Helen Haskell: Getting to know Ketchikan, June 7, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Helen Haskell

Aboard NOAA Ship Fairweather


Mission: Hydro Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Southeast Alaska – West Prince of Wales Island Hydro Survey

Date: 6/4/17

Weather: Cloud cover 100%, mixed drizzle and rain, 12C feels like 8C

Location: Ketchikan, AK, 55.3422° N, 131.6461° W

Personal Log

Flying has its benefits and drawbacks. While it is not possible to see in nearly as much detail compared to as when you are in a car, looking out of the window, able to stop at will, on a plane the bigger stories, the bigger picture becomes more apparent more quickly. Leaving Albuquerque at 9am, the sun had been up for a while, the ground warm and the air temperature already in the 70’s. No patches of snow anymore in the Sandia Mountains that skirt the city. Looking down from my window seat moments after take off, I had to smile as we flew right over my school. I could see my classroom roof, the track, and the school garden. In the three-hour flight heading to Seattle the landscape began to change, and geologic features we had been talking about in my 9th grade class this year came in to view. Passing over the red rock of Utah, we began to see more snow at lower elevations, the Great Salt Lake, and finally Mt Rainier. The next flight from Seattle to Ketchikan promised even more change for this desert rat. We flew up the Inside Passage, seeing island, bays and inlets, and increasing amount of snow and cloud.

Due to flight distance and potential delays, I was flown in to Ketchikan one day ahead of schedule, and the Fairweather was in port for another day. So, myself along with most of the rest of the crew had time to explore Ketchikan and the surrounding area. A short van ride in to town from the Coast Guard Station where the Fairweather is docked, it’s immediately obvious how the town has undergone change over time.

My knowledge of the area began on the flight from Seattle when I was seated next to a logger. Looking out the window as we moved north across Vancouver Island and up the Inside Passage, he pointed out floating rafts of recently cut timber, explaining to me how it is towed and then loaded on to ships while on the ocean. We talked of the different species of wood and what he liked about his job, and of being outside in Alaska. As I stood in downtown Ketchikan I could see the hills rising up immediately east of town and marveled at the engineering used to build roads and communities in these conditions. However, times have changed in Ketchikan and the pulp plant has since closed down, and while there is still evidence of logging, industries have changed.

Flying in to Ketchikan

Ketchikan is known as the salmon capital and all over town there is evidence of this business. All menus contain Alaskan caught salmon and other fish such as halibut and cod. Near the water is an anchor that was used to hold down Fish Traps, a device designed by a local Ketchikan resident to catch thousands of fish, and ultimately was banned when populations of salmon became decimated.

South-east Alaska is complex, geologically speaking, and as a result, Ketchikan, on Revillagigedo Island, built on a metamorphic rocks, is also a former mining town, with copper, iron, uranium and molybdenum deposits found nearby. In the late 19th and early 20th century, gold deposits were being explored. Walking around town, while I found no evidence of gold, walking up Creek Street, I learned about the women who, up until the 1950’s, had ‘houses of friendship’ as businesses, which today are tourist stores selling everything from t-shirts to locally produced art.

Today, Ketchikan is the host of many cruise ships that spend a day or so moored in one of the four piers. From these boats visitors disembark to explore the town. This is evidence again of Ketchikan’s evolution as a town. While salmon is still important, the thousands of tourists that come here in the summer have also changed the nature of the town, at least for several hours a day in the summer season. Crossing guards, today dressed in complete rain gear, stop traffic to let the throngs of people cross the main street. Stores, many locally owned, are filled with a range of goods, from cheap key chains to fine jewelry. Local Alaskan and north -west artists are getting more exposure as a result of these tourists. The town is evolving.

In one of the stores that sold art made by Alaskan tribal members, I learned about rain jackets that were made with seal intestines and necklaces carved out of a dark sedimentary shale like rock, heavy in carbon, known locally as Argillite. Found 80 miles south of Ketchikan, this rock is harvested from a mountain by the Haisa tribe, and carved in to fetishes of the wildlife in the area. Perhaps what I found the most fascinating were the baleen baskets and pots that were made. The baleen is carefully cut in to very thing strips and these strips are woven in to baskets, each with a small, carved handle made from walrus tusk.

I also visited the Totem Heritage Center, seeing examples of 150-200 year old Totems that had been carved by the local tribes, and under preservation. There are three tribes in the region, the Tlingit (pronounced ‘Klink-it), the Haisa and the Tsimshian. Totems were originally carved to honor individuals, commemorating events, or as house posts, sometimes supporting the main beam of the house, at other time, displaying the clan, based on matrilineal lineage.

I also went to the Southeast Alaskan Discovery Center. Here, I watched a film on the history of Ketchikan and some of it’s influential historical residents as well as a short clip about Tongass National Forest, making me anxious for the ship to set sail so I could see more of what was to offer in this vast ecosystem.  Specimens of plants and animals found in the temperate rainforest and the surrounding waters gave me a little more insight in to what I might potentially see on our journey to Kodiak. While Bald Eagles are almost as common as the pigeons hanging out by the Coast Guard station where we are moored, I am hoping to see more wildlife as the research begins.

Word of the day: Muskeg

A Muskeg is a:

  1. A larger relative of the muskrat found here in Alaska OR
  2. A term used to describe a female muskox OR
  3. A habitat found in Southeast Alaska

A Muskeg is a habitat, an open bog that acts like a giant sponge here in Southeast Alaska. The soils in muskegs are saturated, receiving 50-300 inches of rain annually. The soils contain a significant amount of sphagnum mosses and sedges that hold water and release excess water in to the streams and rivers. The sedges and mosses partially decompose and build up, so several feet of material may contain thousands of years of organic matter. The peat mosses actually release chemicals that subdue decomposition and over time, layers of peat build up. As organic matter does not decay, the nutrient availability in these areas is low, making it hard for many plant species to survive there. By studying these bogs and taking core samples of the material, scientists are learning about vegetation change in Alaska over the past 14,000 years. Organic material is radiocarbon-dated and pollen and leaf fragments are identified to determine what species were presented at different times.

Fact of the day:

Alaska is five times the size of New Mexico, and consists of 586,412 square miles of land, with 60% managed by the Federal Government, 25% by the State of Alaska, and 10% by Native corporations and villages.

What is this?

What do you think this is a picture of? (The answer will be in the next blog installment).IMG_0115 (1)


Acronym of the Day

One immediate observation I have had being here is that there are many acronyms used and part of my job is to learn what they mean -and it is a bit like learning a new language. So each blog, I’ll share with you and acronym or two:

NOAA: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

CO: Commanding Officer

XO: Executive Officer

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