Roadtrippin’: On the water in Ketchikan to see eagles, totem poles and Alaska’s first lighthouse

Updated: Jun. 4, 2021 at 2:46 PM AKDT
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KETCHIKAN, Alaska (KTUU) - Bald eagles, totem poles and the first lighthouse built in Alaska — those are the sights to see while sailing onboard the Lighthouse Endeavor off the coast of Ketchikan.

“It’s kind of a grab bag,” said Capt. Jeff Karlson, co-owner of Lighthouse Excursions, about the trip. “It’s got a lot of interests for a lot of different palates, if you will.”

Bald eagles perch on buoys before taking flight. They twitter to each other with their high-pitched whistles and spread out their wings to dry off after diving to fish.

Eagles’ nests can weigh over 6,000 pounds and measure 9 feet across, Karlson said during a trip on Tuesday. Massive jumbles of sticks nestled high in Sitka spruce trees are visible from the fjords below.

The Totem Bight Historical State Park is a highlight for Karlson. The site has a recreation of a Tlingit clanhouse and totem poles overlooking the Tongass Narrows.

A third generation Alaskan from Ketchikan, Karlson narrates the two-hour tour and says the region’s Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida history is humbling.

“The fact the Native Alaskans have been here for 10,000 years, at least, is extraordinary,” he said.

A snack around the midpoint of the trip highlights Alaska cuisine: Smoked salmon from Wrangell, pickled kelp harvested from nearby, Chugiak chocolate and coffee roasted in Ketchikan.

That’s a COVID-19 change from a buffet-style snack Lighthouse Excursions used to offer. But there is a silver lining, Karlson said — deckhands now have a personal interaction with every guest when handing out snacks.

Another pandemic-fueled change is the current federal requirement to wear face masks onboard boats like the Lighthouse Endeavor. A third is the number of sailings Lighthouse Excursions is set to offer in 2021: One per week on Saturday mornings.

As a dozen harbor seals lounge on rocky outcrops enveloped in a soup-like fog, it’s easy to see how the nearby Misty Fjords National Monument got its name. The first lighthouse built in Alaska sits on a small island above them. It’s notably short and squat.

“But it was built this way for good reason,” Karlson explained. “Here in the winter months, it’s not uncommon for us to see winds of up to 100 miles an hour. It happens pretty regularly. You wouldn’t want to see seas out there, 20 to 30 feet.”

But this summer sailing was on glassy water, and comfortable.

Sailing back to Ketchikan, Shelly Hill, a friend of Karlson’s out on her third trip, said she always learns something new. One previous trip saw a special, but not totally unusual, encounter.

“We saw so many whales, it stopped the boat,” Hill said. “It was insane.”

For Karlson, who bought Lighthouse Excursions in 2018, getting to share his home with visitors keeps it fresh, especially getting to show them eagles and humpback whales, and tell stories about the region’s history.

“I look around at my home, that used to be so normal, and it’s like, this is actually extraordinary,” he said.

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