Get off the 'rock'

Posted: Friday, July 30, 2010

As I sat on a cracked, plastic bar stool inside the Sourdough Bar in Ketchikan, I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable.

In my periphery, I counted at least four sets of prying eyes that were locked on me like the Coast Guard on an emergency responder beacon.

I drew a line in the condensation on my beer before turning to my co-worker for support.

"Are you sure it's OK for us to be in here?"

She nodded, then glanced in the direction of the inquisitive stares.

They were a motley bunch of mixed gender, and all were clad in various combinations of the following: T-shirt which was torn and stained in more than a few spots, jeans and/or Carhartts with a similar "worn" look, a non-descript jacket that seemed to be the recipient of more abuse than the other two previously mentioned items, and there was the footwear, which varied. I counted two pairs of Xtratufs, one pair of sneakers and logging boots, respectively.

Clearly, they were locals. Obviously, I was not.

"Oh don't worry about them," said the cherub-faced bartender, "Most of 'em, they've just never been off the rock."

The what? Now, I know what a rock is and I'm pretty sure I know how to "get off" of it. Just move your foot.

But to extract oneself from this "rock" - a.k.a. Revillagigedo Island, upon which Ketchikan is built - takes a lot more effort. And these grisly folks had either not had the gumption, the funds - or both - to give it a shot.

On average, it costs $600, or around $300 for a one-way, PFD-special ticket on Alaska Airlines to leap from any "rock" in the region. A cheaper route is walking onto the ferry for a couple hundred dollars. I suppose hopping in a rubber dinghy would be the cheapest, however highly inadvisable.

And while I found it jaw-droppingly unbelievable that there were people who had never left their tiny community, at the same time, I understood.

It's not always easy - or, cheap - especially in Southeast.

Regardless, it's doable and the destinations or excursions are wholeheartedly worth the cash.

There's the obvious stopping places of Sitka, Skagway and Petersburg, just to name a few. These, like so many others, have a character and grace all their own.

The Alaska Marine Highway is likely the most affordable option for transportation to these areas and as a perk, children ages 6-11 travel half off and those under 6 travel for free. Don't want to pay for a vehicle? Take a bike for around an extra $20.

A few smaller, but equally charming locales are Tenakee Springs and its colorful residents, Prince of Whales Island with steelhead streams to drool over, quaint Elfin Cove or Glacier Bay National Park and the visitor center there, which is open from mid-May to mid-September. While AMHS does not offer transport to the last two aforementioned areas, there are a variety of other ways to get there. By sea or air are the most common and a bit of asking around can clue you in on what best fits your budget and timing.

But closer to home, Juneau has a lot to offer that I would wager few take advantage of.

In the five minutes I spent Googling and making phone calls to a few off-the-top-of-my-head tour outfits, I found that nearly all offer a discounted tour price for locals.

Here's what I found (in no particular order): Alaska Zipline Adventures for $85, Juneau Steamboat Co. for $35, Wings Airways offers trips to the Taku Lodge for $220 and flightseeing tours for $160, Dolphin Tours offers whale watching for $90.

One friendly gal at Juneau Jeep Adventures (which offers a 20-percent discount on their regular $139 tour) said she's lived in Juneau for over 20 years, but is continually surprised at the new things about the area she learns on a daily basis.

I did find one exception. Glacier Gardens, which offers tours of their expansive gardens that would make any botanist or gardener green with envy, does not offer a local special. However, with a base price of $21.99, I'd say that's already pretty dirt cheap.

Not only are these tours interesting to tourists and locals alike, but spending money that stays in the community is always a good thing.

So if you're feeling like the "rock" you live on is getting a bit cramped, get out and get around.

Rekindle that love for Southeast by taking in a few tidbits of trivia about the Ernest Gruening State Historical site or be reminded of the sheer size of the Juneau Icefield. Whether it's from the bow of a steamboat in Gastineau Channel or from a tree-top platform high in the rainforest, you'll likely see Juneau in a whole new light. And oh man, does she shine.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.



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