Growing up in Alaska With Eagles, Whales, Bears And Rain

| Photo by
| Photo by

I grew up on a small island called Revillagigado in Southeast Alaska.  There are 30 miles of main road.  Tongass Avenue runs the length of Ketchikan.  The mountain is on one side of Tongass and on the other side is the Pacific Ocean.  The tides are drastic and can range up to 18 feet per day.  Often times, I have seen the ocean lap at the sidewalks and even onto the roadways. It’s kind of cool really.

Ball Game 1916 Ketchikan Alaska | Photo by Sitnews
Ball Game at low tide Ketchikan Alaska (1916) | Photo by Sitnews

Many years ago before the ball field was constructed near the base of Dear Mountain, baseball games were played on the shores at low tide.  They had to be timed just right of course, if a game was to go into overtime it could mean a race against the tides!  This took place before I was born but it fascinates me, the history that is there.

Ketchikan is built on pilings.  When I was preparing my move to Oregon the pilings were being replaced because they were sinking.  It was a little scary driving down the road because sometimes you could see a difference by an inch or so.  A lot of the houses are built on stilts too. There are a lot of boardwalks and stairs in that town; narrow streets and alleyways.

I refused to learn how to drive in the snow; there are just some stresses I don’t allow into my life, that being one of them.  Ketchikan is small enough that you can walk anywhere you want really (while in town), hitch a ride with a friend or take a taxi (Mom’s favorite mode of transportation.  She never had her license and I have never seen her behind the wheel of a car). What goes up must come down and to be honest, I’m not sure which was worse for me; going up or coming back down.  One winter after work I headed to pick up my son from daycare.  It had been snowing all day long.

Slow and steady wins the race, I kept telling myself, as I climbed the hill in my Cougar; singing out loud as if that would ease my tension and not let it out to the universe that I was really scared.  Steadily I pressed on the gas peddle as I continued to climb upwards on this pretty white stuff that was beneath my slippery tires.  “I got this” I said to myself as I crested the top of the hill.  It was then that my heart sank.  The snow plow had already been up this path and created a huge snow berm across the roadway, blocking the way to my son’s day care.  Now I had to go back down.  The snow was perfect for making a snowman.  The quiet that surrounded me was nearly deafening.  How is it that snow makes everything quiet?

Winter in Ketchikan, Alaska | Photo by Sandy Harris
Winter in Ketchikan, Alaska | Photo by Sandy Harris

I decided it would be best if I stayed in the middle of the road since there were no other forms of life around.  Less chance of me skidding or sliding into one of the yards as I drove down the hill.  I will be danged if there was not some magical force pulling me into those yards!  I kept sliding to the right; my entire body trembled as I tried to keep it on the road.  I was able to get myself down the hills and parked safely at home.  I was such a wreck; there was no way I was going to get back in any vehicle to go get my son.  Bawling, I called my sitter and told her my situation. She calmed me down and said she would bring him to me.   That was the first and last time I ever drove in snow up there.

When I was young we used to get a lot of snow but as the years went by it seemed like it just kept raining more and more, turning to slush shortly after it snowed.  The cold and wet getting into my bones in the winters was not my cup of tea.  The winters and I did not get along too well to say the least.

Down here there is snow removal.  In Ketchikan there is snow relocation.  Oh, the plows would come out and move the snow either to the outside of the roads or push the snow into the middle of the roads, creating these big snow berms right down the center of Tongass.  If you wanted to cross the street, you just floored it and made your own path.

Oregon was having record high temperatures when I moved here so we spent a lot of time at the McKenzie River cooling off.  We would run into people who thought we were out of our minds. “It’s cold in there!” they would say.  Conversation ensued, leading to the fact that we had moved down from Alaska and the main reason was to get away from the rain.  “And you moved to Oregon” people would ask, astonished by the idea of this.

What they couldn’t comprehend was 156 inches of rain per year.  Let me do the math for you real quick.  That’s 13 feet of rain each year!  That is only average.  Record rainfall in Ketchikan was recorded at  202.55 inches (17 feet) in 1949.  That is a lot of rain.  Ketchikan is in the heart of the Tongass National Rainforest, the largest in Northern America so you are bound to get a little bit of rain.  Lane County’s average rain fall per year is 40 inches or 3.33 feet of rain per year!  Can you blame me for moving here?  It doesn’t seem so bad here now does it?

Mated Eagles Ketchikan in Ketchikan, Alaska | Photo by Sandy Harris
Mated Eagles Ketchikan in Ketchikan, Alaska | Photo by Sandy Harris

I grew up with eagles and bears and whales.  I remember one time, while in grade school, Mom had to call Fish and Game to get the bear off our front porch before we could leave our house. Shortly before I moved to Oregon, Fish and Game had darted a female bear and she ended up in my back yard up on Monroe street.  She was a big girl at 540 pounds.  The eagles were abundant, circling town and hanging out in the trees right along Tongass Avenue.  There is no sound like the call of an eagle and I will never tire of the sight or sound of them.

Our high school sits at the top of the mountain; you can practically see the entire town. While I was in class, often times I could look out the window and see the Killer Whales playing right there in the Tongass Narrows.  One afternoon my sons and I were at our favorite beach walking along the shoreline when I spotted a familiar sight.  There is no mistaking a whale blowing water out of it’s blowhole.  Looking a little closer, I could see it was a Humpback.  I put my youngest on my back and the three of us began to run down the beach along side it.  I know if we had taken a leap, we could have jumped onto his fin; he was that close to the shore.  I will never forget that moment of my life with my boys.

I have been fortunate enough to go back to Alaska nearly each year I have lived here in Oregon to visit my family and catch up with my friends.  I am in awe each time I go back.  Alaska is an absolutely beautiful place and there is no other like it on this planet.  It will always be a place to call home.  If you can, I would recommend taking a trip up!  Tell em Sandy sent ya!

See you out there!



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