Fishing is the state’s No. 1 enterprise; two great resorts near Ketchikan have it all: the Waterfall Resort and Steamboat Bay Fishing Club
Southeast Alaska in summer can be stunningly gorgeous. But for all the state’s beauty, tourism is still only its second-most lucrative enterprise. Fishing is No. 1.
After spending the better part of 24 hours fishing at Alaska’s Waterfall Resort, it was time to see the actual waterfall. The wood-plank path leading from the property to the rainforest is pleasant and quiet, surrounded by pines, cedars, alders and Sitka spruce.
At the end of the trail, a clearing opened to a stunning sight: A loud cascading waterfall, wider than it is tall. At the bottom, a black bear was looking for dinner. Dusk had fallen and the salmon were jumping. The bear plodded slowly into the middle of the water, reached down with his clumsy paw, caught a fish, transferred it to his mouth, and carried his food back to shore.
If North America’s upper-left corner has an essence, this is it: Bear in a waterfall catching salmon.
More than just the economy, fishing is integral to Alaska’s culture. Tales of the latest catch are a natural topic of conversation among locals and visitors alike. For the commercial fisherman who call Alaska home, fishing is their lifeblood and their cash crop. For the sport fisherman who visit from around the globe, it’s something else entirely: an opportunity to get away, then take a piece of the wilderness home to your freezer.
There’s more to take from a three-day summer trip to southeast Alaska, but it requires an appreciation for the past and the simplicity of nature. A competitive spirit helps, too.
My introduction came in a dark downpour at the quaint Ketchikan Airport, across a strip of water from the main city of Ketchikan, the southeasternmost city in Alaska. Visitors are ferried into town on a boat; the taxicabs take over from there. Lodging is plentiful, but mostly confined to the main row of buildings along the shore.
For a better look at the city and its scenic backdrop, head uphill to the Cape Fox Lodge, with panoramic views that stretch toward the Tongass National Forest. Ketchikan doesn’t hide its gray hairs, the infrastructure that emerged from an early 20th-century pioneer town. The Cape Fox Lodge is different, a newer vacation-style lodge with a wood-beam interior and room to stretch out. On a clear day at sunset, there’s no better place to be.
When the clouds give way to daylight, another layer of Ketchikan emerges. Two massive cruise ships were docked on shore when I arrived, which could have been any day here. This is how 95% of visitors — more than 800,000 a year, according to recent statistics — arrive at the city. Adjacent to the docks, a number of newer “Alaskan”-themed clothiers and jewelers are open for business. Locals say these stores did not exist 30 years ago.
The oldest remaining layer of civilization sits just down the road from Ketchikan, in the native community of Saxman. Home to one of the largest concentrations of totem poles in the world, Saxman is both an art gallery and a living reservation. Tour guides explain the meaning of each totem while world-renowned pole carver Nathan Jackson creates his next pole in a woodshop on site. Seeing the master at work is an experience that crosses language barriers, making Saxman a popular destination for the cruise-ship set.
But a commercial ocean liner discourages fishing, and this is where southeast Alaska sparkles. The dozens of fishing boats surrounding Prince of Wales Island nearby point to the abundance of halibut, lingcod, rockfish, black bass, silver salmon and king salmon in the water. So do the whales. Over the course of three days, I counted 21 humpbacks and three orcas. When the salmon weren’t biting in one cove, we all moved on to the next.
Ketchikan’s airport is the local hub for inbound flights. From there, smaller planes (and a few ferries) depart for one-horse fishing towns up the coast like Craig and Klawock. There, a handful of all-inclusive places offer a bed at night, a boat in the morning, and a meal in between. Some diehard fishing enthusiasts will return to the same independent guide year after year and separately book a one- or two-star hotel. If the guide delivers on the promise of trophy-sized fish, the room only needs to be big enough for the trophy.
Located on an isolated strip of shoreline on Prince of Wales Island, the Waterfall Resort is the only man-made structure for miles in any direction. It’s also the busiest sport fishing resort in the region. Waterfall is all-inclusive by definition, but it’s just as remarkable for some things that aren’t included: television, land-line telephones in the guest rooms, cellular service (it’s minimal) and Internet access (even more minimal). Don’t expect to do work here. Perhaps ironically, it’s a popular destination for corporate retreats.
The definition of “resort” might be a stretch, too. Waterfall’s century-old grounds were converted from an abandoned cannery in 1980, but few structures were torn down or built up. Instead, the rustic atmosphere was preserved with some cosmetic touch-ups. Most guests will stay in the nondescript, double-bed fisherman’s cabins. Four beach-facing townhouse-style condos, and four executive suites, exist for larger groups. The fish caught by guests are shrink-wrapped, frozen and packaged for shipping in the same storehouse where they were canned a hundred years ago. It’s more an immaculately preserved cannery than a vintage resort.
Waterfall’s near-total absence of electronic amenities and chic style isn’t for everyone. For some, heaven means rising at sunrise for a quiet day on the water in the company of green trees, bald eagles, and big fish. Heaven fills up fast; the final rooms at the summer resort are typically booked the previous fall.
One interesting feature of this environment is a (roughly) 9-to-1 male-to-female guest ratio. Father-son excursions are common at Waterfall. And yet, a woman’s name stood atop a “heaviest catch” leaderboard in the general store. Mike, my expert guide, told me that one of the largest fish ever caught on his boat — a 40-pound king salmon — was hauled in by a 13-year-old girl from Hawaii.
Catching a fish is part luck, part art form, part thrill ride. Wrestling with a feisty underwater opponent at the end of an invisible hook can be hard work — the rare form of exercise that encourages both beer drinking and nature photography.
Whether you’re a first-timer or experienced, big fish are worth big prizes. As the sun sinks lower over the water, Waterfall’s fleet of two dozen boats head back to the resort, where the fish are unloaded and weighed. On the dock, amateur anglers gather with prying eyes to see how their haul compares to yours. A fun competition springs to life, evoking Alaska’s frontier spirit.
Waterfall’s annual “King of Kings” tournament claims to pay out $100,000 worth of prizes. A $75 entry fee buys dreams of the grand prize, a Ford F150.
The atmosphere is different at Steamboat Bay Fishing Club. This luxury cabin-style property provides an all-inclusive experience with large rooms, six-course dinners, and traditional resort frills like a sauna and hot tub. The location is optimal for fishing. Boats sail north from Waterfall and even greater distances south from the commercial docks to mine the surrounding waters. Steamboat Bay’s plush setting encourages guests to sleep in, catch fish at their leisure, and forgo their best chance at winning a pickup truck in exchange for a more pampered vacation.
Whatever floats your fishing boat, southeast Alaska has it. Over three days, I met travelers from China, Singapore, California, Chicago, New York and Mississippi. Sixty percent of them will return to Waterfall at some point if the statistics hold true. Evidently, when the snow melts, the region transforms into a northern mecca. The fish are that good. Just ask the bears.
If you go…
Getting there: – Alaska Airlines flies daily from Newark to Seattle, and from Seattle to Ketchikan. alaskaair.com or 800-252-7522.
– Promech Air offers daily flights from Ketchikan to Craig, Hollis, Thorne Bay and Metlakatla, Alaska, beginning at $40 each way. promechair.com or 800-860-3845
Stay: – The Cape Fox Lodge features 69 standard rooms, two suites and one deluxe room beginning at $195. capefoxlodge.com or 866-225-8001
– Waterfall Resort is open from June to August 2015. Packages begin at $3,510 for a two-night stay in a basic cabin; meals, fishing equipment, rain gear, a boat and a guide are provided. waterfallresort.com or 800-544-5125
– The Steamboat Bay Fishing Club is open from July to August 2015. Ocean-front suites and forest-view suites begin at $5,595 for a three-night stay. Meals, fishing equipment, rain gear, a boat and a guide are provided. steamboatbay.com or 800-544-5125
Do: Saxman Native Village tours can be booked via email; be sure to mention the size of your group. [email protected]