Standing on the pier, watching floatplanes landing and taking off from the Ketchikan waterfront, my excitement ran high, both for the view and in anticipation of the thrill of the ride. Then the captain, Jack Evans, invited me to his single engine de Havilland DHC-2 — "You can sit in the co-pilot’s seat." I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to look out of the cockpit window.
The weather was sloppy. It had rained persistently during the first two hours of walking through Ketchikan, a small port city in Alaska — America’s 49th state — forcing me to take refuge in a jewellery store on the waterfront. A old man smiled at me through his wrinkles. “Didn’t you know Ketchikan is the rain capital of the US? If you can’t see the top of the mountain, it’s raining. If you can see it, it’s going to rain.” He was a Tlingit Indian, the group of natives who built a coastal culture in Southeast Alaska long before even the Russians arrived.
The rain eventually stopped but the cloud cover persisted as our floatplane took off. We rose to a little over 3,000 feet, high enough to look down through the clouds to the beautiful granite cliffs and lush mountains. The landscape was a mosaic of various densities, subtle colours, and diverse flora — a panoramic view of the vast Alaskan wilderness. “Most of what you see below are cedar trees, red, alaska, hemlock and spruce, hundreds of years old, untouched by man,” said Evans. Only in a few patches could you see signs of logging. The scenery below changed every minute. Fractured granite walls, scoured by glaciers plunged into deep fjords, misted mountains rose over snowfields, waterfalls cascaded out of rock clefts. Bald eagles swooped through the air, humpbacks flirted on the water’s surface, otters popped out of the coves in curiousity. This was Alaska at its wild best.
Landing in wilderness
As we began our descent, all I could see was a vast expanse of still water surrounded by greenery. “See there,” said Evans pointing to the right, “two orcas hunting for the seals!” Two beautiful black and white whales splashed through the glass-like water surface. Rugged and remote, Misty Fjords National Monument is an untouched coastal ecosystem formed by unique geological features. Part of the country’s biggest forest area, Tongass National Reserve, a vast expanse of over 17 million acres, it’s filled with extraordinary wildlife.
The landing in the middle of Behm Canal, a long deep channel in the heart of a fjord, was the smoothest I’ve had. The only avenues to explore this landscape are air and water. We hopped onto a waiting catamaran. Allen, the captain of the boat, had our journey chalked out. “We will sail through Punch bowl cove, Rudyard bay and see some wildlife, possibly a bear!”
This place records more than 170 inches of rainfall annually, so rushing streams are plentiful as are splendid waterfalls and wet meadows. Rainbows appear in a flash and splashes of sunshine warm up the landscape as squalls blow past gaps in the cloud cover. Arriving back at Ketchikan, the weather changed and brought in a pungent odour, a mixture of oil from the fishing boats, sawed timber and freshly processed salmon, explained Lauren, a local. “Stay,” she urged. “Tomorrow, I’ll take you to see the salmon spawning.” “Next time,” I promised.
The author is a photojournalist whose work has been published in the National Geographic magazine.
Fly Jet Airways/Virgin/Canada Air/American Airlines to Vancouver. Prices start at Rs 65,000 (return). You can stay in one of the comfortable downtown hotels that offer packages for those sailing from Vancouver ports. I stayed at the Marriott Riverfront, close to the pier.
You can visit Alaska only by air or water. The most popular way to visit Ketchikan is by taking a cruise. Among the many I researched, the MV Mercury offered the best value and service. In Ketchikan, I opted for the services of Allen Marine Tours (www.allenmarinetours.com; tel: +1907-225 8100) for the floatplane and boat ride on the fjords.
There are cabins/B&B/independent cottages/ in Ketchikan. Prices start from $ 70 (Rs 3,250) a day.