ALASKA | KETCHIKAN
This week on our tour of small towns across the US, we’re heading to the Last Frontier- Alaska! (Not to be confused with Space: the Final Frontier, of course.) Today we’re going to review the first of the towns in this series I’ve visited personally- Ketchikan, the Salmon Capital of the World.
The area Ketchikan encompasses served as a summer fishing camp for Tlingit natives for untold years before the township was established in 1885. Also known as Alaska’s First City, Ketchikan started out as a cannery and shipping town because of its prime location in the Inside Passage.
Local Inspiration: Formline Design & Artist Ken Decker
I chose Ketchikan as the small town to represent Alaska because of my fond memories of meeting fine artists & local craftsmen when I visited Alaska back in 2017. Ketchikan proudly hosts the world's largest collection of standing totem poles in four main locations around town. Almost every shop we entered featured local artwork, often made by an artist who owned the store themselves and would be work on something behind the counter as we browsed. Everywhere you looked, there was artwork of all kinds that honored the area’s natural beauty and wildlife. I was particularly impressed by (and purchased several cards from) the Tsimshian artist Ken Decker.
Decker owns and operates Crazy Wolf Studio, an art gallery in downtown Ketchikan whose name is an homage to his clan. A born-and-bred local to Ketchikan, he has been creating Northwest coast Design art for more than 20 years. At Crazy Wolf Studio, his art can be found on everything from t-shirts and face masks to ulus and custom drums. It is from researching his work I found out more about formline design- a major feature of indigenous art in the Pacific Northwest.
Here’s where I want to put the brakes on for a second and talk about everyone’s favorite controversial topic- cultural appropriation in art. As a white woman in the US, it is my responsibility to mind the distinction between ethically being inspired by another culture, and plundering for gold then claiming it as my own. I knew this would be a line I must draw specifically in this project, as one of the reasons I created this is to open my practice to inspiration outside of my immediate sphere.
As I move forward with Small Town Walls, my goal will always be to respectfully marry influences from the location I’m researching with my personal taste. It feels discriminatory to take that local inspiration into account only when it comes from people who look like me.
That being said, I acknowledge the problematic history of white people stealing native art and claiming it as their own. Here are a few points of my research and the ways I’ve attempted to navigate this particular instance as respectfully as possible:
To be clear, this salmon illustration is my own original, with influences from patternmaking and the use of negative space in formline design. Also known as Northwest Coast design, this style originated in the art of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples of Southeast Alaska. It is now taught formally to indigenous and non-indigenous peoples alike, and you can find a great introduction to the style here (made by the Sealaska Heritage Institute.)
I researched to see if salmon (what I depicted) are either a sacred/reserved symbol or family crest in any of the indigenous communities who founded formline design- to which I have so far found no evidence it is either.
This painting is used here only as part of a personal, non-profit project. If I am ever asked on a paying job to produce art inspired by any culture that is not my own, I commit to finding and compensating artist(s) from that community for either consultation, collaboration, or to pass the job along to them (depending on the circumstances of the project overall.)
I hope this clarifies my inspiration from- and intention to honor the indigenous art seen in Ketchikan with my own mural. I am no expert on the nuances of cultural appropriation, just an artist trying to navigate inspiration as well as I can. If you have any tips, opinions, or take issue with this piece, feel free to reach out through the Contact page- I would truly love to hear your guidance as I move forward trying to strike this balance as respectfully as possible. For now- on to some other interesting tidbits about Ketchikan!
THIS TOWN IN HISTORY: Creek Street
One of the main walking areas in Ketchikan is known as Creek Street, a boardwalk built over the banks of Ketchikan Creek in the middle of town. Creek Street was built in 1903 as a Red Light District and smuggling hub- and in fact, until the 1930s, prostitution and bootlegging were the town’s two mainstay industries! It is said that smugglers would wait for high tide to row right up to the boardwalk, and bring in Canadian whiskey under the cover of night.
Although these days Creek Street houses shops, restaurants, and even some residences, you can still find a few remnants of the industries that kept the boardwalk bustling in the early 1900s. One of these is Dolly’s House Museum, the last standing “den of iniquity” in town. The hard-to-miss bright green dollhouse (center photo) now offers a walkthrough tour and insight on its once infamous inhabitant. Another remaining feature is Married Man’s Trail, a short scenic hike from the boardwalk that was once an escape route for married men to get out of the area without arousing suspicion (last photo.) It’s a great place to potentially catch salmon sightings as well- which lends to the running joke that Creek Street is “the only place where both men and salmon head upstream to spawn.”
TO SEE & DO: The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
This is the one thing on this list I have not personally seen, but I’ve included the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show here as it is on my to-do list should I ever make it back to Ketchikan! I mean, were you aware that competitive woodsmen sports exist? Moreover, that there are actual world-champion lumberjacks??
Alright, so maybe it’s my being a Floridian that has kept me in the dark on this one- but that aside, competitive lumberjack games seem like something to behold. I mean, their website promises both “axes flying through the air, men free-falling from trees, running atop spinning logs” AND the voted “Best restrooms in Ketchikan.” That’s the total package right there; who could ever ask for more?
In all seriousness, does this production come off as a bit of a tourist trap? Without a doubt. But it also appears to be just a group of local guys, with oddly-specific wood-chopping abilities, getting together to make a living and have a good time. That alone seems like something worth supporting to me.
MY EXPERIENCE: Kayaking in Orca’s Cove
I have to say, one of my favorite experiences while visiting Ketchikan wasn’t *quite* in the town itself, but instead kayaking in the nearby waterways! The beauty of nature & landscape in Southeast Alaska is something that can’t be overstated and that I was not at all expecting. The frequent rain combined with the shape of land in this area (it helps to keep temps above freezing) makes the terrain here resemble a chilly rainforest. (Nope- I’m not kidding!)
Sounds crazy, right? Weird as it may be, the unique climate and sparse population of Alaska allows nature and wildlife to thrive in this part of the world. So getting away from the busy coastal town to kayak in the Inside Passage was a beautiful and welcome respite from the crowds. We saw plenty of deer, birds, orcas (from a distance), and I even very gently held a starfish! Who knew those guys liked the cold too?
I will say, kayaking through the mist and against cold sea currents was hilarious to me in comparison to all of the rowing I’ve done in hot, swampy Florida. We had a wonderful guide on our visit though, and by staying in the Passage we were protected from the worst of the choppy waves. Plus, they gave us some smoked salmon on the boat back that I still dream of to this day- and cannot find anywhere! I’d recommend this experience to kayaking beginners & pros alike, even just for that tasty final reward.
All in all, Alaska is definitely one of my favorite states out of the 40 I’ve visited so far- and Ketchikan has to be my favorite town we stopped through while there! Choosing which community to feature here was a tough call, as most of the communities in the state qualify as small towns. But Ketchikan sticks out in my mind for its colorful local history, preservation of indigenous culture and art, and of course- for having the tastiest smoked salmon around.
See you here next week as we head over to one of the wildest towns in the West- and the site of perhaps the most infamous gunfight in U.S. history!
"You should never go to Alaska as a young man, because you will never be satisfied with any other place as long as you live."- John Muir