Ketchikan from a backpacker's point of view

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June 21st 2015
Published: August 2nd 2015
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Backpacking in the Inside Passage

We now headed to Alaska, dividing the trip into two parts, backpacking and ferry hopping for a month in the Inside Passage then car camping with the same small 2 person tent in the interior. Booking a vehicle on the Alaska Marine Highway is prohibitively expensive. Even bringing bikes would have paid for new bikes by journey’s end. We could have driven the Al Can highway one way and in retrospect, that might have been a good alternative. Much of the Inside Passage is not really oriented for backpackers and it took a few false starts to learn the ropes. Our roughest leg was the first stop, Ketchikan.

Flying into Ketchikan at Night

We flew into Ketchikan, the first major port for northbound cruises in the Inside Passage, in the evening on the longest day of the year. Our timing was poor on two major counts – it was a Sunday and after 5pm. We soon learned that all activity centers around the cruise ships and there is very little accommodation for other visitors.

Walking out of the airport terminal with our heavy backpacks, a knowledgeable local told us we had to move quickly to catch the ferry to town. It only cost a few dollars and left sharply every 30 minutes. We hurriedly followed the crowd and approached a few other backpackers about their plans. We wanted to get to downtown and the Visitors Center and they didn’t have any suggestions for us. I tried to use my phone to do some research and found I had no service in Alaska, despite Verizon’s assurances the previous week that I would have no problems. Luckily, Terry’s basic TracFone flip phone worked so we weren’t completely stranded.

How to break the bank quickly in Alaska

Our earlier benefactor came back by and said the bus wouldn’t be running, taxis to town would cost over $30 and we would be better off walking to a hotel across from the ferry, which was only $100 a night and sort everything out in the morning.

We did walk down to that hotel which was about a mile down the road but were then quoted $195 a night. Luckily, the receptionist was kind enough to find us a waterfront hotel for $135 that would be willing to come and pick us up. The bonus was a gorgeous sunset on the ocean, wifi, privacy and a hot shower. It would be our one and only hotel stay in the Inside Passage. Our next night would be in Ward Lake campground as it was supposedly 2 miles from a local bus stop, relatively convenient once we were initially driven to our campsite.

In the morning, we made reservations by phone for one of our pre-determined splurges, a day trip to Misty Fjords, offered by Allen Marine, a well-oiled machine of Alaskan excursions. With the tight time crunch to get set up in somewhat remote Ward Lake and get back to the excursion dock, we arranged to go on the earlier trip and bring along our backpacks.

We resigned ourselves to the $33 taxi ride to downtown and waited for our tour guides to show up. The 24 hour total was starting to be an early budget killer but we were determined to improve!

Sitting there with the heavy backpacks and watching the carefree cruisers disembark in their sandals and day purses, I remembered taking the Inside Passage Cruise with my family several years earlier. I specifically recalled Ketchikan as a charming port with cute little shops along its legendary Creek Street. It was a far different experience as an “independent travel” as we eventually learned we were known.

Misty Fjords Day Cruise

The day trip to the Misty Fjords was well coordinated by Allen Marine. Everyone gets a pair of binoculars and there is a naturalist giving talks throughout and pointing out wildlife and vegetation of note. A Tlingit (Clink-it) Native American artist makes small wooden carvings in a corner and gives a little talk as well. It was such a spectacularly cloudless day, that we never experienced the famous atmospheric swirls that give the area its name. They make a point of slowing down by its famous tiny volcanic island, labeled Eddystone Rock by George Vancouver in 1793, for photos and appreciation.

The unexpected highlight of the cruise was seeing orcas, or killer whales, in the bay. The naturalist explained the large dorsal fin was the male orca and it was thrilling to see the pod close by. As we traveled throughout the Inside Passage, we learned how unusual this sighting was. On our return to port, we began the frills-free portion of our stay.

Ketichikan Locks Down

When we returned from the day cruise, we never did see any of its character as the town literally shuts down after 5pm when the last cruise ship leaves. I went to the Visitor Center to get some information and the young woman asked me what I needed as she was moving around to each door to close up. The public restrooms were locked as well.

Knowing we had to eat something before going to the campground, we raced over to one of the few eateries still open but closing up, a recommended fish and chips joint and called a taxi. The taxi arrived in minutes, the food in 20 minutes, 10 minutes after the taxi, no longer able to wait, asked us to remove our backpacks and drove off.

Without a ride, we decided to make an evening of it and walked down with our packs and food to the dock to eat our meal in leisure. It was actually quite good and we had the area to ourselves except for a few other forlorn non cruise visitors looking for an open store or restaurant, a kid with a fur hat on roller skates and some joggers.

Ward Lake Campground

When we finished eating, we called the taxi back and our original driver returned and took us up to Ward Lake. The bus stop for the Ward Industrial area was not clearly marked as we looked for a campsite. There are several in the area and not easy to find; we found one at the end of the road, Signal Creek Lake, and called it a night.

Realizing we would not be able to hike out with all our gear to catch the evening ferry, we devised a plan to pay for an additional day, prep our backpacks completely, unstake our tent and leave all our things in the zippered tent, ready to quickly dissemble and put in a taxi which we’d take at the end of the day.

We had a bus schedule and were heading down the 2+ mile road the next morning to catch a ride downtown for the starting point of the Deer Mountain hike. The trailhead is at the end of *** Road which starts in Ketchikan. As we headed down Ward Lake Road, we realized it was taking longer than expected and we weren’t perfectly sure of the location of the bus stop.

Terry’s thumb saved us and we were picked by a friendly guy in his pickup, who turned out to be a flightseeing pilot who had brought his dog up to Ward Lake for a walk. He was willing to drop us off downtown but after chatting a while and telling us about the Deer Mountain hike, he said he would go ahead and take us to the trailhead as the walk up the hill to the trailhead was steeper than much of the hike!

We told him we had enjoyed the Misty Fjords ship cruise the day before and he said the best way to see Ketchikan or Alaska in general was by air. That advice was haunting a few days later when we heard that a flightseeing plane had crashed in Misty Fjords, killing the 63 year pilot and 6 cruise ship passengers.

Deer Mountain

The 5 mile Deer Mountain hike is an advanced moderate trek with a lot of uphill sections and some nice viewpoints on the way to an expansive overlook of the town and environs. Our toes were really hurting on the downhill and we thought the worst was over by the time we returned to the trailhead. That’s when we found out how steep the road to town was as we rounded the curves that reminded me of Lombard Street in San Francisco inwardly saying ouch the whole way!

Leaving Ketchikan

It was after 5pm and a virtual ghost town again. Creek Street was shuttered and quiet. We bought some snacks in a giant dockside tourist store that had a convenience section and called the taxi.

Our driver was the second Native American woman taxi driver originally from Prince of Wales, a nearby island. On the road out to Ward Lake, a place she said she and her family often camped, she stopped to pick some Devil’s Claw, telling us how to dry and steep it as medicinal tea. She was very patient as we brought down our tent at our site and dropped us off at the ferry. We left that evening for Juneau via a nearly 24 hour voyage stopping at Wrangell and St. Petersburg and accidentally established one of the best places to stay overnight in the Inside Passage if you’re a backpacker.

Additional photos below
Photos: 10, Displayed: 10


6th November 2015
Formation in Misty Fjord

Such a stunning example of what wedge failure, mass failure and glaciers can go. Not a bad view either......... Hope to see you guys soon!
20th November 2015
Formation in Misty Fjord

Spoken like a true geology geek! :)

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