The Real Ketchikan

When the tourist season is just too much

[by Shelby Huff]


BLESSED AS I AMTO CALL KETCHIKAN HOME, the amount of tourists who pass through this town on a daily basis can be enough to drive anyone away. As such, my friend Leo and I headed to the trailhead of the Traverse, a hike along the alpine ridges of Revillagigedo Island.

To describe him as energetic would be among the most unhinged understatements of all time. As I watched him run laps around the parking lot, I remembered what my coworkers had told me, “Good luck keeping up with that energy.”

That first night, we pitched our tent on a small hill above Blue Lake, and a heavy mist clouded the slumbering mountains around us. Below us, an A-frame cabin—the only semblance of civilization in sight—that had blown over during a windstorm sat 100 feet from its original perch. We climbed into the tent, and the earth beneath us was soft as pillows and the silent, still air lulled me into a 12-hour slumber. Come morning, the clouds had parted just enough to reveal peaks that rose up steep as tidal waves, and we discovered easy access to views as refreshing as the glacial water in our canteens.

Our hike that morning, however, felt less like hiking and more like free climbing, and after an hour or so, we stood on an overhang that overlooked an infinite patch of snow 20 feet below. My brain had barely processed the scene when Leo willingly jumped off the rock and glissaded down hundreds of feet. My eyes, suddenly the size of golf balls, desperately searched for an alternative route, ideally something similar to the forgiving, padded moss we’d spent the previous afternoon traversing.


Leo asked, “Dude, do you want to go on a little excursion?” I replied, “I thought we were already on one…”


Once I made it down to Leo, he called the affair chill. Leo did not share most people’s definition of chill, certainly not mine. We walked (well, one of us walked) across the snow until we came to the highest peak of the Traverse. I was happy sitting there, consuming the views along with my lunch when Leo asked, “Dude, do you want to go on a little excursion?”

I replied, “I thought we were already on one…”

He pointed to cliffs too steep to be deemed explorable by me. I presented an idea of my own—I’d sit there, eating the remainder of my food supply, while he had his own fun. Before I finished talking, he had a Clif bar in his pocket and was halfway down the mountain, leaving behind only the blur of his pink leopard leggings. After two hours of listening to the winds play o the mountains and studying mountain goats that effortlessly found footing on those skyward walls, I heard myself breathing a relieved sigh when Leo reappeared and sat next to me.

We hiked a few miles, approaching the point on the map that Leo said would be sketchy. He had been using the word chill for so long, when he said sketchy, I felt my heart skip a beat. What could his definition of sketchy possibly be?

Indeed, Leo’s definition of sketchy matched my definition of petrifying. Compared to the peak where I ate lunch, the cliffs in front of us seemed more suited for mountain goats than humans. I stood at the edge, suspiciously eyeing a ragged, yellow rope that was tied around a tree and supposed to support us while we rappelled hundreds of feet down into the valley below. Once my hands met the rope, I told myself, Here we go. But I wasn’t about to let those be my last words, so I forced myself into bravery and gripped tighter.

By some divine miracle (this island seems to be filled with them), I made it not only down that rope, but also back up another. All the while, hearing nothing but blood pound in my ears and feeling nothing but sweat roll down my face. Step by step, rock by rock, peak by peak. 

Though I cursed most of the rocks I stepped on, each steep cliff , and the weight of my backpack, I felt as alive as the land around me. Standing above the treeline reminded me how good it feels to simply put one foot in front of the other—while hanging on for dear life.

Despite all those frightening moments, I managed to stop and recognize this timeless place. Unthinkably untouched peaks and a taste of the ultimate freedom loom just above a half dozen cruise ships that thousands of tourists pour out of. I considered how few of those visitors’ footprints would follow mine, how few would find their way to the island’s real gold, which is a mere 40-minute drive to the end of the road and a few hundred switchbacks away from Ketchikan.

I took one last moment to give a nod to the beauty of such an untamed place, wishing all those visitors could experience the real Ketchikan. I turn to see Leo has become a red dot at the bottom of the hill and run to catch up, happy to call this wild place home.


Shelby Huff previously worked as a bear guide in Southeast Alaska. She currently is a Wyoming-based wildlife guide and dreams of Alaska’s salmon abundance daily.