Ketchikan, AK: All Trails Lead to Gold

On the way back from Los Angeles to Sitka, I had an 8-hour layover in Ketchikan. I did a little bit of research before I arrived, so I knew that I had to take a ferry from Gravina Island, where the airport is located, to get into town.* The booth to purchase tickets ($6 roundtrip) was right outside the airport, and five minutes after getting off the plane, I was being transported to Revillagigedo Island. Since the loss of my dear bicycle (I still have hope in humanity, and pray that it will be returned!), walking has played an increasingly important part of my life. At first, I would always think about how much faster I could get around on a bike. But now, given that I can’t make my beloved two-wheeled vehicle magically appear, I try to be more deliberate about strolling and sauntering. To pass the time, I listen to podcasts sometimes. But more often, I find myself walking in silence. I am trying to be more aware of the things around me.

The ferry stop is approximately 4 miles away from downtown Ketchikan, so I turned right when I hit the road and began walking at an eager pace. Surprised by the sight of a Safeway, I stopped in to fill up on water and purchased a couple of snacks for the day while I was there. After another half hour of walking, I was in town, taking in the distinct buildings, the empty boardwalk, and the dark waters. Ketchikan Map

I stopped by at the visitor’s center, but it was closed. I suppose the first week of January is not exactly high-season for tourists in Southeast Alaska. Visitor's Center This positive take on rainy season (which apparently occurs year-round) in Alaska made me smile. Liquid Sun Gauge Continuing my stroll, I began walking towards Deer Mountain. My internet research told me that DM trail would be a challenge, but totally worthwhile. Plus, its proximity to downtown made it accessible and possible to do in a few hours. I walked past the Totem Heritage and City Park areas, and when I hit Ketchikan Lakes Road, the pavement started going uphill. A little bit of wandering led me to the trailhead (turn left before the potholes and gravel roads!). Deer Mountain was heavily wooded, and the trail was clear and easy to follow. Average 850 ft gain per mile, but I only walked up to the snow line, about 2 miles up the trail, before turning around and heading back down.** Deer Mt Map It was Sunday, and several other parties were hiking as well, but I found plenty of time and space to be alone. I later googled views from Deer Mountain’s peak, and they are spectacular. Unfortunately, my eyes could not penetrate the thick fog that had enveloped the area. I would love to come back when it is less cloudy, and make it up to see the lakes and the cabin. When I was back in town, I had a couple more hours so I walked through Ketchikan’s own Totem Park, and stumbled across some gold. I found it strange that this precious metal would just be left there in the ground with a metal pole sticking out of it, self-proclaiming that it is, in fact, the “World’s Largest Gold Nugget”. But this is Alaska, and standard rules need not apply. I snapped a picture.

The solitary walk around town and on the trail reminded me of why I’m so fortunate to live in a place like Southeast Alaska. In Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka, I get to experience such a rich sense of the place and, even as an outsider, feel a deep sense of belonging. And in the past few weeks without my bike, I’ve learned that, in an increasingly fast-paced and frantic society, walking is a rebellious yet innocuous way to slow down and simplify our lives. It’s a more intimate way to get to know a place and see the impact that humans have on the lands we inhabit. I’ve found that walking, though sometimes slow and inefficient, is truly a wonderful way to get to know Alaska. This is not to say that I am abandoning my love for speeding around town on a bicycle. I’m just learning to appreciate a new speed until I am, once again, reunited with my two-wheeled companion. I’ve never put a quote on this blog before, but I want to end this post with one from Dickens:

“The sum of the whole is this: walk and be happy; walk and be healthy. The best way to lengthen out our days is to walk steadily and with a purpose.” DM Trail Scratch that, I want to end with this one (also Dickens). “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”

*I later read up on the controversial history surrounding a proposed project to build a bridge from Gravina Island to Ketchikan. Apparently, the issue began in 2005 when a senator from Oklahoma offered an amendment to divert funds for the Gravina Island Bridge to rebuild a bridge that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina. It became a point of contention for the 2006 senate candidates, and a 2008 presidential campaign issue. **Approximately 2.5 miles from trailhead to summit.

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The Farmington Canal Heritage Trail

For newbie and nature-loving riders like me, the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail offers a unique adventure, and minimizes automotive encounters. This adaptive reuse of an abandoned railroad line allows access to a bit of urban decay as well as an opportunity to reconnect with nature. During my last year in New Haven, I finally made it onto the trail, and was amazed by the uncommon and unusual things I found there.

A little bit of internet research told an interesting and historical tale of how the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail came to be. In the 1800s, after Jefferson doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase, businessmen found large profits in the transportation industry. The success of the Erie Canal prompted the Canal Corporation to design and build a canal from New Haven’s port, through Connecticut, to Massachusetts.

During the groundbreaking ceremony, the shovel broke, an inauspicious start to the construction of the canal. The Canal Corporation was under-capialized and did not receive any funding from the State of Connecticut. Nevertheless, the company continued to build, but was forced to make shortcuts, with disastrous results. Leaks and collapses disrupted the canal’s construction, but in 1835, the canal was completed–stretching 84 miles from New Haven to Northampton.

Apparently, still beset by problems, the canal was never able to turn a profit, so the shareholders of the Farmington Canal Co. petitioned the legislature to build a railroad. In 1848, the New Haven and Northampton Railroad Co. was chartered.

Just as the locomotive replaced the canal boat in the mid 1800s, trucks began to take over transportation services in Central New England in the late 1900s. Rail lines around the country fell into disrepair. In the 1990s, groups of creative initiatives began to explore the idea of converting abandoned rail and canal paths into recreational trails. The “rails-to-trails” movement was born, and is still in motion today. Today, there are still a few small gaps to be filled before the entire 80-mile length of the trail is connected and complete. From sunrise to sunset, this unique trail is shared by walkers, riders, and skaters.

The Canal Line

Rolling through the trail on my bicycle, I ride slow enough to take in all its small historic and picturesque pieces, but fast enough to see it transform. My start of the trail is behind Yale’s Department of Health, and several minutes later, I enter New Haven’s residential area. A few more miles down the trail, I’m greeted by wooded stretches and babbling brooks.

Tracks

If you start out from New Haven on a bicycle, you’ll see remnants of railroad sprinkled on the side of the trail. You will be confronted by passing cars and trucks where the trail intersects with urban streets. The paved road leads you through dark tunnels and long stretches of sky. Wooden bridges roll underneath, while interstate bridges pass overhead. Benches lining the trail offer moments of relief and contemplation.

The Farmington Canal Heritage Trail promises miles of respite from a (sometimes) hectic life in New Haven.