Back on the good ship Columbia. Of all the places I’ve left in the last few months, leaving Ketchikan was the hardest. It was always the aim of my trip, originally the plan was to get there overland from Buenos Aires. Well, that didn’t quite work out, but nevertheless, I got there. I made it. Look at it on a map, seriously, do it, 7 months ago I was in Ushuaia. Look where that is and look where Ketchikan is. It doesn’t matter that I “cheated” and flew a big chunk of the middle, even coming from San Diego up to there overland is more than most Americans will ever do.
But that aside, leaving the place itself has hit me hard. I don’t have a very big family and having 3 of my 5 cousins living in the US, one of them in Alaska, it has been in my consciousness for a long time. Up until a couple of years ago I hadn’t seen Valerie (my Alaskan cousin) since 1986 and something like only 5 times in my life, so getting up there and seeing it and her was a big deal. It’s been such a great experience on 2 levels.
Firstly the place itself is beautiful and wild, outside of the largely fat and clueless tourists from cruise ships crawling up and down the dock, barely touched by tourism. I was very lucky with the weather (locals kept telling me how it was the best summer for 20 years), and have been fishing twice (and ate my catch), flown on a float plane over Misty Fjords National Park, driven a 4 wheel-drive buggy along old logging roads, seen bears plucking salmon from a river, eagles swooping down, taking fish from the sea, whales breaching, sea otters looking cute, salmon leaping upstream and countless other incredible sights. It all seems so once-in-a-lifetime like.
And secondly, I’ve spent time with my cousin and seen where she lives, seen what she has done, tasted what she has lived through, and bugger me, it’s one hell of a story and one hell of a place. It’s kind of hard to forget when in Ketchup itself, but this place is seriously isolated (literally). It’s on Revilla Gegido island and can only be reached by boat (from the south it is 6hrs from Prince Rupert in Canada or 38hrs from Bellingham in Washington State, from the north, the nearest large town is Juneau nearly 24hrs away) or by plane (2hrs from Seattle or Anchorage). There’s only 30 miles of road, and it just stops at each end. It’s wild. The week before I arrived a bear walked through her back garden. A bear. People here don’t bat an eyelid about bears. I do. Lots of eyelids.
Ketchikan is big round here, referred to simply as “town”. After I’d been there a week we caught a 3 hour ferry to Hollis on Prince of Wales Island, drove 45 minutes to get to the town of Craig where Valerie’s husband Michael is building a bank. Not quite single-handedly, he has Jimmy and Matt, but the 3 of them are building a bank. He builds lot of things. Anyway, Craig was mighty change from Ketchikan, smaller of course, but much more of a frontier town. I felt very self-concisous driving round in Valerie’s “normal” car. We didn’t have a pick-up, we must have stood out a mile. And it’s beautiful, surrounded on all three sides by the sea, backed by huge mountains covered in pine forest (apart from the bits that have had the hell logged out of them). Yet, not a tourist in sight. Just fishermen and 3 blokes building a bank.
Valerie and Michael had lived in Craig for a short time and she had not been back since moving to “town” 15 years ago. It was quite an emotional trip for her, a serious trip down memory lane. The last time she’d been there there were no paved roads. Yet, even more incredibly, at one time they had considered Craig as “town”. For over 10 years they lived in Edna Bay, on an island off Prince of Wales, a 2 hour boat ride from Craig. Edna Bay has a population of 49. Not 49,000, just 49. Although when they lived there the population was 68. This is two hippies who met in the early 80s and basically decided they would live in Alaska, and fish for a living. They’d never done it before, Valerie is from Connecticut and Michael is from Utah. Not many salmon there.
As I listened to their stories the enormity of what they had achieved hit me. Early on, and luckily for them, there were “adopted” by an older native Indian couple, David and Alice, who took them under their wing and started to show them the ropes. Where the fishing was best, underwater hazards to avoid, what can be eaten (beach asparagus anyone?), what can’t (Devil’s club), that sort of thing. For years they lived on a float house. Which is not a houseboat, it’s a house (doors, roof, kitchen, bathroom, garden, shed, workshop) that floats. On logs. To get it to Edna Bay they towed it from Garcia Bay near Craig for 36 hours against the tide. With barely the slightest clue of what they were doing. That’s what I call moving house. After the float house got a bit old and leaky, Michael built them a real house. They chopped down trees to get the wood, and built everything. Water tanks, walkway through the wood to the beach, septic system, everything.
And all the while they were making a living (of sorts) by fishing and Valerie taught at the school (16 pupils between the ages of 4 and 18) and bringing up 4 children. They had an old boat (which was held together by the woodworms holding hands) and fished. Salmon, halibut (flat fish that can grow up to 6 feet long – you don’t just bop them on the head to kill them, you shoot them with a .44), dived for abalone. 2 people who just decided to live like that and made it a success (those 4 children are all grown up now and are wonderful, it’s been great meeting them). I’d heard of Edna Bay, heard a couple of the tales, and told lots of people about my cousin in Alaska (without knowing any of the details) but seeing it all, imagining what they had been through, the things they had seen and achieved, it really hit home. I can’t even begin to picture the highs and lows such a life would bring. It was a privilege to share a small part of it with them and it is an honour to be part of their family. Although Valerie was too chicken to take me on at crib…