in a hotel alone.
The entire trip spelled out adventure.
The journey to my destination was not just a hop, skip, or jump. Not counting airport and tarmac time, my flight time alone from Indianapolis to Seattle, with a landing in Las Vegas, was seven and a half hours. There, I recovered my luggage and checked into Alaska Airlines for the two-hour trip from Seattle to Ketchikan. The plane landed on a strip of land which houses the airport and runway and is separated from the main town of Ketchikan by the Tongass Narrows. Notice the word runway is singular. I called the hotel I was booked into and they assured me a cab was on its way to pick me up. I walked down the ramp to the ferry dock and boarded the ferry with my rollaway suitcase and backpack in tow. It was a short trip across to the opposite shore where I found the Sourdough cab and the driver ready to take me to The Gilmore Hotel.
At this point I caught a glimpse of where the slogan “The Last Frontier” comes into play. My driver was my age I suspect, but lifestyle and climate or the lack of a good moisturizer belied that fact. She wore a fur hat, not unlike Davy Crockett’s coonskin hat, and a long feather trailed down the side of her long hair. She threw my suitcase in the back and said I could ride up front if I wanted. My son had recommended The Gilmore and suggested I have dinner at the adjoining restaurant, Annabelle’s. The Gilmore is a historic boutique hotel built in 1927. There are 34 rooms on three floors. No elevators. It was at this point, I was thankful I had packed light for the trip. My suitcase weighed 41 pounds, including nine pounds of wine. I am going to stick to the story that my son had requested I bring it along.
The hotel overlooks the waterfront and sits amid rows of shops that cater to cruise ships. Ketchikan is noted for its famous Creek Street, once the home of brothels during the Gold Rush days. I carried my suitcase up to the second floor and immediately felt relieved and a little afraid at the same time. I decided to freshen up and get outside to stretch my legs.
My son had suggested some shopping spots so I walked across the street and within five minutes of looking around realized that I was nearing zombie mode from the long day of traveling. I had just experienced a four-hour time change too. I walked back to Annabelle’s and was soon seated in a warm dining room glistening with wood paneling and a saloon-type bar that I suspect has heard some fine stories told over the past century. I ordered a delicious dinner of halibut and chips and washed it down with what was soon to be my favorite beer, Alaskan Amber. As I sat there and calculated just how long my day had been, how little food I had eaten that day, and how tired I was, I decided a piece of carrot cake would be the perfect end to my day.
The next morning I headed downstairs early enough to make certain I was back at the airport in time to catch my flight to Klawock.
As I approached the check-in desk, I noticed an old cigarette butt on the countertop. Working at the desk was a young mother-to-be. She followed my gaze and saw the old butt as well. Without a word, she slid her hand up and moved the cigarette to behind the counter. I explained that I needed a cab back to the airport and she replied it was all set up and they would be here shortly. I sat down on the bench to wait.
At this point I will tell those reading this story that I had met and had conversations with two men and a woman aboard my flights so far. One guy was envious of the trip I had ahead as he enjoyed the sport of fishing. The other man was traveling to bring home his daughter who had spent a year on a marine biology lab with AmeriCorps Vista. The woman was going on a cruise and attending her friend’s wedding that was to take place on a glacier. I also had a lively conversation with a man on the ferry ride from the airport. He had lost his job when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and told me how by accident he came upon a job that involved a lot of traveling. He explained he serviced the lifeboats on the ferries in Ketchikan and all over the world. I was sitting on the hotel bench thinking about these people when a man walked through the door. He approached the young lady at the desk and asked her if she had his cigarette. She moved the butt up from behind the counter and he thanked her and turned towards the door. Then he turned back. “Hey! I think my cigarette was bigger than this one!”
After assuring him that it was his cigarette, he left. I asked her if he was homeless and she said yes, and explained he stops in often. Soon our conversation led to her moving here alone after finding herself living in a car and expecting a baby. She was grateful she had found this job and had family to live with. Soon, we saw our friend walk by with a brand new cigarette and a smile on his face. I was thinking how different each person’s journey in life is and what determines our happiness when the Sourdough cab pulled up in front of the hotel.
Evidently the hotel miscommunicated to the driver my destination because I found myself standing at the Alaska Marine Highway ferry terminal. As good fortune would have it, it was not raining in Ketchikan for the five or six minute walk I had to pull my luggage down the street. Determined not to let this tiny mistake control my day ahead, I figured it was good to get some walking in after the previous day of sitting during airline travel.
I caught the ferry to the airport and checked my baggage. This part stinks as you have to declare your weight. Small planes account for every pound they carry on board. It became obvious that I was among locals heading home. Alaskans tend to like having their state to themselves. I found out the locals generally keep to themselves. The propeller plane held nine passengers plus the pilot. As I sat waiting for the crew to walk us out to the plane, a man was curled up asleep against the wall. No one but me seemed to think this was unusual, so I pretended to look calm. Later, I overheard him chatting with fellow passengers and he said he had been working all week, had filled his suitcase with groceries, and owns a car he parks on a hill near the airport. He sleeps in the car. He offered the use of his car to these people when they come to town and they were excited about this prospect. I had a long running list in my head of questions I wanted to, but would not, ask. Where do you hide the key to the car? What do you do for a restroom? Don’t you get cold? I am thinking this is where tough people live when they announced our flight was ready to go.
The two girls who checked our luggage and another guy led us out onto the airstrip where we loaded into the plane. Following the lead of my fellow passengers, I fastened my seat belt. The pilot, who looked a bit like a younger Robert Redford (I was liking this part), climbed in, waved to the crew outside, logged something in his journal, and started the plane. No “welcome aboard,” no “fasten your seat belts,” no need to point out a life jacket or emergency exit I guess! I swallowed hard and hoped when and if we landed, it wouldn’t be a crash landing.
The first half of the flight was amid clouds and a tad unnerving. The last forty minutes provided a spectacular view of mountains covered in trees, with paths of old logging trails winding among them. Island upon island was visible and the color of the water was the perfect blue. It came to my mind that this was indeed the last frontier. I imagined natives camped along the streams and miners and loggers of years past making their way down below me. I kept my eyes fastened to the vastness in total awe of the picture God had painted. Little did I know at that time, this was just the beginning!
The pilot proved to be assured and quiet as his landing was a perfect one. I spotted my son standing among a handful of people awaiting our flight outside Klawock Airport which is about the size of a mini barn.
It was mid-morning as we jumped in the Tahoe with my luggage and drove to a waterfront cafe. The place was spotless and served a fabulous breakfast. As I relayed my trip so far, my son exclaimed that I had exchanged more conversations with people in the past 24 hours than he had in the past year!
We made a few stops at the local grocery store, sporting goods store, and liquor store. I overheard some young men who had been working for months at a dry logging camp. My son explained that alcohol and drug bans were very common as the people running the camps wanted to make sure everyone was as productive and safe as possible. We traveled on winding roads with spectacular views at every bend, and came upon a huge rock in the side of the mountain that was carved by a glacier. It was as smooth as ice. We spotted deer along the side of the road and amazingly, they just stood and watched vehicles pass by. A couple of hours later, we arrived at Naukiti dock where we loaded my luggage and our supplies into the boat.
We made a short stop to visit Jim. Jim lives on a float house and the best way for me to describe Jim is to compare him to Grizzly Adams. Jim is probably close to 70 years old. He is an old logger who decided to stay in Alaska after retirement. To say he is a tough guy would be an understatement. Health care facilities are not readily accessible and if you live here, you better be prepared to take care of yourself. Last year, Jim discovered he had an infected tooth, or two. I was told he downed some whiskey and with pliers in hand jerked out his two front teeth. Now, who can say this is not a tough old bird?
The last leg of my journey involved about an hour ride in the boat to the float lodge in Sea Otter Sound off Orr Island. There are 1,000 islands named and about 1,000 unnamed in this area surrounding Prince of Wales Island. I am proud to say that I was able to identify a few by name by the end of my trip. Listening to these islands’ names and the stories behind them soon became one of my favorite parts of our daily boat rides.
As we traveled along on the water, we spied countless birds and sea otters. The water glistened like glass and the mountains and sky framed the ocean. I wanted to capture this on film and, while many photographs were taken, none do the beauty of Alaska justice.
We rounded the bend and entered the cove where the float lodge, a rustic ranch-type home with a porch spanning the entire front of the house sat cozily in the back of the cove. My son pointed up to a tall evergreen tree and there sat a bald eagle. Floating out in the water was a sea otter. While putting away groceries, I spied two deer on the bank outside the kitchen window. As we took a walking tour of the float and the out buildings, a kingfisher swooped down over us, raising a ruckus because we were most likely close to its nest.
Sitting before the woodstove that evening, I felt the tiredness of my body. It is not a quick trip to paradise, but there I was, off the grid.
I wasn’t scared, and I was indeed liking it.