After leaving Prince Rupert, British Columbia at 3 a.m. and sailing for around six hours we arrived in Ketchikan, Alaska at 8 a.m. Yes, we had passed into another time zone and were now in Alaska Daylight Time, which is 9 hours behind the UK.
We had only six hours in Ketchikan before we had to depart on another ferry to the Prince of Wales Island so we were keen to have a quick look around what is referred to as Alaska’s ‘First City’ (it’s called the First City because its the southernmost city in Alaska and is, therefore, the first city you come to when travelling north from the lower 48 states).
Ketchikan has no road connection and can only be reached by plane, float plane or boat (ferry/cruise ship). In the peak of summer there are five cruise ships a day and the small town becomes swamped with tourists.
We were fortunate enough to be there at a time there were no cruise ships but it quickly became apparent that a large part of the town was dedicated to helping relieve the cruise ship tourists of the contents of their wallets, and when there were no cruise ships the place became like a ghost town. In fact, we were told, most of the shops close down over the winter months when the cruise ships stop coming.
Ketchikan was once known as the Salmon Capital of the World and for many years it’s economy was centred around fishing and forestry, both of which were industries that required a lot of male workers. One of the main attractions in Ketchikan is Creek Street, which comprises wooden houses sitting on a raised wooden platform that overhangs the creek, and it is where many independent and industrious women owned brothels to satisfy the needs of the many men that were based in the town. Today no brothels remain open but there is a Historic Red Light walking tour that describes how things used to be. Paul seemed to be particularly interested!
We had just enough time to explore the highlights of Ketchikan, grab some breakfast and do a little bit of shopping before it was time to join the queue for the ferry to Hollis on the Prince of Wales Island.
We were waiting to board when one of the ferry crew approached Chrissie’s side window and asked for her ticket and driving licence. Chrissie gave him the ferry ticket but said she didn’t have her driving licence on her. I told him I had mine so we handed this to him. He looked at the licence, scratched his chin a couple of times and then said “okay, I’ll accept this but it is really Chrissie’s licence that I wanted to see”. We asked why Chrissie’s licence was so important to him and he said “because she’s the driver”. Paul coughed and pointed to the steering wheel directly in front of him. “Ah” he said, as the penny dropped and his face reddened slightly, “your steering wheel is on the wrong side, you may board now”.
A 3 hour crossing meant we arrived on the Island at around 6 p.m. and as luck would have it we had a place to stay for the night courtesy of one of the ferry crew members. We were considering spending our first night sleeping in the Land Rover when one of the ferry crew, who was interested in our vehicle, told us that he had a cabin in the woods that we could rent for the evening. It sounded a bit spooky but we went for it anyway. It was a rustic cabin hidden away in a clearing in the woods. It was a only a little bit spooky but after our early start that morning we both slept well!
The next morning, and having survived the night, we departed early to begin our first day of real exploring since we had left the UK. The Prince of Wales Island has a reasonable road infrastructure and a good part of the Island sits within the boundary of the Tongass National Forest. With a very low local population, and the tourist season yet to start, we had hopes of seeing all sorts of wildlife.
We had only been travelling a few minutes when we came across a large black bear standing in the middle of the road looking straight at us. I mentally ran through as much of the Highway Code as I could recall but could not remember anything that explained how to deal with bears. We edged forward cautiously as the bear continued to stare straight at us. With only a few metres between us and the bear’s nose it sniffed the air and then turned and ambled off into the forest. A fantastic start to our time on the Island.
After a couple of hours driving, during which we had witnessed beautiful forest and mountain views, passed lakes and creeks and seen deer and bald eagles, we arrived at the remote and tiny village of Naukati Bay. We didn’t know it yet but it was to be here that our real Alaska adventure was about to begin.
We stopped at the Naukati Connection, the one and only shop in Naukati (pronounced nockatee), to get something for lunch when we met with a gentleman called Jerry who was getting ‘gas’ for his truck.
Our conversation with Jerry, like most people we have met, started as a result of an interest in our vehicle. A Land Rover is not a common sight here and we have received many “cool rig” and “wow, that looks like it could go anywhere” comments which act as an introduction for further conversation. And so it was with Jerry.
After explaining to Jerry that we were on a slow wander around the world he asked if we would like to spend some time with him to experience a very different style of life in Alaska. Before we could answer he added “do you like eating fish?” and “do you mind living in rustic conditions?”.
Our curiosity was well and truly piqued and so we replied “yes, we both love fish” and “how rustic is rustic?”. His response was “very rustic, I live on a float house off grid, no mains water and no mains electricity”. This gave us a little pause for thought but we came looking for adventure so, with a little trepidation, we accepted his generous offer. “Good, jump in your rig and follow me” he said. “Oh and by the way, I also have an oyster farm”.
Wondering what we had let ourselves in for we followed Jerry away from the store and drove a short distance down a bumpy potholed road to the car park by the dock. Getting out of his truck Jerry called out “we have to go by boat to get to my place. Drive down onto the pontoon and load your gear into my boat” and he pointed to a small boat tied to the floating pontoon.
Our immediate concern was for our Land Rover but Jerry said this was no problem as we could leave it with some friends of his who lived nearby.
We drove the Land Rover down the ramp on to the pontoon, loaded our hastily put together collection of clothes, wash bags, electronics etc. onto Jerry’s boat and then returned up the ramp to where Jerry was waiting in his truck. “Follow me” he shouted and we set off again to his friends house where we would leave Stirling.
His friends house, also a float house, was accessible by both land and water and was only a couple of minutes drive from the dock. They were not in when we arrived but Jerry said it was safe to leave the vehicle next to their property and he would bring them up to speed later.
“Jump right in the back” Jerry instructed as the two seater cabin of his truck was full of him and his dog. “This is The Boy” he said as a large black dog poked his head out of the side window. We said our hellos to the dog and climbed into the back of the pick up truck and with no further warning the vehicle pulled away as we scrambled to grab hold of the sides of the truck for support. Travelling in the open back of the truck with the wind in our faces we looked at each other and burst out laughing. This was exciting!
Arriving back at the dock Jerry parked his truck in the car park and we all followed The Boy down the ramp to the pontoon and boarded Jerry’s boat. It looked for one moment that The Boy was about to steer the boat until Jerry shouted “Come on Boy, quit messing’ around” and the dog reluctantly gave up the Captain’s seat. We didn’t know it then but we would be hearing that phrase many times over the following days.
With a sense of apprehension and excitement we released the ropes, pushed off and we were on our way.
The Prince of Wales Island is surrounded by many other smaller islands and our journey took us past tree covered islands and through narrow passages lined with jagged rocks on either side. It was a beautiful journey that lasted around 20 minutes until we finally turned a corner and saw the oyster farm on our left and a short distance further on the float house that belonged to Jerry.
We didn’t quite know what to think as Jerry throttled back the outboard engine and we cruised slowly towards the house. On the one hand the collection of floating buildings looked to be anchored in an idyllic location yet the buildings themselves looked like they had seen better days and could disappear into the water without a moments notice. We were silent as we took it all in.
Securing the boat to a small jetty alongside what looked like two garden sheds we took our first tentative steps onto the floating raft. As we stood waiting for Jerry to give us an introductory tour and show us where we would be staying an older woman waved and came walking towards us from an adjacent raft. This, it turned out, was a German woman called Carmen, a friend of Jerry’s that was also staying with him, but before we could be introduced she stepped onto one of the large floating logs that form the raft that the buildings sit on and slipped and fell heavily onto her hip. Fortunately Carmen was not seriously hurt but it was a very real lesson of the dangers of living on a float house.
Jerry showed us to the hut in which we would be staying, a two storey building with one room upstairs (a bedroom with two single beds) and a combined living room, kitchen, shower room downstairs (more details of this will follow shortly).
We had just finished unpacking when Jerry’s head appeared around the door asking if we fancied some lunch. Feeling pretty hungry we said we would love something to eat and Jerry said “well, lets go and catch it then!”.
Leaving Chrissie and Carmen behind Paul, Jerry and The Boy jumped back in the boat and set off to fish doing what Jerry referred to as a quick ‘stop and drop’ and if we were lucky he said “we could whack ’em and stack ’em”. It took only five minutes to travel from the float house to one of Jerry’s favourite fishing spots and after a couple of minutes of quick instructions on how to ‘jig’ two fishing lines were in the water with lures a foot or so off the bottom of the ocean. Another couple of minutes later and there were two sea bass in the bucket, one caught by each of us, and after a total of fifteen minutes it felt like we had enough fish for several days worth of meals.
I asked Jerry whether fishing was always so easy in these parts and he said “depends on what you’re after, Halibut and Salmon can take some catching but these rock fish (bottom feeders) are pretty plentiful”.
A whole five minutes passed without us catching anything so Jerry suggested we do another stop and drop in a slightly different location. It was in this new location that Paul caught his first fish of any reasonable size, a red snapper, or Yellow Eye as it is known here.
With plenty of fish in the bucket it was time to head back and prepare the fish for lunch.
Swift processing by Jerry and the fillets were coated in flour and seasoning and in the pan within twenty minutes of being caught – it just doesn’t get any fresher than that!
“Tomorrow” said Jerry “I’ll introduce you to the best oysters in the world!” And he did!
Please note – at the time of writing this blog post we have been living with Jerry for nearly four weeks and the time has flown by. I apologise for the delay in posting this update but we have been having a pretty full on time over these four weeks, which I will write about shortly. In addition we will attempt to post our first Instagram videos to give a better idea of our lifestyle and living conditions on a float house (please check our Instagram account @adventure.defender or click to ‘follow’ on the right of this post)
There are small communities on the Prince of Wales Island and we are slowly being introduced to Jerry’s neighbours and close circle of friends. We have received nothing but a warm welcome and the most wonderful hospitality from everyone that we have met and we will try and convey in our blog and Instagram videos the characters that we have met, a little about the lives they are leading and the socialising and adventures we have experienced over recent weeks.