Magazine article Sunset

Outsider's Passage

Magazine article Sunset

Outsider's Passage

Article excerpt

Are you here to work with the tourists for the season?" asked a low voice coming from the back of the checkout line. He stood tall in Carhartt pants, chuckling under his full beard. Was I that obvious? I'd only arrived from Breckenridge, Colorado, to this Alaska fishing town not even 24 hours ago. Maybe I had a lost look about me, or there was something in my jam-packed shopping cart that yelped, "Not from around here!" In fact, 2,213 miles from here. "Well, good luck!" said my new neighbor with a tone that made me think I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into.

But I'd soon find out: Ketchikan lies along the Alaska Panhandle's Inside Passage, which protects ships from the vagaries of the open ocean. It's why most mornings between May and September, Ketchikan's population of14,000 almost doubles in size, as up to five cruise ships make port, releasing thousands of passengers to explore a roughly 6-square-mile city.

Serving these visitors are hundreds of seasonal workers, like me, who come looking for adventure. In my case, I'd joined a kayak outfitter as their office manager. Okay, so creating schedules and answering phone calls doesn't exactly say "adventure." No, that would come later, for when the passengers would return to their onboard cabins, those of us left on land would peel off our uniforms and experience Ketchikan in a way the cruisers never could.

though surrounded by an emerald rain forest, Ketchikan certainly doesn't look built for tourists. From the harbor, I passed marine fueling stations and wooden houses stacked high on the hillside-the salty trappings of a fishing village filled with people who had come to Alaska, in part, to get away from the crowds and enjoy quiet isolation.

Some locals, of course, yearn for the days before their home became a cruise stop, starting in the 1970s. But the ships are the biggest business in town after commercial fishing, bringing some 950,000 visitors last year. "Ever since the pulp mill closed, they've been an important piece of the pie," said a middle-aged fisherman dressed in Grundéns sweatpants, over a beer at the Sourdough Bar. "Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em, I guess." So he wasn't exactly the welcome wagon, but his bluntness was understandable. (After all, I was like an alien who'd just landed from another planet.)

My next stop was to meet my new boss at our office in nearby Thomas Basin. Her suggestion for making headway with full-time residents? In the off-hours, pitch in at the town's favorite activities: Go to their watering holes, join a coed league, audition for a local play. But when the cruise passengers arrived, it would be all business, she said. The ships' schedules would dictate ours, some arriving as early as 6 a.m. And when they're on the ground, I would need to be on-smiling, selling, spieling. "We have to make all our money in the next few months, so expect to work long, hard days," she said matter-of-factly. "Oh, and expect to get wet." We were in the heart of the rain forest, after all-and there would be plenty of downpours throughout even these warmer months.

ON A STEELY-SKIED morning a week later, the first ship pulled in, carrying vacationers draped in binoculars and cameras. …

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